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5 for the Day: Sensual Pleasures

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5 for the Day: Sensual Pleasures

This Valentine’s Day-themed edition of 5 for the Day—written in honor of the Lovesick Blog-a-thon—focuses on moments of sexual/romantic connection between two characters. I’m talking specifically about moments that are powerful, pleasurable and memorable regardless of the presence or absence of nudity and/or actual sex onscreen (though these elements are never discouraged); moments that linger in the imagination beyond (or despite) the quality of the rest of the movie; moments whose recollection makes you smile or sigh.

1. The Last of the Mohicans. (1992) Director Michael Mann has a flair for the moment and the sequence; that he recognizes little difference between the two is part of what makes his work distinctive. This movie contains many examples of this dynamic, most of them chaotic and violent. But one of the best and least-heralded is a subdued section that takes place at Fort William Henry, where the Native American scouts have brought the Munro sisters to reunite with their father, an English army general. During a long evening of setting in, the scout Nathaniel (Daniel Day-Lewis) visits the infirmary, where Stowe’s character, Cora, is treating Nathaniel’s injured brother, Uncas (Eric Schweig). “If you’re about done holding hands with Miss Munro,” Nathaniel teases his brother, “we’ve got some work to do.” Then he exchanges a charged glance with Cora and walks a couple of steps away; then he turns and looks at her again, more frankly. “What are you looking at, sir?” she asks. “I’m looking at you, miss,” he replies. This exchange sets up a sequence following a bloody skirmish and the scouts’ and their fellow fighters’ decision to abandon the fort at sunrise. While the fire-lit fort recovers from the latest French bombardment, a muted version of Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman’s action theme rises on the soundtrack, its heartbeat rhythm and reel-sounding fiddle gathering in intensity. As if summoned by a beacon, Nathaniel and Cora find each other in the crowded common area of the fort, head up to a parapet and kiss and embrace (it appears that they have sex as well, though Mann’s framing is discreet enough to leave this open to question). Dawn finds them upright and entwined, their clothed bodies etched in chiaroscuro light. It isn’t just the not-so-sneakiness of the lovers’ tryst that makes this sequence sexy. It’s the characters’ deep vulnerability—the frank admission of need that’s wordlessly confirmed not just by Stowe, but also by Day-Lewis, whose character is a frontier stoic elsewhere.

2. Do the Right Thing. (1989) On the hottest day of the year, pizza deliveryman Mookie (Spike Lee) brings a pie to his baby momma Tina (Rosie Perez) in her brownstone apartment. Mookie and Tina bicker a lot, but their attraction is undeniable, and this scene cements it. She playfully balks at letting him in; when she does let him in, he chucks the pizza and kisses her (an action shown twice, in jump-cut). They embrace and banter. She needles him for forgetting to bring ice cream. “You know, I can’t be staying long anyhow,” he says, then adds, only half-kidding, “Long enough to do the nasty!” She pushes him away and explains why that’s a bad idea: “First of all, it is too hot, all right? And if you think I’m gonna let you get some, put your clothes on and leave here, and not see your black ass for another week, you must be buggin.” Whereupon Mookie suggests a compromise involving ice cubes. The ensuing sequence—a playful undressing scene on the bed, followed by a montage of inserts that show off Perez’s curvy bod and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson’s orange-brown-red lighting—is delectable. It’s saved from exploitiveness by Mookie’s lighthearted ongoing narration (“Thank God for the left nipple…Thank God for thighs…”) and by their teasing conversation, which sounds like real pillow talk, not some lame Hollywood facsimile. (“You don’t got a forehead,” he tells her, “you got a eight-head.”) The sequence’s climactic image—a shadowy macro-closeup of Tina and Mookie’s lips as they kiss and say their goodbyes, illuminated by the flickering of fan blades against a sunlit window—is exquisitely intimate.

3. Tropical Malady (2005) Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s unclassifiable romantic parable is broken into discrete halves, a “realistic” drama followed by a dream narrative. The break is marked by the only moment of unmistakable physical intimacy between its two characters, a soldier named Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) and a country boy named Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). After a long day together, the two men—who outwardly present themselves as good friends—stop along a dark road in the forest so that Tong can relieve himself. Keng waits for Tong by the roadside; when the latter returns, Keng takes his right hand—the hand Tong used to hold himself seconds earlier—and caresses and kisses it. Tong protests “I haven’t washed my hands” but doesn’t resist; as he observes Keng’s ardor, his expression changes from an awkward grin to a look of serious intent. Then he takes Keng’s right hand and duplicates his action; then, after a long, charged moment, he lets Keng’s hand drop and walks away into the dark jungle. Throughout this sequence, there’s no music, just the sound of insects whirring and chirping.

4. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) The last five minutes of Frank Capra’s domestic epic are so sweet that people tend to forget that the rest of the film covers a much wider array of moods and modes, from the dark-night-of-the-soul breakdown in Martini’s saloon to Clarence and Gabriel’s cutesy fairytale narration to the romance between George and his future wife Mary, which is driven by an unspoken but powerful physical attraction. The latter is expressed in the couple’s first kiss, which occurs at Mary’s parents’ house after a disastrous visit by George, who’s so depressed by the burden of his responsibilities that he rebuffs Mary’s blatant romantic overtures and storms out. When he sheepishly returns to retrieve the hat he left, he finds himself embroiled in a three-way phone conversation with Mary and her would-be suitor, Sam Wainwright, who’s calling long-distance. As George and Mary (Donna Reed and James Stewart) listen on the same extension—their faces framed together in the movie’s tightest closeup—the electricity between them is overwhelming. Sam’s patter about job opportunities takes on an inadvertent double meaning. “Tell him it’s the chance of a lifetime,” Sam tells Mary to tell George. “He says it’s the chance of a lifetime,” Mary says, as George stares at her in helpless wonder, defining that sentence on his own terms. Soon they’re embroiled in one of the most passionate kisses in any old Hollywood movie, rivaled by…

5. Rear Window. (1954) This Alfred Hitchcock touchstone stars James Stewart (him again) as L.B. Jeffries, a wheelchair-bound photographer drawn into a voyeuristic mystery. His lover, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), makes one of the most primally sexy entrances in movie history—materializing out of the darkness to give her lover a long, sensuous kiss (drawn out by slow-motion, a device Hitchcock rarely used). Interesting how many of the sexiest screen kisses occur in Hitchcock films; my short list includes Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint’s sloping clinch in the train compartment in North by Northwest, and Grant and Ingrid Bergman’s breathless entanglement near the start of Notorious, which was so hot that Hitchcock had to trim it to avoid running afoul of the censors.

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As I began to write this, it was morning on the first truly snowy day of a long New York winter, my kids were asleep, and the radio was tuned to NPR, which was playing a feature on Edith Piaf. The house was warmed by the strains of Piaf’s signature tune “Non je ne regrette rien.” Words to live by.

Matt Zoller Seitz is editor-in-chief and publisher of The House Next Door, a contributor to the The New York Times film section, and a former columnist for New York Press and The Star-Ledger.