Sex And The Cinema

Amid the special effects of this summer's movies, a different sort of fireworks has emerged: people's conflicting feelings about lust. Film critic Desson Thomson talks about two movies with different takes on sensuality: the Woody Allen comedy Vicky Cristina Barcelon and the drama Elegy, based on a Philip Roth novel.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Speaking of body parts, two new films out now that each have their own take on sensuality and desire. Film critic Desson Thomson joins us. Desson, thanks for being with us.

Mr. DESSON THOMSON (Film Critic): It's always a pleasure to be here with you. Thank you.

SIMON: Dim the lights a little. We get to talk about two Penelope Cruz films. "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," which, of course, is written and directed by Woody Allen. And then "Elegy," based on the Philip Roth novel, "Dying Animal."

Mr. THOMSON: Yes, it's a double for her, and a double for us.

SIMON: Yes, indeed. Well, all right, let's not linger over that. The first is a comedy and the second is a drama. Tell us what you see in each.

Mr. THOMSON: Both movies are fun, even though "Elegy" is quite depressing in many ways. There is sort of a fun aspect to it, first of all, because we get to see men and women in close contact. And I don't just mean physically, but I mean their souls come up against each other, as well. So it's sort of an enjoyable front-end collision of man and woman and all the problems that bounce therein.

SIMON: Tell us about "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." There's been a lot publicity attached to this film because it's a Woody Allen film, after all.

Mr. THOMSON: Well, two American friends, women friends, find themselves in Barcelona. And a very charming, stubbled, sexy Spanish gentleman approaches them in the restaurant and forthrightly asks them if they would like to sleep with him simultaneously. They're absolutely appalled by it and yet intrigued.

(Soundbite of movie "Vicky Cristina Barcelona")

Unidentified Woman: You're asking us to fly to Orvieto and back.

Unidentified Man: No, we'll spend the weekend. I mean, I'll show you around the city and we'll eat well, we'll drink good wine, we'll make love.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah. Who exactly is going to make love?

Unidentified Man: Hopefully the three of us.

Mr. THOMSON: And from there, the woman who is going for it is Scarlett Johansson. She's quite seduced by the idea. But her friend, played by Rebecca Hall, is less enthused because she's about to be married to somebody who turns out to be a rather boring, nine-to-five guy in America. And so over the course of the movie we see what happens.

SIMON: "Elegy," there's some poignance just in the set-up. An older male character played by Ben Kingsley, I gather, becomes obsessed.

Mr. THOMSON: Yes, he meets a student...

SIMON: Penelope Cruz.

Mr. THOMSON: In her late 20s, he's in his 60s. But in many movies where old men become infatuated with women, what starts out as an object of desire turns to love. The compartmentalization that men are notorious for breaks down and love seeps in. And so this is where we become really intrigued in the story.

(Soundbite of movie "Elegy")

Ms. PENELOPE CRUZ: (As Consuela Castillo) What do you really want from me?

Mr. BEN KINGSLEY: (As David Kepesh) What do I really want from you?

Ms. CRUZ: (As Consuela Castillo) Mm-mm. You spend your whole life going through relationships without ever being only with one woman, so at least I would like to know who I am for you.

SIMON: Are these movies in any way - I don't want to say opposed, necessarily, but it strikes me, and I haven't seen either, but one them is saying, you know, look, sex is fun and can be just fun, and the other is saying, no, it crosses a line pretty early on.

Mr. THOMSON: It's saying that sex is all of those things. It's saying that sex is the subject that consumes all of us and - which the movies, especially in Hollywood, have sort of made us curtail our discussion of. European movies have no compunction talking about sex as a pure and easy subject that exists in all our minds. But on the Hollywood screen, we sort of have to excuse the fact that we're talking about sex. So I enjoy the fact that sex is allowed to just join the other subjects of life. And especially sex that isn't involving people in their 20s or their teens.

SIMON: Yet, of course, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" - Barthelona(ph)...

Mr. THOMSON: Yes.

SIMON: I suppose I should say, is made by Woody Allen, a man who is - how do I say this nicely? His real-life experiences would seem to harmonize with the second film.

Mr. THOMSON: This is what is intriguing about the subject is that sex is comedy and it's tragedy and it's many things.

SIMON: I think Ben Kingsley is pound-for-pound maybe the best actor in the English-speaking world. What is his performance like?

Mr. THOMSON: Oh, he's absolutely brilliant. It takes someone like that to be in that role because it - you know, think about it. If you've got a 60-year-old man lusting for a woman in her late 20s, he's already portrayed in a bad corner. So when you've got someone like Ben Kingsley, it humanizes things and we start to really be with him. And he's no wonderful character, either. He goes through life thinking that sex is all that he's interested in, but in meeting her, he falls in love. This is kind of what happens to all men who think that sex is all there is to sex, in the movies.

You know, what movie audiences look for are boundary breaking - they want to see special effect. So they want to see reality being shattered. They want to see people suddenly ascending into the air or having super-heroic power. But in these films like love, boundaries are being broken, too. People are discovering things about themselves in the bedroom. And not just sexual things, but I'm talking about discoveries about themselves. So boundary breaking is going on in both types of movies. So if people thought about it, they should enjoy both types, I think.

SIMON: Film critic Desson Thomson. Desson, thanks so much.

Mr. THOMSON: Well, thank you.

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