The last few weeks have been emotionally exhausting and utterly surreal for me, and visiting with some of my favorite movies for advice has been a big help in moving forward. Of course this isn’t the same as talking with a good friend or crying into a whole box of Dunkin Donuts Munchkins (with sprinkles!), but sometimes the stories unfolding on screen just make you feel better in a way talking and eating just can’t. All my time watching movies has taught me if a heartbroken soul can get through it, head held high and sane, so can I.
But where do we draw the line between real and too real when it comes to romance and sex in film? Sex complicates, but does it also have to destroy the lives involved? In Cruel Intentions, sex is used as a key element in an emotionally manipulative game between Kathryn and Sebastian, whereas in Y Tu Mama Tambien sex leaves best friends confused about their future, and in Blue Valentine sex brings upon the end of a relationship representing so many couples before and after. In each of these films, the act itself is both poignant and flawed, and no one walks away uninjured.
Rich step-siblings Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe) are the most contemptuous of sexual deviants. They are hedonists who recognize the more innocent can be, and often in their eyes should be, tainted for desiring intimacy. They find a sick pleasure in deflowering virgin Cecile (Selma), turning her into an insatiable nymphomaniac and ruining her reputation as a sweet, if not dimwitted, young ingénue. To Kathryn and Sebastian, people are just pawns in their sick game of revenge and victims of their god complexes.
It takes introducing the cad Sebastian to declared virgin Annette (Reese Witherspoon) for the evil duo to start receiving punishment for their actions. Originally Kathryn wagered a salacious night if Sebastian could rid Annette of her pesky v-card, hoping to expose Annette as less-than-angelic. To Kathryn, this prize was far greater than any other sexual exploit she could hope for. What she didn’t plan for was Sebastian to fall in love with Annette and find great pleasure in rejecting his former deviance and embrace the good. While their love-making was touching, honest, and pure, Sebastian’s tragic fate was already sealed. He could love, but that doesn’t amend for any of his previous indiscretions. Sex could join them, but it couldn’t keep them together. Following his death, Kathryn’s plan backfires and she is exposed and shamed by her former victims.
Although Cruel Intentions’ Sebastian eventual embraced the good, sex was still a vital instrument helping see something beyond the here and now. Y Tu Mama Tambien’s Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) experienced the hurtful affects of sex when they both fucked the same woman. Ana (Ana Lopez Mercado) used her sensuality to play the best friends off each other, enjoying their emotional struggle and eventual maturity, while still getting her jollies rocked. She may not have had malicious intentions, choosing rather to teach the two boys just what sort of emotional consequences come from having thoughtless sex. She did not enjoy being a piece of cheese in their mouse trap, so bedding both men and then turning their desire on each other was her way of opening their eyes and showing them what they had become.
The first scene of them jerking off in a pool side-by-side mirrors the final scene of them kissing and suggesting further intimacy once the screen fades to black. Unlike with Sebastian and Annette, these two find confusion rather than love following their visit to the bedroom. Their relationship is altered immensely, and neither of them can confront what occurred between them. Intentionally Ana has effectively shown Tenoch and Julio the potential damage done if they continue to use sex as a weapon against others. Trusting no one could come between them was their downfall.
But 2010’s Blue Valentine really highlights how sex can expose flaws in both individuals and couples. The parts we crave in high romance films occur at the same time as the dissolution of that fantasy. Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) fall in love, start a family, and begin to see the cracks in their lives before the movie even hits the halfway point, leaving us with a film all about how love isn’t enough to keep them together. The infamous motel love scene slams the final nail in their troubled relationship coffin. No amount of love can keep them together, and when at their most vulnerable they both humiliate each other through sex.
The dirty feeling washing over the audience while watching this ticking time bomb is more shocking, and ultimately revealing, when we realize we’ve been in that exact same situation as Dean and Cindy before. In that moment we weigh feeling used against feeling alone. That person on top of us may not be the right person, but history and emotions keep the wound from healing, and keep us from moving on. It is only when Dean and Cindy truly realize their marriage is over that both can finally breathe.
Uplifting or depressing, film allows us to escape at the times when we most need. We can dive head first into an action adventure when we feel like our lives just aren’t adventurous enough. Or when we feel like no one will love us again, hope can spring forth when we watch two beautiful people discover love on screen. Most importantly, film makes us feel whole and a part of something beyond ourselves. A collective experience, that when done right, both makes us think and leave our troubles behind—even if just for a few hours.