Reel Sex: The Intensity of Chastely On-Screen Love

This time a week ago I never would have imagined I’d stay up all night Thursday, having my own little tea and scones party, to watch a wedding of two people I didn’t know. Even if the festivities were thrown by the English Royal Family in honor of the most recognizable union of royal and commoner. It wasn’t until Wednesday that I caught the bug and started feeling a connection to these two genetically gifted kids who had the balls to get up in front of 15 billion people and pledge themselves to each other and their country. I had Royal Wedding fever, and I was going to do everything I could to make that moment last.

The decision to keep many details of the wedding a secret and the media inflated love story spanning almost a decade was too much for even my cold heart to keep from melting. It was the real life movie version of all those BBC costume dramas and Jane Austen adaptations I spent years watching. The chaste, passionate love of two people who shouldn’t be together defying the odds, marrying, and starting a life so many of us will never experience. But at the same time it was relatable and sweet—just like Jane Austen always promised.

Eight hours into Royal Wedding day I still couldn’t stop thinking about Lady Jane and Sir Shakespeare. These two literary icons built the foundation for classic romantic filmmakers like Douglas Sirk and Elia Kazan and continue to influence the evolution of chaste love in modern day films by director Joe Wright and writer Andrew Davies. Early melodramas adhered to Austen’s rules that casual sex results in tarnished reputations, and as more sex was added to even the most classic of chaste romantic literature, sex continued to divide the characters’ opinions.

Pride and Prejudice (without the zombies) remains the most popular Austen tome to receive the film treatment. The battle between what is “good” and “proper” clashes so well with what is “delicious” and “fun,” and the five Bennet Sisters personify this age-old debate. Jane and Elizabeth, the two older sisters, are the perfect example of the chaste, and they are rewarded in the end with men of high status and money, and most importantly love. Whereas the youngest and most forward-thinking sister Lydia soils her reputation by knocking boots with a man she doesn’t love.

In Wright’s 2005 adaptation Pride & Prejudice, Lydia’s (Jena Malone) sexual desire is explored more thoroughly than Austen ever suggested. We see her running away, sexing, and eventually marrying Mr. Wickham (Rupert Friend) just to spite her “good” sisters. She wants to prove to them that sex isn’t something to be ashamed of, but sadly for her she enters into a marriage with an opportunistic philanderer who will certainly take up with other women. This is not so blatant in the novel, but the sexual understanding between the young Bennet and her devilish lover Wickham appeals to modern day feminists. Lydia is almost an entire generation younger than her sisters, and although she wants to feel sexually empowered (as sexually empowered possible for Regency era England) she is quite honestly living in the wrong time.

Lydia may be the most interesting Bennet with her rejection of societal norms, but it’s the relationship between Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) and Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) that drives the story. At the heart of Pride & Prejudice is the celebration of chastely love. Rather than allow the couple to canoodle in the most undignified of ways, they must first fall in love through longing glances and coincidental brushes of their hands. As the spine-tingling sexual tension builds we almost believe that the joining of these two lovers will change time and space. After their wedding the new Mr. and Mrs. Darcy finally have their private moment outside Pemberly. This is a scene Austen failed to include in her book, but Wright rewards the audience who devoted two hours to watching fan-flirting with a delightfully intimate moment with the sex-rumpled couple. He may play within the Austen rule book, but he still gives the audience a modern addition — sexy chaste lovemaking.

Chastely love doesn’t necessarily have to mean the exclusion of sex. The 1968 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet not only pushed the limits of the texts but also changed the way audience viewed the Bard’s works. Franco Zeffirelli set out to make a faithful, yet sexually charged, version of the ultimate star-cross’d lovers. He cast beautiful and age-appropriate actors Leonard Whiting (Romeo) and Olivia Hussey (Juliet), and kept their romantic development the focus of his directorial gaze. Like the couple, we saw nothing but their love—the sexually-charged moments when Juliet coyly parried Romeo at the party to his balcony proposal all led to their first and only night together as a married couple. Love between these two takes the same agonizing steps as in Austen’s work, but it’s almost suggested if they had premarital sex that they would have still been okay. There was no concern in their world of ruined reputations; instead they wanted to be joined so no one could keep them apart.

I remember the first time I saw the morning-after scene between Romeo and Juliet. The sun shining through lace curtains as their bodies twisted lazily into one person, the by-product of their love and sexual desire. Even though they try to remain hopeful for a future, the knowledge that this may be the last moment they spend together hangs heavily in the air. Juliet’s tear-stained cheek bids Romeo ado as he climbs out her window, promising to return. But we know their fate, and this happy moment cannot change the future. Zeffirelli pumped so much romance into this beautiful, yet depressing, scene. It was a unforgettable moment, just as the post-sex scene between Elizabeth and Darcy would be to me a decade later, and in a time when on-screen sex is so overt, choreographed, and often passionless these quiet moments between lovers make a lasting impression.

Finish writing that poem about your love’s eyebrows and read more Reel Sex

While Gwen Reyes has only briefly been a film critic and columnist, she's long been telling people what movies they should drop dollars on, regardless if they are listening to her or not. Based out of Dallas, she wants to live the dream by watching movies all day and drinking vodka gimlets all night. She graduated from Sweet Briar College with a surprisingly handy degree in Philosophy and Film Studies--it explains why she spends so much time analyzing the murderers in sexual thrillers (yes, dear reader, that's her excuse!)--and she loves anything to do with gnomes, pot-bellied pigs, and beards. But most importantly, Gwen likes movies about sad people, funny people, naked people, and bearded people.

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