Junior year of college, I was quite unexpectedly decided upon as a person of interest by the film department and invited to a reception and dinner at the president’s house, preceding an Antonioni film screening. I prepared nervously and thoroughly for the affair which featured bigwigs, from both the industry and the academy. I fretted and preened and departed for said shindig in relative confidence; then the torrential downpour started. Not having my shit together enough to own an umbrella, I arrived chez M. le Président drenched and sporting the sort of Madwoman of Chaillot look currently found so appealing by the leading ladies of Alain Resnais.
I maintained a dangling thread of dignity through cocktail hour, and at dinner sat next to a thin 60-ish man, whose profile and glasses combined to present an aura of intelligence and wit. Still self-consciously patting my Wild Grass ‘do, I began to reassure myself that, in spite of everything, things were going pretty well. And then—like a bolt from Valhalla—our rapport was forever cemented by an absolute mutual adoration for a certain film: Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson.
The film, caught one sleepless night on IFC, made a huge impression on me in its thrilling, complex, passionate adultness. It promised—for the woman brave enough to pursue it—a life of adventure, artistic fulfillment, elegantly ambiguous yet charged romance, meaningful conversations punctuated by solitary tears, and true compassion and understanding. (Later, it impressed me even more, with its sharp yet subtle ruminations on men and women, power and control, artistic collaboration, and inspiration, aiming to get good at something that requires intense mastery for the sheer pleasure and pleasurable labor of it.) My dining companion punctuated our conversation with a delightfully bashful, Midwestern “Gosh, Sally Potter, she’s so beautiful—so sexy!” In that moment I fell completely in love with that man.
Meeting Potter at the MoMA retrospective of her work last month, I can testify (if there was any doubt) that Potter is a sexy woman. She has a birdlike face, with a wry knowingness and the openness to the world so essential to true attractiveness. She has an impressive mane of hair and that easy, slightly rumpled quality that implies a comfort with one’s body, and consequently, with the messiness of sex.
But even if she looked like Mike Tyson in a dress, Sally Potter would still have done more for sensuality in cinema than any other director of recent memory. Of all the female directors to emerge from the ‘70s and ‘80s, Potter remains the most radical and vital because she is the sexiest; that is to say she has created an atmosphere of sensuality both safe and thrilling enough for the viewer to dwell in. She has a great appreciation of and talent for displaying male beauty, most notably her discovery of Pablo Veron, her on-screen partner in The Tango Lesson, whom she employed in a few other projects. Combining a dancer’s elegance with an almost Chaplinesque appreciation for the silliness of movement, Veron wins you over without seeming too eager to please. Whether dancing his way through making a salad or turning pirouettes on an airport’s moving walkway, Potter shows him as more than the sum of his parts.
Even Potter’s early experimental works display her affinity for and comfort with sensuality. Jerk, a series of stop-motion portraits, offers the delightfully perverse pleasure of watching a beautiful man’s face twitch and pulse as if at our command. In the slim yet powerful political thriller The London Story, three conspirators gather on the banks of the Thames and engage in a stately yet compelling pas de trois that displays the eroticism of intrigue and triumph in a way no dialogue ever could.
After the critical and commercial failure of Potter’s first feature, The Gold Diggers, which attempted the singularly unsexy task of combining feminism, Marxism, and a critique of art and the Hollywood system, Potter spent years rebuilding her reputation and raising money to make her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. The role of Orlando, a noble who lives through 400 years of English history, first as a man then as a woman, requires uncanny qualities and abilities and, without the discovery of the exquisite and rare Tilda Swinton, it’s hard to imagine the film could have been made. The still-unknown Swinton does incredible work making a coherent transition from awkward and impassioned boyish adolescence to accomplished confident womanhood while buttressing Woolf’s claims of the decidedly unfixed nature of identity. In this post-Bowie age, androgyny appears cool and unflappable, but Potter uses it as a metaphor for the difficulties of finding our way in the world. In the genderfuck pièce de résistance, Potter casts legendary gay icon Quentin Crisp as the aging Queen Elizabeth I, and he plays the role without camp. When we see the Queen stripped to her corsets, touching Orlando’s notoriously shapely leg and exhorting the young man never to wither, there’s nothing comical or pitiful about it. It encompasses the longing and nostalgia that accompany old age, but alongside these lies a kind of ravishment rarely portrayed on screen. I’ve seen every episode of The Tudors, and none of it comes close, sexy-wise.
Orlando offers actual sex as well, in an interlude between the now-female Orlando and a relentless adventurer, played by Billy Zane. Potter departs from the book in this storyline, and it pays off: the details of the couple’s meeting and courtship are so unexpected and delightful that to reveal too much seems unkind. Zane walks a tightrope, displaying the fierce independence that would attract a singular character like Orlando, while giving us flashes of a deliciously feminine beauty that matches Swinton’s sexual ambiguity. The best-known image from Orlando features Swinton and Zane wrapped in an arabesquely elegant yet undeniably passionate embrace. After centuries of not getting any, it’s the exact exalted experience Orlando deserves and has, through her own nature, earned.
Sex is explored more darkly in The Man Who Cried, an imperfect movie, but much underestimated. Set in France both before and during the occupation, it engages questions of identity, alienation, and belonging, and paves the way for one of the most beautiful non-pervy portrayals of the true romance between father and daughter. It’s to Potter’s great credit that she draws no obvious psychobabble parallels between that relationship and the grown-up girl’s (Christina Ricci’s) liaison with a stoic yet feeling gypsy (Johnny Depp). Depp has always struck me as an actor uncomfortable with his own profound beauty, but here he feels at ease with himself as a man (perhaps it’s the rootedness of that gypsy stock.) With him, Potter invoked almost romance novel notions of male attractiveness—the wild man with his own code of honor, the skilled horseman—and just has them sit there, letting Depp perform them organically and even a little reservedly. When during a performance he places his hand meaningfully on Ricci’s shoulder, her eyes—sometimes quite ordinary, sometimes capable of incredible intensity—betray excitement and terror at what she feels. When sex finally occurs, rather oddly on a chair outside by a campfire, it’s odd and intense in a way that falls outside the normal paradigms of “hot” and “romantic.” In fact, it’s only in seeing Ricci smile after the fact that we’re absolutely sure the experience was pleasurable. The Man Who Cried reveals the truth sex is not always safely pleasurable.
Potter’s next film, Yes, is less concerned with sex itself with than the complications and misunderstandings that go along with it. Concerning an unhappily married Irish-American scientist (Joan Allen) who embarks on an affair with a Lebanese chef (Simon Abkarian), the film’s central conceit is that all the dialogue is in iambic pentameter. At times the language feels natural, at other times it elevates conversation. When Abkarian considers breaking things off with Allen because of the cultural differences between them, the poetry of the debate breaks through their defenses. It inspires hope for the possibility of real romantic and sexual understanding.
I’m a little embarrassed to end like this. Some emotions (are they even emotions?) are more personal, and well—embarrassing than others. So it is with some trepidation that I sheepishly admit that as I immersed myself again in Potter’s sexy, ravenous, rapturous world, something major happened to me. I became entranced, manic, obsessed, so much so that I was vexed, unable to write, and overshot my deadline. I have not felt this way about an actual person in some time. But, my Potter education has given me a sense of what I would need to feel such throes. And until then I have the pleasure of cinema, which to me has never been insignificant.