Julianne Moore and Amanda Seyfried's explicit sex scene in Chloe has dominated the film's coverage. Critics have called it unserious, or part of a "Sapphic psycho" cliche. "It's not like they're just fucking," screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary) told me.
So what exactly is going on? Moore plays a gynecologist who suspects her husband is cheating on her and hires a honey-pot — a high-class call girl, played by Seyfried — to try to seduce him to test his loyalty. The high-melodrama plot (based on a French film) is offset by the chilly discipline of Atom Egoyan's direction and visuals. Wilson's script is the first he's directed that's not his own.
"You open with this sort of cold blue wintery situation and immediately Julianne Moore has her fingers inside another woman on an examination table," Wilson told me last week. "And so it's immediately not going, woo woo, sex. It's very clinical at that point. We see her as someone who sees sex as clinical and who then realizes sex is not about manipulation of the clitoris which she says at the beginning, but sex is about fantasy."
Wilson's interest in fantasy — specifically women's sexual fantasies and desires — is apparent to anyone who has seen Secretary, or checked out the anthology of heterosexual erotica she helped put together. She's also writing an HBO pilot, Untitled Woman Walks Out, with Oprah as executive producer, about a woman who abruptly abandons her "perfect" family to pursue other fantasies.
But let's go back to Moore's character, Catherine, and her transformation. In the first half of Chloe, which opens to limited release this Friday, Catherine is repeatedly made to feel that as a middle-aged woman, she's sexually invisible. Wilson, who is 46, said that at first she focused on Seyfried's character, Chloe, "I thought, 'I don't know how to write Catherine because I don't know what a middle-aged woman feels like. And then I suddenly realized, I'm middle-aged. I then looked at my own life and realized this feeling I'd started to have of invisibility, as a woman who was no longer a flibbertigibbet, which I had been used to being."
It's not a spoiler to anyone who has read anything at all about the movie: after Chloe repeatedly narrates her encounters with Catherine's husband (played by Liam Neeson), Chloe and Catherine get it on. I asked Wilson whether she was worried that the onscreen result would be exploitative.
"I mean, how would it be exploitative?" She didn't seem to like the question.
I replied that two women having sex onscreen was often marketed in a way that's titillating for men as opposed to for the women's pleasure.
"I think the truth is that it's titillating for women too though," Wilson said. "I mean, I — the exploitation — if there is any — is look what's in this film, a long, drawn-out, pretty explicit scene between two women with a lot going on in it. It's not like they're just fucking. They're both thinking completely opposite things in a way. The scene is about [Moore] having this painful experience where she's feeling what this woman does to her husband and in the process, she is longing for desire, to be desired and she's finding herself desired by a beautiful young woman and the beautiful young woman is falling in love with her, with this woman who's fantasizing."
She had told me about her brief, ill-fated career doing celebrity profiles for a men's magazine. "I wasn't hitting what they thought a woman should write about sex," she said.
Which was what? "You know, taking a class in pole dancing, that was what they were interested in reading about, rather than an empowered, maybe an intellectual and maybe naughty and kinky idea of what sex could be, so the conversations that I gave them seemed to frighten them."
In the years since then, Wilson said, she's been seeing more complex representations of female sexuality, including on cable with shows like Mad Men and The L Word, something she's happy to get in on.
"A lot of people are watching these cable shows — and certainly I am because I don't have a TV, I'll watch the L word over a period of two weeks, an entire season on my laptop in bed, alone. That's a very erotic experience in a way. I think that people are uncomfortable sitting in a theater around a bunch of strangers watching sex. That's becoming increasingly so because they have this way of watching it at home."
She remembers seeing Jane Campion's In The Cut alone. "I thought that film was really pretty darn sexy at points and I just remembered all this gasping at the way that I was feeling in front of so many people, which was in itself exciting. That's the way we always used to watch movies. The one that most hits me is Swept Away. I remember I saw that when I was very young and having those erotic — being overwhelmed in my body by these feelings in front of people, all around me, who may have been having the same feeling. Well, that communal experience is waning with DVD and with television."
If you see Chloe in the theater, you have a fair shot at that feeling of communal erotic discomfort and fascination. (And if you watch it in a small screening room full of mostly male film hacks, s I did, all the more so.)
As for that scene, Wilson said, "I feel like some of the scenes in which Chloe is telling Julie sexual stories [about her encounters with Catherine's husband] in some ways are more of a sex scene than [the literal sex] scene... Chloe is telling Catherine a story, they might as well be fornicating basically. This is sex. You don't have to even touch each other. It's virtual sex."
And is the viewer, too, meant to be included in this narration-as-sex? "Yeah, I hope so," she said.