Most people, as they recover from seasonal snacking comas and hangovers brought on by liquid medication for too much concentrated family time, spend these last few weeks of December reflecting on the year past. While fellow Reject Landon Palmer pointed out earlier today that 2011 has already been lauded as a “quiet” year by many of our peers, I would like to address how cinematic sex and relationships embrace this quietness through an enveloping theme of sadness. As base as it might sound, a lot of tragic shit went down in 2011; from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Oakland riots to the honoring of ten years post-9/11, this year was a study in human perseverance. And as great art always succeeds at doing, film mirrored the world’s rising tension, air of tragedy, and sense of loss time and time again.
Hiding Behind a Fantasy
February’s Another Year unwittingly established the foundation of sad we would see for the remainder of the year. We are introduced to Mary (Lesley Manville), a woman so lost in her own fantasy land that by the end of the film you just wish she’d jump off a bridge already. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but the truth is that her obsession with a family (and husband) that is not and will never be hers only makes her overwhelming sadness feel the more immediate. Mary suffers from a case of “could haves.” She could have had a loving husband, if only she hadn’t been so quick to turn them away; she could have had a child, if only she hadn’t lost it; she could have had the perfect life, if only she didn’t drink herself into a stupor every night. You get the point. And by spending a year seeing her best friends in a perfectly perfect couple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) through her eyes only punctuates Mary’s sadness. She can play make believe as much as she wants, but in the confines of the bed she’s made for herself she will never find happiness.
Tragedy of Young Love
There were two films out this fall that could not escape comparisons to each other, as hard as their plots and actors tried. Thanks to the all powerful studio marketing campaigns, Like Crazy and One Day appeared to be films cut from the same cloth. Arguably, their stories are similar in the fact that two star crossed couples take way too long in finding their paths to each other, with painful and heart wrenching results along the journey, however Like Crazy understands slightly better how to play up the tragedy of first love.
While Anne Hathaway’s Anna pines for her best friend Dexter’s (Jim Stugess) affection in One Day, she is able to mature and become her own women before recognizing that she actually wants to be with Dexter. She is given agency in her decisions; a luxury love does not allow the Anna (Felicity Jones) of Like Crazy. In her case, love has almost rotted her soul and left her with nothing but the intense feeling of love/hate for her boyfriend Jacob (Anton Yelchin). Unlike Dex and Anna, who want to be with no other person than each other, Jacob and Anna cannot be with anyone else but each other. They spend the latter half of the film moping around and making life miserable for themselves and everyone around them. It’s a stunning exploration into the destruction of love, but it also leaves an air of sadness almost impossible to erase. They belong with each other, if only to keep from infecting other people with the consequences of their love.
The Sadness of Eternal Beauty
The thing about beauty is it can be a lonely sort of curse. One can only have the face she is born with, and no amount of doctoring or modern-day photo manipulation can truly change that. Look at Marilyn Monroe. At her peak, she was the world’s most beautiful woman; and at her lowest she was a tragic figure whose hidden sadness touched every character she performed—even the character “Marilyn Monroe.” It’s only fitting that a stunning actress best known for her ability to emote relatable sadness would take on the daunting task of playing Monroe.
Michelle Williams tackled the icon’s emotional instability with such aplomb and grace that it was often impossible to tell the actress from the character in My Week With Marilyn. Williams’ Marilyn dealt with her crippling sadness by playing with and seducing a young production assistant (played by Eddie Redmayne) who idolized the woman and relished in the moments of vulnerability she let escape her carefully crafted character. This tragic Monroe would smile through her tears, but the truth was always there under the surface—her pain was too great and too all encompassing to not use her sex appeal as a way to feel something, anything. Even if it was the intoxicating gaze of her male fans.
When Making Amends Turns Selfish
Another Earth and Melancholia star women trying to accept their earthly fate just as the inevitability of their lives on Earth come close to an end. After noticing the appearance of a twin Earth in the atmosphere Rhoda (Britt Marling, Another Earth) is left reeling from a tragic car accident she caused the night of her high school graduation. Her guilt pours off her in every scene, and when she tries to apologize to the father and husband of her victims she enters into a risky and morally questionable sexual relationship with John Burroughs (William Mapother), a man who is even more pained by the events of that night than Rhoda. She feels giving herself to this relationship might ease the pain for both of them, but it only leaves her feeling more guilt and him with the loss of another person he grew to love. Her intentions might have been good, but her need to heal makes leaves a taste of selfishness in our mouths.
Meanwhile, Justine (Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia) feels no guilt in attending to her carnal needs as she spirals into a deep sadness as she faces the final days of Earth; so much so that on the night of her wedding she seduces her young keeper on a golf course. This moment occurs early on, and presents a solid foundation for a later scene where Justine finds comfort and serenity while naked under the moonlight near a pond on her sister’s massive estate. She is vulnerable to nature, begging for it to envelope her in a way no human lover possibly could. Her sadness allows her to see the world in a unique way, and while that should rip her to shreds it in fact stabilizes her as she watches her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), lose her damn mind during the film’s bombastic end.
From Heartbreak Springs Irrationality
Speaking of bombastic endings, Evan Glodell’s debut Bellflower presents a young man so lost in hate that he loses himself completely to irrationality. Woodrow (Glodell) doesn’t just want to forget his cheating girlfriend, Milly (Jessie Wiseman), he wants her to feel the same anguish he does. He wants her to writhe in pain, pine for him, and wish she had never been born—just as he does for her. What sets him off more than her cheating is that she could move on from their relationship while he was stuck in a hatred limbo. Anyone who has ever loved someone this passionately can understand feeling hurt by the possibility of being forgotten, but Woodrow just cannot stand that. He turns inside himself, taking on a completely new persona and dedicates himself to destroying the woman he once loved. It’s easy to say Glodell hates women based on the despicable nature of his two lady characters, but in reality it’s the formerly sweet Woodrow who hates himself for letting someone affect him so greatly. Love and Hatred share the same bed, and just like in Like Crazy one can be mistaken for the other.
2011 wasn’t just about all-encompassing sadness, but it was hard to deny the shear amount of films with the same common thread.
Carry on with more Reel Sex.