Cover Story: Some Heat but Little Fire

During these morally confused times, 2004 films offer sex talk and erotic gamesmanship but little else

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Director Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers

The final chapter of the stories of the First Ladies of Sex came to a close this year. Saying goodbye to Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and the Sex and the City crew presents an opportunity to step away from the home entertainment system and focus on sex and the movies of 2004, especially a year-end lineup that includes lots of sex talk and erotic gamesmanship.

But just how satisfying are any of these sexy movies? After all, these are morally confused times. Is anyone still desperately seeking, or has sex on the big screen become a big letdown?

New York City sex columnist Carrie is obviously indebted to the subject of Bill Condon's Kinsey. Without researcher Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson) asking all those probing questions and recruiting his team of frank-talking and partner-swapping researchers, Carrie and the girls wouldn't be speaking so frankly and openly about what they'd been doing.

Despite his Freudian issues, Kinsey and his landmark sex studies feel a bit like a gender-bent version of Carrie, although with a more academic focus. It just took a few years for Kinsey's research to become fun and fashionable.

Sex's harder edge is bared in Mike Nichol's Closer, which, like Sex and the City, features a quartet of beautiful faces and sexy bodies: Jude Law as Daniel, a first-time novelist; Julia Roberts as Anna, the photographer he falls for; Natalie Portman as Daniel's girlfriend, Alice; and Clive Owen as Larry, who battles Daniel for Anna's love.

London is the location in Closer, but the British capital is referenced directly through Alice, a new arrival from across the Atlantic.

Although both Alice and Anna share a U.S. passport, neither would be truly comfortable in the company of Sex and the City's Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte. Alice loves too much, too deeply, too obsessively. She becomes a raw open wound when her heart is broken. She becomes a survivor who can never settle for the comfort and sentiment of such unions.

Meanwhile, Anna simply lacks the capacity for even the most basic momentary happiness. Closer offers no pleasurable sex, at least what most people would consider pleasurable. Sex is a concealed weapon, a threat, a cold death.

Where is the shock, the titillation of the sex act or an exposed longing? In Birth, director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) attempts to tease audiences by having Anna (Nicole Kidman), a pretty widow, sharing a bath with Sean (Cameron Bright), a 10-year-old who might be the reincarnated spirit of her departed husband. The narrative backs away from the implications of that unsettling visual of a grown woman in the bath with a young boy and even skirts the potential sexual dynamic.

Should Anna wait for love to mature and teach her new/old lover the keys of physical pleasure? The answers in Birth might have been flip, but it's likely that the First Ladies of Sex would have volleyed the questions back and forth.

Alternative sexual acts earned a few subtle mentions. Much like last year in Bad Santa, anal sex defined a couple of characters stuck in some state of arrested development. Cheeky playboy Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) in Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason and the soon-to-be married Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) in Sideways are the perpetual wild boys. Film isn't exactly ready for women to express such interests, an amusing hesitation since even the sexually reserved Charlotte has spoken of her appreciation for certain anal pleasures.

Sideways is curious in that it's one of the few films to actually show couples engaged in sexual congress without being coy or overly artful — miraculous considering that today's teen sex comedies don't offer even a fleeting glance of naked body. Are we getting too smart for our own good when a movie like The Girl Next Door makes an effort to give its porn star female characters an upper hand in controlling the level of exposure rather than simply settling for voyeuristic thrills?

South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker intended the elaborate marionettes in their action comedy Team America: World Police to capture the offensiveness and absurdities of the U.S. as the world police. But marionette oral sex overwhelmed the film's political satire and comic mayhem.

She Hate Me and its fetish love barely registered time on screens across the country, proving that the U.S. is still not ready to discuss its racial hang-ups. Miranda acted out the mystique of an inter-racial pairing with Blair Underwood while another inter-racial pair got busy on television. Unfortunately, nothing more is said about it than that.

Spike Lee's joint gave us Jack Armstrong (Anthony Mackie), the hyper-sexualized black male being used for his super-charged sperm, and even lets him make a buck or two before he's completely criminalized for being a stud. Such a tale could only happen in New York, which might explain why no one wanted to watch or talk about She Hate Me.

Is it worth bringing up the homoerotic interplay between Woody Harrelson and Pierce Brosnan in After the Sunset? It's naked and largely pointless, but why does director Brett Ratner use it so gratuitously?

And what about Oliver Stone's sexual mess of Alexander? First we have sickening dialogue full of schoolboy feelings and ambiguity between Alexander (Colin Farrell) and his intimate Hephaistion (Jared Leto); then the film spends most of its time on the ripe breasts of Rosario Dawson. Stone plays Alexander's sexual orientation as a fashionable lifestyle choice, like a seasonal bag or pair of shoes.

More insight comes with a Sex and the City rewind of Samantha's bisexual arc opposite the sultry Sonia Braga. The closest film came to dealing with the everyday life of same-sex couples and alternative families in 2004 was A Home at the End of the World, an earlier Farrell release based on the novel by Michael Cunningham (The Hours) that if nothing else did a much better job of capturing Farrell's alluring sexual presence.

To find naked sex in the service of thematic story elements, audiences must go abroad. Director Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers uses sex and exposed bodies as only a European filmmaker would. There's little talk about the acts. The bodies of youthful Matthew (Michael Pitt) and sultry siblings Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel) are simply caught in motion, literally in the act.

There was a hint of Louis Malle's Damage to Bertolucci's film, more of a precursor to the psychosexual drama of yet another Anna (Juliet Binoche) on a quest for a little warm death. Sex and the City nodded in this direction with the introduction of Aleksandr Petrovsky (Mikhail Baryshnikov), the artist who becomes Carrie's final fling before her realization of her true love stateside.

In the end, it was love and not sex that the First Ladies needed all along. Richard Linklater's Parisian romance Before Sunset, a sequel to his 1995 film Before Sunrise, also hinges on a degree of candor and vulnerability that offers hope for a meaningful connection emotionally and, on an implied level, physically. The film ends with a hint of ambiguity as to whether Jesse and Celine (reprised by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy from the first film) actually become a couple.

In light of the happy endings each of the Sex and the City foursome found, it's easy to assume that audiences can fashion a suitable ever-after until Linklater returns a few years from now for another installment that might bring Jesse and Celine to the City.

Let's hope they bring a little sex with them. ©

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