This post is a bit off the cuff – I had something else planned for later in the week, but this side-tracked me completely so I’m running with it. Apologies in advance – this may get a little navel-gazey.
Last night, I watched The English Patient. It’s one of my favorite movies, based on one of my favorite books, but I haven’t re-watched in a while. One of the things I love about watching this film (or re-reading the book) is that, over the years, different things have resonated with me at different points in my life. I always cry, but never in the same places. Now, when I watch it, I’m in the interesting position of not only seeing it as I am now, but through the additional lenses of my eighteen year old, twenty-five year old and thirty year old selves. It’s an oddly nostalgic experience.
For those of you who have neither seen the movie, nor read the book, you can read a quick synopsis here. All you really need to know for the purposes of this post is that the one of the main narrative threads is a disastrous love affair between a woman named Katherine and the eponymous English patient – a Hungarian cartographer named Almasy.
Their love affair has always touched me. When I was younger, it was purely romantic. Inexperienced as I was, I thought tragedy was glamorous. Now, I have plenty of scars and enough experience to know that being shattered is not the beautiful adventure young romantics think it is (though I have also come to understand that, if nothing else, it means your heart is alive, even if you want to cut it out).
The things that touch me about this story have changed, as well. At first it was the tragic love story. Then, when I was bit older, it was Juliette Binoche’s grieving, shell-shocked nurse, or Willem Defoe’s thief. This time, the Katherine / Almasy love story struck me again. Or rather, one of their love scenes finally got my attention beyond the fact that I’ve always thought it was incredibly hot.
Almasy and Katherine steal a moment during a Christmas party and have the most restrained unrestrained sex I’ve ever seen on film. Here’s a clip of the scene – it’s better in the context of the movie, but this is the relevant part.
While I’ve always loved that scene, it wasn’t until last night that I realized how formative it was. There’s so much about it that has stayed with me – the deliberate, continuous eye contact; the way he maps her skin with his fingertips and unzips her dress so he can slip his hand over the small of her back…those tiny moments formed the foundation for my tastes both aesthetically (it’s a beautifully shot scene) and sexually.
Someone once asked me where I like to be kissed, and I answered “in the hollow places” without thinking. As I was watching the film last night, I realized that that has always been the case. My neck and shoulders, the soft skin beneath the ridge of my hips…I love it when a partner kisses those places, and it’s because of the way Almasy kisses the hollow of Katherine’s throat (and his subsequent fascination with that part of her body).
That scene formed my love of stolen moments and deeply intense attractions that are emotional and mental as well as sexual. It made me aware of my collarbones, the inside of my wrist and the small of my back…. In a very real way, that scene welded my internal connection between the sexual and the aesthetic and, as a result, I have always thought of consensual sex as basically beautiful, even when it isn’t.
I suspect that’s because there’s a profundity to the sex in that scene. Movies and pornography are full of sex that’s way more graphic or overtly hot or just plain filthy in the best sense, but for me, that scene spikes right off the charts of eroticism because of the sheer intensity of their connection. That sort of sexual charge is rare – it doesn’t happen with every partner, or even every love. I suspect that’s one of the reasons attractions like Almasy’s and Katherine’s feature so heavily in fiction. That intensity is something that I have always chased, both in life and in my writing.
Which brings me to fiction. I also realized as I was watching that scene, that there are aspects of sex that can’t be distilled into words. Sex is, by nature, experiential. As a writer, the best I can do is to evoke an experience – the moment before a kiss, the restlessness of having someone deep under your skin, the sadness of unrequited love and the joy of affinity.
These details, far more than where he fucked her or how her wet her cunt was, make for sex that resonates. It’s so tempting, as a writer, to try to control the reader’s experience by supplying the mechanical minutia. It takes a much larger leap of faith to select your details carefully and leave room for the writing to evoke a memory or a feeling, rather than tell the reader what she should feel, or mechanically turn him on….
Not that there’s anything wrong with turning your reader on. I love hearing that a story got someone off, but if I want to touch someone, that’s a slightly different game. The wonderful thing about erotica is that you can provoke a visceral sexual response paired with an equally visceral emotional one. It’s only when you leave space for the reader’s experiences that you connect at that deeper level.
As I was watching that scene last night, I realized that very often (though not always) when I write a sex scene, I am trying to connect with my reader in the same way that the scene connected with me – at eighteen, and twenty five and thirty and now thirty-seven. When I first saw that film in 1996 as a lonely undergrad on my own for the first time in New York, I longed for experiences. I desperately wanted to transcend the perceived limitations of my youth and inexperience. I was such a little girl… I didn’t even know that I had hollow places, let alone where they were or how I loved to be touched.
I’m very aware of my hollow places now – both sexually and emotionally – and that there are more of them than I ever could have imagined. I’m not sure I’d have been able to see that progression without the film to act as a sort of personal timeline. I’m curious to see what will touch me the next time that I watch it in however many years.