Ethereal Contraband: ‘Better Than Sex’ and ‘In Bed’

*Updated 01/03/10

The titles. The promotional posters. They elicit expectation, hinting promise of the pleasures of the pure mechanics of sex, if only at a grade below pornography; something just erotic enough to avoid wandering behind the symbolic “black curtain”. Things are, somewhat, still left to the imagination, in these films which essentially boil down to strangers hooking up for casual sex.

Viewer reaction to this, is rather interesting at times, depending on the severity of the sexual content, which is usually much stronger in foreign productions, and tend to release without official ratings regarding recommended audience age and maturity.

The Realm of the Senses, released with much controversy in the late 1970s (and is oddly included in the recommendations in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) pushed the envelope considerably with unsimulated graphic imagery of things like fellatio and erections. Though probably not quite as envelope pushing anymore, what with the accessibility of the multi-billion dollar porn industry, especially in the form of amateur content circulated on-line, The Realm of the Senses was fictional account of a 1930s incident that involved a prostitute named Sada Abe (click the link if you don’t mind film spoilers). It was this context that lead to considerable debate as to whether the film could be fairly labeled art house, or whether it was just “glorified porn”, as though the distinction made any difference to anyone who wanted to see it. It’s clear within minutes of the opening scene exactly what is in store for the viewer. Viewers intimated an identical debate with director Michael Winterbottom’s 2004 film, 9 Songs. The nine songs refer to the live indie rock performances (featuring the Von Bondies and Franz Ferdinand, among others!) that provide the transitions to a story about a young British man’s fling with a young American girl. Nearly the entire film, save the concert footage and brief interjections about the man’s work in the Arctic, contain some form of unsimulated sex. What difference does it make to debate content labels? Again, within minutes of the film’s beginning, there are no surprises about what is in store for the viewer.

Other films, like the Australian production, Better Than Sex and and its Chilean counterpart, In Bed, push aside this intense mechanical approach as it addresses the topic of casual sex, doing so in a manner that fuses the pure and not-very-erotic mechanics with intelligent discussion, one free of timidity and self-conscious giggling.

A Netflix viewer’s review of Better Than Sex, suggested that the film captures an “evolution in relationships”, a conclusion that seems to support the tow-line observation that younger generations have scoffed traditional commitment, existing comfortably instead in the limbo between physical satisfaction and the avoidance of emotional attachment. But this is nothing new, really. Perhaps we’re too conditioned by American films, which have taught us that a happy ending means not only acceptance of commitment, but also monogamy, and more specifically with an extremely compatible lover.

The young couples of these films, both somewhere in their late 20s or early 30s, approach casual sex without guilt. In Bed begins just after two strangers who met when one offered to drive the other home after a party have had sex in a cheap motel. We are party to the grunts and heavy breathing and hints of naked, writhing strangers. That Bruno (Gonzalo Valenzuela) doesn’t know the name of the girl he just slept with (played by actress Blanca Lewin) doesn’t bother Daniella, since she really can’t recall the detail about him. She is amused by it rather than angered or ashamed. Besides, she decides, names just pervert the anonymity and that is what the couples of both of these films initially seems so desperate to avoid–that messiness; that age old fear of emotional gambling where someone ends up getting hurt. But, like many films where characters share an isolated setting for a significant duration (i.e. The Breakfast Club, Never on Tuesday, Tape), those kind of personal connections are inevitable, thus invoking their need for delusional defenses by impersonalizing their time together. “It’s just fucking,” near-strangers Josh (David Wenham) and Cinthia (Susie Porter) half-heartedly assure themselves as the two grow closer in Better Than Sex.

Better Than Sex is far more light-hearted of the two movies, a trait typical of most Australian comedies and light drama. For one thing, John and Cinthia cite immediately recognizable, but minor, flaws in one another when they first consider the idea of asking the other to have sex with them (it’s done almost that blatantly as they share a cab home from a party), but they are remarkably compatible, leading critics to argue that the film lacks enough conflict to make it interesting.

Better Than Sex is set almost entirely in Cin’s apartment. Meanwhile, Bruno and Danielle never abandon the small hotel room in In Bed. These characters exist in a temporary isolation, and in their private world, they carry on freely.

With the exception of minor conflict between Josh and Cin which actually results from the introduction of one of Cin’s flirty friends, there’s is a best-case scenario: two unimposing people who immediately click. And their temporarily private world doesn’t permit much to disturb their harmony. There’s even a meddlesome cab driver who plays the contingent matchmaker when the characters shy away from each other or get hot-headed. Having spent several days together, the dogging question is what happens when nature photographer Josh moves to London as intended? (Obviously for these types of scenarios to occur, the characters can’t have a full-time day job). Spliced into the narrative is he-said/she-said styled commentary on everything from sex to relationships to observations about the opposite sex. The bold shots, generic clothing, and amusing passing commentary (director Jonathan Teplitzky’s previous experience was primarily in commercials and music videos) give it a vicarious, mid-90s date movie feel (it was actually released in 2000), adding to the non-confrontational approach. In the end, the movie is reduced to what might be described as mere open conversation about sex, and what comes before and after it.

Director Matias Bize’s In Bed is a little different, its setting more confining, and its atmosphere a little grim. The film carries on with a certain bitter honesty and intensity, though equally with some exhaustion and repetition as well. Just as Josh intends to be in town only a few days longer after he meets Cinthia, Bruno will soon be leaving to get his PhD in Belgium while his companion, Daniella, is just days away from her wedding to man who had been abusive towards her in the past. When the grunts and the writhing periodically subside, they drift along in honest, intimate conversation and almost entirely without self-consciousness, carrying on in a way they may not with other people in their lives which they share a close relationship. This almost-entirely private isolation (their cell phones and wallet photos are the outside world’s sole intrusion) is conducive to that willful, unselfconscious exposure once it’s been put on the table, revealing themselves to each other once they realize the futility and absurdity of trying to fight it. Presumably out of obligation to protect this person whom he shares not only physical intimacy, but eventually, emotional intimacy as well, Bruno asks Daniella to consider leaving with him.

In Bed, which has been compared to Richard Linkater’s Before Sunrise quite often, is somewhat like a film installation piece, where the viewer serves as the first-person observer (in closer quarters than we typically think of ourselves as movie-goers entering the film’s world) to both the mundane and the exciting. Personal histories, expectations and general complexities are mixed with random anecdotes and passing commentary. The waning excitement and eroticism makes the situation feel so much more real – that people placed in a similar setting, confined to each other in a hotel room with little to separate them than maybe locking oneself in the bathroom, might get bored of the situation and tired of their mate. And, if the sex is a good enough distraction, then it is a situation that becomes purely erotic once again. The physical element seems almost like a transitional necessity.

In Bed doesn’t rely on the fairytale resolution. Josh and Cin were singles with little obligation – she was a dressmaker with an apartment, and he seemed bound for a semi-nomadic lifestyle as a freelance photographer. While they feared the implications of the connections they form when their private world ceased to exist, there was in reality, little to keep the two apart. Their happy ending in such an innocuous universe was almost a given. Bruno and Danielle, however, are bound by the realities of their public world, much as the happy ending seems possible at some point in the temporary, shared private world. “You were the break before the rest of my life. And I was the adventure before your trip,” Daniella poignantly concludes. The film avoids the need to resolve everything so neatly, and though the conversation may have been an intimate one, at least at times, between Bruno and Danielle, their imminent separation both provoked it and renders its importance fleeting. In the end, it was a day or so of casual sex between two strangers, coupled with somewhat interesting, but mostly distracting conversation. It was a release that was not purely physical.

But, to the vicarious viewer wanting to lose themselves in the affairs of Josh and Cin, and Bruno and Danielle, they certainly serve the purpose, depending on the degree of restraint into the fictional retreat he seeks.


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