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An Affair of Love/Steal This Movie

An Affair of Love/Steal This Movie
reviewed by Greta Christina

Well, finally!

You know, sometimes it seems as if my career as a film critic for the Spectator has been one long gripe. It's almost a reflex now; I go to a movie that's even a little bit about unconventional sex, I take out my notebook, and I set my pen on "poison." I suppose it's understandable; movies do tend to reflect the standards and mores of society, and pretty much by definition, society isn't crazy about unconventional sex. I guess that's what makes it unconventional, right? But it is annoying; you'd think that with all the movies out there celebrating rebels and mavericks and independent thinkers, you'd at least sometimes see one tooting the horn of sexual pioneers. You rarely do, though.

But this week, I've been privileged to see two -- not one, but two -- movies about non-standard sexual choices that didn't totally honk me off. There are actually two whole movies out now that take unorthodox sexual relationships seriously and accept them as valuable and meaningful, without either snickering or scolding (the two most common cinematic responses to unusual sex). I feel like establishing a new national sex-film-critic's holiday or something. Sadly, only one of the two was actually a good movie, but I suppose one can't have everything.

The first, more interesting, and by far the better of the two movies is An Affair of Love. Made in Belgium (and why is it that every time I think I like a French film it turns out to be Belgian?) by director Frederic Fonteyne (Max and Bobo), An Affair of Love shows a women and a man (Nathalie Baye and Sergi Lopez) reminiscing about a sexual affair they had some time ago. (You never learn the characters' names: in the production notes, they're listed as Her and Him.) The woman and man are interviewed separately about their affair by an off-screen interviewer, interviews which are intercut with scenes from the actual affair itself. The affair begins when the woman places a personal ad, seeking a partner to play out a specific sexual fantasy that has compelled her for most of her life. The two meet, they adjourn to a hotel room, they couple...and they continue to meet for some months afterwards, acting out this fantasy again and again, going on to pursue other sexual desires, and beginning to form a bond that goes beyond the purely sexual connection they began with. But even as the bond between them grows, this affair is clearly something apart from their everyday lives, and that's how they want it -- at least at first. They don't talk about their personal lives, they almost never meet except to have sex, and they never even learn each other's names. The affair eventually comes to an end (no, I'm not giving anything away, it's obvious from the first reel that they're remembering a relationship that's over); but while there's a certain wistful sadness over the end of the relationship, both the man and the woman have fond, affectionate, happy memories about it, and reminisce about it lovingly.

And all that, just by itself, is amazing. I'm trying to remember another movie about an almost-entirely sexually-motivated relationship that didn't just mock it or condemn it or dismiss it out of hand, that took it seriously and acknowledged its value and allowed it to be a positive and delightful part of the characters' lives. And I'm drawing a near-complete blank. Crash, maybe, or The Pillow Book, and maybe in a twisted way American Pie. Not bloody much else. Even if this weren't a very good movie, I'd probably still be saying nice things about it.

But it is a good movie, a very good movie, with much more to it both sexually and otherwise than "casual sex can be fun." This is an excellent and complex film, eloquently written and beautifully acted, with a grace and delicacy rarely seen in sexual movies. And it has a lot more going on about sex and sexual fantasy than just a general positive attitude.

One of the most immediately noticeable things about sex in this movie is how important it is. For both the woman and the man, the affair was clearly a powerful and meaningful event, one that shaped their lives deeply. For her, the impact is more obvious, and she's much more aware of it -- she says that while she had the fantasy for years before the affair and still has it to this day, she finds it less compelling, less overpowering, now that she's finally acted it out. And she clearly feels a liberation, even a sense of accomplishment, at having had the courage to take this risk and try to live her dream. The effect of their affair on the man is somewhat less obvious, but no less profound; his sense of what is possible in the world has been dramatically altered by the affair, and he clearly holds the memory of it dear to his heart.

The movie also has numerous fascinating gender twists scattered throughout the story. Both the man and the woman run roughshod over gender roles, acting completely counter to what we've been taught to expect sexually from women and from men. She's very much the sexual aggressor, in ways both obvious and less so. She initiates the affair, placing the ad for a partner to act out her fantasy, and while he's clearly into it as well (after all, he answered the ad), they both seem to think of the fantasy as primarily hers. Even before their first date, she books a hotel room near the cafe where they meet -- and she interrupts their nervous, first-personal-ad-date to suggest that they head to the hotel and get on with it. She's stereotypically male in other ways as well, especially sexually -- she has very specific physical tastes in men's bodies, and she continues to be the sexual initiator, the one who gets them into bed time after time. She's also nervous about emotional entanglement; during their first lengthy conversation on their first real dinner date, she is anxious and uncomfortable, and midway through dinner she cuts off the conversation so they can go have more sex. And she maintains her independence like a lifejacket, taking a cab or the subway home rather than letting him drive her. He, on the other hand, is the emotional aggressor; he's always the one who wants to talk more, to get to know her better, to spend time together outside the bedroom, to linger after sex and not just leave afterwards. He's clearly more of a romantic, saving mementos and souvenirs from their relationship, and he's the one who suggests that they try "making love normally" rather than just acting out their fantasy again and again. He's more tenderhearted in many ways, more easily hurt by carelessness and small slights. And he seems to be the one whose heart is truly broken when the affair finally comes to an end.

It isn't all sweetness and light between them. And it isn't all sex, either. Near the end of the film (warning -- plot giveaway imminent), it becomes clear that the two are falling in love, or in something they think of as love. And once this happens, things become strained between them, and their easy, graceful connection becomes difficult and awkward. (The movie also slows down a bit here -- it's the one real weak spot in the film, although I suppose that may have been the point.) And in one of those crossed-wires moments (bigger warning with lights and alarms -- ending giveaway approaching), they each decide that the other one doesn't want love, and to avoid being a painful burden, they each tell the other that they don't want a romantic relationship -- even though they both secretly do. I suppose you could see this as a criticism of their sex-only relationship, a judgement about how their focus on sex blinded them to the possibility of romantic love. But I don't see it that way. For one thing, their affair was always something of an escape, separate from their real lives, and it's not at all clear that it would have worked when exposed to the cold light of day. But even the romantic in me, the one who sighs a wistful sigh at any instance of love denied, doesn't think the point was that they were too horny. I think the point may have been the opposite -- that they didn't give sex enough credit . They didn't believe that lasting love could have its roots in a purely sexual affair, begun in the acting out of a wild fantasy; and so they gave up on their romance before it had a chance.

So what exactly is this wild sexual fantasy that binds the two so strongly? We never find out. Neither the woman nor the man will tell the interviewer what exactly they were doing in that hotel room, and the camera that follows the affair itself stops at the hotel room door, taking us inside their actual sex life only when they begin to experiment with what they refer to as "normal" sex. This certainly stirred my curiosity, sometimes to the point of frustration; but on consideration, I think it was a wise choice. To show or even tell the details of the specific fantasy would have turned this into a movie about that particular fantasy, about SM or golden showers or horsie play or something, and I think that would have made it a weaker movie. For one thing, leaving it a mystery allows the audience to identify with the characters; everyone in the audience can think that the man and woman are playing out their own most secret fantasy, the one they've harbored for years and never had a chance to try out. They can sympathize in a way that might be difficult or impossible if the fantasy turned out to be somebody else's gross disgusting perversions, instead of their own cherished and eminently understandable imaginings.

But perhaps even more importantly, it allows the movie to focus on the idea of sexual fantasy in general. This is largely a movie about sexual fantasy. It's about the difference between a fantasy in one's head and a fantasy acted out, about how a fantasy made real can be both disappointing and better than expected, all at the same time. And it's about the power sexual fantasies can have on people's emotions, the affect they can have on people's choices, the impact they can have on people's lives. And all of that's true no matter what the fantasy is. I'm not sure that the writer or director even had a specific idea in mind of what the fantasy was; and while I do maintain a sort of frustrated curiosity about the specific details of other people's sex lives (even the sex lives of fictional characters), it ultimately doesn't really matter what the woman and the man were doing behind that hotel room door.

As a movie, Steal This Movie is disappointingly sucky, A well-meaning docu-drama about the life and politics of the 60's Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, the thing plays like a TV movie of the week. The politics are pretty much fine, but the style of the thing is so Cheez-Whiz that it almost completely undoes all of its good political efforts. But there is something I like a lot about the movie, a sexual thing, and it's sufficiently unusual that I want to give it its due. Namely, the movie depicts a polyamorous relationship, without clucking or scolding or insisting that the very idea is ridiculous.

Early in the movie, Abbie and Anita Hoffman (Vincent D'Onofrio and Janeane Garofalo) are presented as a fairly standard Great Love Story, 60's radical style, and their marriage is seen as bumpy but mostly happy. But when Abbie goes underground and doesn't see Anita or their son for years, it becomes a powerful strain, not only on his sanity but on their relationship. He takes up with another woman, Johanna ( Jeanne Tripplehorn), and while his continuing phone and mail contact with Anita stays crucial to him, his growing intimacy with Johanna becomes increasingly important as well.

And that's the thing, the thing I've pretty much never seen in any other movie and that makes we want to forgive this one a world of cinematic sins. Nowhere does the movie imply that Abbie's love for Johanna in any way betrays or denies his love for Anita, or vice versa. Both women matter, both relationships are important. Unlike just about every other movie love triangle, there's no bad guy here, and the movie doesn't try to make the audience pick sides. And instead of playing the two women off against each other as sexual or romantic competitors, the movie shows them getting along superbly. When Anita and Johanna first meet, I was completely expecting some sort of verbal catfight, a "Hands off he's mine you bitch" sort of thing; instead, they put their heads together to brainstorm about how to deal with Abbie's increasingly unstable mental condition.

The movie doesn't ignore the difficulties of their arrangement; Anita in particular talks several times about how hard the whole thing is on her. But the three of them continue to deal with one another throughout the movie, acting as a team, civilized and friendly and helpful. This is the way they've chosen to live, the values they've chosen to live by, and they do so with grace and aplomb. The relationship isn't the center of the story, but it is one of the more important plot threads; and the movie accepts it completely, with nary a snicker or a frown. It shouldn't be this rare to see a movie relationship other than the conventional Noah's Ark pairing-off, but it is; and this rarity makes me feel just a bit more charitable towards an unfortunately crappy film.

Copyright 2000 Greta Christina. Originally published in the Spectator.


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