Pillow Talk

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In movies, people talk in bed, but only afterwards. There’s zero conversation, generally, during sex scenes.

Of course, dialogue in a sex scenes could sound weird, or just pornographic. The writer/s would have more reason than usual to fear that their own experience, translated into fiction, won’t communicate to an audience, won’t chime with the viewers’ experiences, will seem freakish or off-putting. If the narrative provides a reason why the dialogue might actually be weird, that can serve as an alibi…

In the late Jacques Rivette’s L’HISTOIRE DE MARIE ET JULIEN, on the other hand, when a back-from-the-dead Emmanuelle Beart has steamy sex sessions with Jerzy Radziwilowicz, they spin an elaborate, sort-of sado-masochistic fantasy together which, brilliantly, is more fairy tale than Letter to Penthouse. The bloody imagery (Beart imagines herself torn by thorns) can be explained by her character’s specific supernatural nature as a revenant — she cannot bleed, or cry. Being a bloke, even though Radziwilowicz doesn’t know this, he doesn’t question the strange fantasy. After all, he’s having hot sex with Emmanuelle Beart — why ask questions?

Beart, Rivette’s muse in LA BELLE NOISEUSE, is a fascinating actor. She can seem incredibly ditzy — I saw her present a prize, clad in a floaty dress, at the Marrakech Film Festival, and she had to try three times before she could exit the stage — and, like most stages, this one had only two ways to exit, left and right. But her dramatic instincts are remarkable. She’s electrifying onscreen. It doesn’t matter that she’s had “work,” some of it arguably ill-advised, because everything she’s feeling photographs through her eyes as clearly as if they were windows on a toy theatre. She has cinematic intelligence of a rare kind, and she could Botox her head into an Easter Island sculpture and it wouldn’t stop her emoting.

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Rivette seems to have worked with her mainly by bamboozling her, throwing her off-guard, as she complains in the DVD extra interview (she clearly loves Rivette, but accepted that working with him was never going to be easy). He seems to have felt that anything she brought to a role in the way of a plan wouldn’t help, and that he should provide her with the wrong costume, disconcerting advice, and surprising choices to keep her improvising to the last. Renoir said, “There are undoubtedly some very intelligent actors, but it is not certain that they use their intelligence when they act,” or words to that effect. Rivette, I surmise, was determined to get Beart to act with her talent, not with her conscious intellect.

Back to the bedroom. 90% of sex scenes seem to be the first sexual encounter between protagonists, because that has an obvious (if redundant) plot function — establishing that the deed was done. The good sex scenes have more to do with character — DON’T LOOK NOW’s sheet-twisting contortions can be justified as the couple’s first intercourse since the death of their child, but the movie doesn’t trouble to establish that fact. An expository line, after all, would have been awful. Character predominates.

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When Cronenberg started CRASH with three sex scenes, he faced accusations that his film had no plot, just fucking. Why, he wondered, was it inconceivable that a film could have a plot told through a series of sex acts? The need for every scene to advance story is probably part of the reason there’s so much bad sex, and rape, and improbably-located sex in movies. Witness Game of Thrones and the leering craft of “sexposition”. Horrible sex can change a relationship, good sex generally just affirms it. Rivette manages to show a relationship developing — nothing “happens” in the repeated love scenes, but they are each building to a point where something will — which will be the end of the movie.

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3 Responses to “Pillow Talk”

  1. Would there have been these sex scenes had Rivette been able to continue the original shoot of L’Histoire de Marie et Julien back in 1976, when it starred Leslie Caron and Albert Finney?

  2. It seems like it would have been a pretty different movie then — I haven’t really been able to work out what the two scenarios really have in common, because the synopsis sounds quite different, iirc.

    But no, I doubt if those scenes would have been allowed by Caron, and they would have played a bit differently even if she had done them.

  3. As it was originally part of the Scenes de la vie parallele tetralogy Caron would have been a Goddess (either of the Sun or the Moon) having an affair with Finney in order to become mortal. The magical diamond known as “The Fairy Godmother” would have figured in this. Likewise the character seen in the finished version selling letters to one party or another (much like Berto in Out 1) I imagine it wouldn’t have been quite as sexual as the completed version. But after shooting Duelle and Noroit Rivette suffered a nervous collapse.

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