Too close for comfort

Film - Philip Kerr is unmoved by much publicised scenes of gritty sex

Intimacy, starring Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox, directed by Patrice Chereau, and written by Chereau and Hanif Kureishi, was judged the best film at this year's Berlin Film Festival. I am unable to account for Intimacy's critical success in Germany, however. Whereas Last Tango in Paris, presented for the first time at the New York Film Festival on 14 October 1972, still seems to me to be a masterpiece of cinematic eroticism, Intimacy - the publicity for which has made much of the tumescent reality of the film's many sex scenes - merely looks like highbrow porn. Comparing these two films is like comparing Nabokov's Lolita with D M Thomas's The White Hotel, or Oshima's Ai No Corrida with Emmanuelle.

I am forced to conclude that the Germans deluded themselves - just as those poor babies Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox must have deluded themselves - that all this rather miserable, grubby-looking sex is art. It was an easy mistake to make with this film, perhaps, because neither character seems to enjoy sex very much. After all, the intention of the film-maker could not possibly be exploitative, or titillating, if the two characters have intercourse with apparently no more pleasure than they might have from a cigarette. To paraphrase Kipling: if it's pretty, how can it be art? And doubtless the Germans mistook that which is ugly for that which has meaning. But the sad truth is that there is no more art here than is to be found in a pair of sweet Tracey's dirty knickers, or in little Damien's formaldehyde cows.

I mentioned Last Tango because the plot, which draws on not one but two stories by Kureishi (an embarrassment of riches, you might think), is based on a very similar conceit to Bernardo Bertolucci's story. A man and a woman meet every Wednesday afternoon in a squalid, empty room, for sex. They don't speak. They do not know each other's name. They fuck as if their lives depended on it. Finding himself possessed by the spirit of this woman's cunt, the man realises he wants to know the woman as a person. Which is where all the trouble starts, because they are from very different backgrounds; and having found that she is a very ordinary person, he decides to exorcise himself of her spirit.

Most of this film's problems relate to the sex. Oddly, for all its apparent candour, the sex is nowhere near as convincing as the publicity would have us believe; and the more the sex tries to look like the genuine article, the more the film fails. It is almost as if these two actors were so hung up on the realism of what they and the director were trying to achieve that they forget that realism is not enough. Sometimes realism looks bogus. Conversely, as anyone who has seen a pornographic film will tell you, drama requires more than just a real hard-on and a blow job. It would have helped to have a beginning, a middle and an end.

With Last Tango, a lot of the excitement lay in Marlon Brando's often improvised performance, and in the revelation of just how creative screen-acting could be. Sadly, Rylance does not have the presence or the depth required to express a character's sexuality with the same sense of intimacy as Brando did. Now there was a performance that really did have some intimacy. There are no such truths about human relationships to be found here. Not one. And neither Rylance nor Fox gets much help from the auto-sodomising French director.

Bertolucci had a kind, softly focused eye for passion, and for Paris. Chereau's is unblinking, stern and unrelenting. He obviously thinks London is the ugliest city on the planet. Where Last Tango was always ravishingly beautiful to look at, Chereau paints a picture of squalor in which the ashtrays are always full to overflowing, the men are always unshaven - presumably, if they ever saw a razor, they would use it not to shave, but to slash their wrists - and the grey, leaden London air is forever torn with the wail of a police siren or some tired old record from The Clash. In the semi-derelict house where Kerry and Marky get laid, he gives us everything but the floater in the loo.

Chereau even manages to make Fox look ugly - not easy. Whereas in Last Tango Maria Schneider bared her pubic hair with coquettish joy - it was rather like being flashed by Audrey Hepburn - Fox looks rather cold and miserable, even slightly uncomfortable with her own body, like a model enduring the scrutiny of an artist such as Lucian Freud.

There is little to admire in Chereau's film. Indeed, we have been here before, too often. This may be the Sammy and Rosie sort of launderette London that Kureishi knows, but it is not a London that any Londoner would either recognise or want to live in. And certainly not have sex in. Intimacy never looked so alienating.

Intimacy (18) is on general release nationwide

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The diva of Downing Street