There's a particular quality of feeling that comes after fraught sex, say, sex you shouldn't be having because you're married to someone else, or you know the person too well, or too little, or there's been no understanding between the partners as to the future and meaning of it all. Two people, intimate just a moment before, are strangers in the same room, and the room feels gray and empty. You pull on your clothes and walk out the door and wonder how did I, an adult with a full complement of self-respect, end up in this fascinating, tawdry situation?
Filmmakers who use sex as titillation, or who romanticize it, or use it as a reward for watching a film that isn't really about sex at all, rarely if ever capture the more subtle spectrum of post-coital emotion. "Antares," a film that is as much about sex as it is about marriage and relationships and sadness, is the rare film that explores this elusive terrain with clarity and dignity. In three interwoven acts, it deals with marriages gone stale, the power of pure physical attraction, the insidious force of jealousy, genuine love, betrayals small and large and, finally, the ugliness of rage and narcissism that go hand in hand with thwarted desire.
Petra Morze, left, and Andreas Pattonhave an adulterous affair, one of several in a graphic and revealing film that deals with the emotional aftermath.
It is an Austrian film (it caused a stir when it was submitted as that country's entry to this year's Academy Awards) and it acknowledges no taboos about the depiction of physical love. It is graphic. When a middle-aged man and woman, both straying from their marriages, end up in a hotel room, they hardly pause to say hello. Desire overwhelms them, and they go at it, with the camera following every inch of the way. Some audiences will find this indistinguishable from pornography.
But pornography doesn't show the middle-agedness of it all, or the fumbling and grappling and mussing of hair and sheets and inevitable clumsiness of two bodies proceeding without choreography of any sort. And it certainly doesn't show the hotel room as a place of generic sadness, blank, but safe, or the wine bottle, with its promise of liberation, or the shower after the act. Pornography aims at making us feel desire for the people depicted. This film couldn't care less about that. Its only interest is finding some kind of sympathy with its characters.
The only obvious standard for deciding whether a filmmaker has gone too far with this sort of thing is the question of necessity. Can the story be told without showing graphic sex? Does it disrupt rather than enlighten or explain? Director Goetz Spielmann's choices pass the test, and not just by a hair. His subject is sex, and there is clearly no other way he could tell his stories without following his characters off the public stage of everyday life into the private sanctum of the bedroom.
And when he doesn't need to go there, he doesn't. "Antares" isn't just a film that deserves the usual hollow plaudits awarded to controversial films -- it is more than just brave, or unflinching, or honest -- it is also a good piece of filmmaking. It captures the texture of a world, a rather sterile world, architecturally, which only underscores the dire need for human connection among the people who live there. Not one of his characters is particularly lovable, but that isn't because they aren't fully fleshed out. They are carefully observed and rigorously rendered by Spielmann's cast. Andreas Kiendl, as a volatile and abusive real estate agent, gives his scenes all the tension of a loaded gun onstage. As Eva, the straying woman of the first act, Petra Morze's maturity and quiet presence give her a sexual allure far surpassing her luminous physical beauty. As she heads off for yet another assignation, you feel her deep sense of adult ridiculousness, the palpable silliness of the deception.
"Antares" shows the progress of a lie, the consequences of it, the innocent victims and -- this may be the most controversial thing about it -- the rewards as well. The bad are punished, but the weak (that would be most of us), well, they just muddle on. It is a wise film, a dark film, a difficult film, but a rewarding one.
Antares (119 minutes, at the AFI Silver Theatre) is not rated and contains graphic sex scenes, as much as you would find in an XXX film, and scenes containing violence, drug use and profanity.