Last weekend, during the 78th International Venice Film Festival, a video taken on the red carpet emerged online and sent the internet into a tizzy. In what may be the most rousing use of slow motion in any movie of 2021 – sorry, Zack Snyder – someone decelerated footage of actors Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain at the premiere for their new HBO miniseries, Scenes from a Marriage.
In the 50-second clip, Isaac gazes smolderingly at his co-star, tenderly lifts her arm in his hand, and then, in a moment all the more tantalising for the pause, leans in and buries his face in the crook of her arm, kissing it. It’s a gesture of casual flirtation and sensual frisson, and I tweeted it with casual amusement from my dinner table to discover later that my tweet had gone viral – it currently has over 200,000 likes and 11 million views.
As a person who for the better part of a decade has made my living through film criticism and culture journalism, I know the score. It’s a consistent truth, and often a frustrating one, that, no matter what is written about a film or TV show, few essays or reviews will ever reach as many eyeballs as a video like this one. Let’s put aside the short attention spans of social media users and the memeification of film culture (both of which are things), and simply say that a picture – or in this case, a video – really is worth a thousand words.
On the other hand: the clip was sexy, and I have long wished that Hollywood and mainstream culture were sexier – particularly for women and gay men. For so long, we’ve been sidelined as viewers, peeking at the odd shirtless scene or searching for desirous undertones in movies not necessarily interested in catering to our visual pleasures. Can anyone blame us for finding joy in this shiveringly seductive viral video?
Last year, I edited an anthology on this topic called She Found it at the Movies: Women Writers on Sex, Desire, and Cinema, in an effort to make sense of how women and nonbinary people navigate cinema past and present, and how we find sex (or don’t) up there on the big screen. It’s been amazing to see how much of the conversation these days is about that very thing. Or perhaps not amazing so much as… understandable. A lot of what we see on our screens is shockingly sexless, despite all the muscled-up stars on display: according to a recent stat, only 1.21 per cent of the 148,012 feature films released since 2010 contain depictions of sex – the lowest propotion for half a century.
A less-than-one-minute-long viral video is not exactly cinema, but there’s certainly something cinematic about it: the knowingness of the slow motion; the movie star charisma of the suave Isaac and the diaphanously beautiful Chastain; and the glamour of the red carpet setting. It’s worth noting, too, that women and gay men seemed to dominate my mentions and retweets. It follows that this was something that spoke more to their fantasies than to any straight male one.
Yet as slobbered-over as the footage seemed to be, other people raised dissenting questions. Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are both married to other people. Elvira Lind, Isaac’s wife, was standing just nearby, inspiring a deluge of memes. Some wondered if it was inappropriate, or disrespectful, or if Chastain actually wanted such a public display of affection. And what if it had been someone – let’s say – less likeable and handsome than Isaac doing the caressing?
To which the response is: context matters. The pair are longtime friends and colleagues. And it seems safe to assume – given her taking his face in both hands, tenderly, with a grin on her face, after the fact – that nothing untoward is going on.
Besides – and I’m far from the first to point this out – they’re also actors. Couldn’t they be performing? The whole thing could easily be a well-executed ploy to drum up publicity around the movie (and whether that was the intention or not, that’s what happened). This week, Chastain tweeted an image of Gomez Addams kissing Morticia’s arm – a reference to the video – and “Sep 12th”, referring simply to the date of the Scenes from a Marriage release. She’s only further implying that this was a trap that we all very cheerfully fell into.
In the final analysis, I think the public reaction to something like this is far more interesting than whether this was constructed for viewers, a genuine flirtation, or just a sweet moment between friends taken out of context. Personal lives aside, these movie stars gave us what we wanted. The attention the video received is evidence of just how badly viewers – and women viewers, in particular – want some genuine heat from the movies and shows they consume. Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, thank you.