In the Mood for Love
dir. Wong Kar-wai
Opens Fri Feb 16 at Harvard Exit.

I had heard in advance that Wong Kar-wai's new movie, In the Mood for Love, was about love forsworn. So as we parceled out reviewing tasks, I was surprised to be assigned the sex angle. True, hearing old people talk about sex is an inexhaustible source of comedy, and I aim to be good for a laugh, but what other qualifications did I have for the job? I came of age in the '50s as a Bad Girl. In 1962, I embarked on what later came to be called an open marriage. I lived through the '60s and '70s full-tilt and became slightly more circumspect in the early '80s, owing only to a fear of AIDS and herpes, not from any innate sense of delicacy. What would I know of renunciation?

How little you understand, says Wong. Let me teach you.

The plot--you probably already know it--is nothing. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play next-door neighbors who discover that their spouses are having an affair; they decide not to have one themselves. Running time 98 minutes.

Here's my list of all the overt sex:

1. Maggie Cheung's husband sits at a table with his back to us, talking to some other people. (We never see the face of either of the spouses.) Cheung, standing behind him, touches him on the shoulder. Her hand moves a little down his back.

2. Cheung's boss is having an affair with a woman whom we never see. Cheung fronts for him on the phone with his wife.

3. We get exactly one moment of smutty talk when Ah-Ping, a buddy of Tony Leung, says he went to a brothel with $2. "What kind of sex can you get for $2?" Leung asks him.

4. Cheung's husband and Leung's wife are having sex with each other at nearly every moment in the film. We can't see them, but we're always aware that that's what they're doing.

Maggie Cheung tells Tony Leung that they won't be like their spouses. If they succeed, what do we learn about sex from what they are like? Remember, they're the ones not having sex. Leung and Cheung--the anti-lovers--are grave and dignified. The lovers--their spouses--are disgusting. The anti-lovers are gentle; the lovers are cruel and thoughtless. The anti-lovers are modest and careful; the lovers are blatant. The anti-lovers barely brush against each other. The lovers are off rutting like beasts.

At one point, circumstances contrive to keep Leung and Cheung in the same small room together for a whole day. As the day progresses, the room assumes more and more the look we know from motel liaisons--the rumpled bed, the partly eaten food, the greasy wrappers, the discarded articles of clothing. But there is no consummation. They leave the room more keyed up than before; Cheung tiptoes away in an impossibly high pair of stilettos borrowed for a moment from Leung's unseen and absent wife (who is at that very moment screwing Cheung's husband). The shoes hurt her feet. She grimaces as people grimace during sex, but it's a grimace only of pain.

By now, reader, you must be completely exasperated with me. Did I learn nothing from this movie? Is the sex of longing and renunciation still a closed book to me? Will I continue to snort knowingly when Deborah Kerr and Trevor Howard and Loretta Young and Van Johnson--yes, and Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore--touch hands and then look away?

Well, talk about your suspension of disbelief, I have to admit that as long as the camera kept me in tight, as long as the vivid, print-filled sets held me, as long as Maggie Cheung's gaudy qipao dresses and Nat King Cole's satiny voice and Mike Galasso's forceful, poignant waltz music confused my senses and took me out of myself, I believed it all. Yes, this was sex, sex all the stronger for being denied, beautiful sex, sex without the sticky aftermath and the pubic hairs. I wanted Leung and Cheung to be in love, but not to descend to the soiled and piggish state I relish in real life.

Out on the sidewalk afterward, I shook my head and reverted to my usual slutty self. But for 98 minutes, I was transported. I was ravished. You will be too.

Barley Blair is the pseudonym of a little old lady thoughtfully stroking herself--stroking her cheek, you fool.