The hearth moved

Ground-breaking sexual shenanigans from Jules Dassin’s PHAEDRA. Faced with the challenging task of manufacturing sexual chemistry between his wife, Melina Mercouri, and Anthony Perkins, Dassin pulls out all the stops. The result is like a MOVIE MASH-UP of love scene clichés — soft focus; roaring fireplace; clenching hands; rain battering on window; the sweeping music of Mikis Theodorakis on the gramophone (there will be NO remarks about Anthony Perkins and Greek love in this post. Apart from this one). By the end it’s a wonder there’s a stick of furniture intact in that apartment.

David Thomson in his BioDic of Film, writes, “In good company, and a little drunk, HE WHO MUST DIE, PHAEDRA and 10.30PM SUMMER might cure would-be suicides.” I’ll allow that Dassin skirts the edges of absurdity in 10.30, and PHAEDRA looks like it plunges headlong into a basin of ludicrous pomp, but I still get a kick out of this scene. The effect is overdone but the individual elements are orchestrated with great skill — I like the compositions and editing and music.

I heard of an English teacher one time who would object to purple passages of sexual action in DH Lawrence with the words, “But it’s not LIKE that!” which is a good argument, though not necessarily one that should take precedence over all other concerns. I don’t think it applies to Dassin — taken metaphorically, his sex scene could be seen as quite authentic. Unless what you’re after is complete authenticity (which would mean SOUND EFFECTS, and none of us wants THAT) evoking the corny (there’s rarely anything ORIGINAL about sex) but overwhelming emotions of what General Ripper calls “the physical act of love” seems reasonable, and doing it without fear of looking silly seems at least commendable.

Kubrick told Michel Ciment that the exhilerating and goofy William Tell Overture time-lapse threesome in CLOCKWORK ORANGE was in part a reaction to the way movies tend to solemnize sex, and he had a point there, but sex is very often quite humourless. There’s plenty of room for giggling at the start, but there comes a point where that could be  OFF-PUTTING.

So, if sex is overwhelming, serious, and best treated in a stylised way — Dassin is surely the man for the job. He was dismissed for his “strained seriousness” by Andrew Sarris, but that seems somehow wrong: it’s no strain for Dassin to be serious. His lighter films from this period, TOPKAPI and NEVER ON SUNDAY, seem far more effortful (though I love TOPKAPI and make allowances for NOS).

Dassin was a Sexual Pioneer! The bisexual triangle of 10.30PM SUMMER must have been strong stuff for 1966. I also think there’s enough textual evidence in his work to deduce a keen interest in sado-masochism (whippings abound in THE LAW, RIFIFI…)

Two Ladies

Sex, in the movies, is fraught with difficulty. Maybe because it’s universal but also distinctly personal. There’s a cringe-making story of a well-known actor who, in his first sex scene, grabbed his partner by the hair and began slamming her head off the pillow. “Cut! What are you doing?” He was totally perplexed. What’s the problem? Doesn’t everybody do it this way?

Everybody does it every which way! The first sex scene in a mainstream movie is supposed to be in ECSTASY, in 1933. Director Gustav Machatý attempted to evoke an orgasmic reaction from his star Hedy Lamarr by pricking her feet with a pin. “That would just be really annoying,” says my partner. “Maybe everybody Gustav Machatý slept with found him really annoying.”

a little prick

Another technique — in RED ROAD, an actress appears to receive oral sex. In reality she was holding half a peach between her thighs for her co-star to munch on. Hey, it’s a system!

In SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, Barbet Schroeder wanted to film a more than usually convincing blow-job, so he purchased a dildo for Jennifer Jason Leigh to fellate: the hope was to show she had SOMETHING in her mouth without offending the censor by showing WHAT. But, perhaps fearful of insulting his male lead, Schroeder acquired a jaw-breakingly enormous plastic dinosaur appendage…

DON’T LOOK NOW is justly famous for it’s cinematically beautiful love scene. One story I heard, from former producer/director turned educationalist Brent MacGregor, who heard it from an assistant editor, casts an interesting light on the scene. Supposedly, Donald Sutherland was more “into” the sex scene than co-star Julie Christie, which resulted in (a) her walking off the set after one take and (b) Warren Beatty bursting into the cutting room and attempting to beat up director Nicolas Roeg.

I don’t generally credit such gossip, but a couple of aspects of it at least make sense — if you look at the actual lovemaking, MOST of what you see is consistent with a single hand-held shot. But bits of the shot were unusable as the cameraman was clambering over the bed, etc. With only one continuous take, partly no good, Roeg was forced to intercut, and all he could intercut WITH was neutral material, the couple dressing to go out (which would have to have been shot deliberately for the purpose, later, if we buy this version of events). And thus is born a thing of immense beauty and poetic resonance.

Donald Sutherland reports being locked in that bedroom “for hours” with Roeg, Christie, and an extremely noisy unblimped camera. But what’s seen in the film isn’t consistent with such a prolonged shoot. And what’s been rumoured about Roeg’s swinging lifestyle might be consistent with the desire to go a little further than usual in the name of realism…

Donald Fuck

(Also — looking through the scene for not-too-explicit frame grabs, I realised that it’s quite a bit more explicit than I’d previously thought. Much of the “stronger stuff” is compositionally decentred and hard to spot due to the pace of cutting, but… let’s just say I hope Julie Christie remembered to bring half a peach to the set…)

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14 Responses to “The hearth moved”

  1. A post about cinema’s erotic sex scenes and no mention of tunnel love in IRREVERSIBLE or Noodles taxi ride with Deborah in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE AMERICA?

  2. Wow, Melina Mercouri has incredible . . . . eyebrows. Seriously–I couldn’t take my eyes off them.

  3. Are you familair with Shortbus ?

  4. I’ve been meaning to see Shortbus — have heard mainly good stuff, even from friends who are dubious about full-on sex in cinema.

    Mercouri’s eyebrows are indeed among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. I think they would look more in keeping if it weren’t for the “blond” hair.

    I was mainly writing about the sort of stunt/SFX emplyed in sex scenes, so the incredibly protracted rape scenes in those movies, Chris, didn’t really come into consideration. Although the first uses rear projection and doesn’t the second have some CGI ejaculation?

    That long take in Irreversible is pretty badly staged, btw.

  5. Actually, this is little known but the “long take” in IRREVERSIBLE isn’t actually a single, unedited 10 minute take, Noe said in an interview that it’s a series of shots composited *very* carefully to give the impression of seamlessness (plus, of course, the CGI penis) but yeah, I would agree that the staging is pretty bad… not that that detracts from its erotic qualities.

    SHORTBUS is ace.

  6. So — not a real long take — not well staged, even if it were (the knife that can’t be seen for ages after it’s produced) — and the intent to be erotic is at best dubious — to what end? Pure commercialism.

    Do you have Shortbus?

  7. Don’t have a copy of it myself. Been meaning to get it, as it’s available. John’s a teriffic guy.

  8. Haha, well it’s definitely not intended to be erotic!! It is a rape scene after all.

    I have SHORTBUS on DVD, yeah, I’ll send you a package at some point (got a list of your requests).

  9. I still have a few to do for you, but let me know any additions.

    I think Noe DOES intend that scene to have erotic elements and he intends to make the audience feel guilty about it.

  10. Well, the intention is inevitably supposed to lead to revolt but this was disproved when I was doing a search for a file on the internet around 2002 and saw that that scene (ripped, quite literally out of context) was the no. 1 download on a torrent site.

    I was doing a little DVD cruising the other day and I noticed that Lang’s only ‘scope film was MOONFLEET, and the only place to get a semi-decent copy is France (complete with a supplement provided by David E), don’t suppose you have a copy of that disc?

  11. Alas no, and I’ve only seen it in a 16:9 TV version. Even there it was obviously a beautifully composed film. Though Lang disparaged ‘Scope, he used it beautifully.

  12. I have a letterboxed Moonfleet on laser. Beautiful film. Rivette screened it for the cast and crew before shooting commenced on Noroit

  13. That makes total sense. Rivette’s characters in Noroit are usually referred to as pirates, but maybe smugglers would be more fitting?

    If not, then Moonfleet might be the only really good film about period smugglers. They never seem to get their due, those guys!

  14. […] sex scene in DON’T LOOK NOW is something I’ve already written about, but what the hell — there’s always more to say. It’s a sequence that rewards […]

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