University College Dublin
Director: Fintan Connolly.
Writer: Fintan Connoly, Catriona McGowan.
Cast (Principal): Renee Weldon, Aiden Gillan, Susan Fitzgerald, Declan Conlon, Darrah Kelly, Eamonn Morrisey.
Cinematographer: Owen McPolin
Music: Niall Byrne.
Producer: Fiona Bergin.
Shot in twenty-eight days, Fintan Connolly’s The Trouble with Sex (2005) is a brash attempt at dealing with the formerly taboo subject of sex as a central subject in contemporary Irish cinema. Paradoxically however, more results in less. As was the case with the director’s feature debut, Flick (2000), which focused primarily on the similarly under-exposed subject of drug-dealing, the overt representation of sexuality in the film thwarts plot development, severs audience-character identification and limits the film’s narrative potential. The film vacillates between modes of melodrama and avant-gardism, unsure what kind of film it is. It isn’t the serious exploration of the boundaries of the screened sexual act seen in recent boundary-pushing engagements like Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (2004) and Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy (2001) because the sex scenes are perfunctory and banal. But neither is it a compelling romance; the characters fail to elicit any emotive response from the viewer.
While Connolly claims sex in the film serves as a pivotal theme from which a relationship emerges (Shields 2005:12); promoting the film primarily as a love story, the film is better interpreted as an exploration of the dilemma that ‘New Ireland’ faces. The meeting of Michelle (Renée Weldon), the successful corporate lawyer and symbol of New Ireland and Conor (Aidan Gillen), the anachronistic male anchored by loyalty to his heritage, reveals a disparity between the two value systems. How can ‘New Ireland’ reconcile itself with its traditional counterpart, given this disparity? In this guise, the characters therefore must reconcile their sexual attraction to each other and their contrasting attitudes towards relationships. Perhaps a narrow foundation for a feature film, nonetheless, this brings about a tug of war of contrasting representations.
While the character of Michelle embodies Ireland’s current engagement with capitalism and the edicts of consumerism, Conor is stifled by a sense of responsibility, the burden of tradition and attendant frustration. He remains working in his family’s bar in order to care for his father (Eamon Morrissey), the caricatured drunken, Irish male, while Michelle’s equally dependent mother Rosie (Susan Fitzgerald) is kept within the confines of a nursing home. Here we encounter the first in the series of contrasting value systems. Traditional Ireland promotes family engagement and privileges local community while ‘New Ireland’ abuses society for its own profitable gains. Michelle ignores the street busker while Conor gives him change, Michelle dances with Conor’s father to console herself rather than out of need for affection. Michelle seeks out Conor for sexual gratification while he expresses affection that is more genuine. Therein lies the proposed subtext of the film: the reversal of roles. The dominant male role has shifted as seen in the masculinisation of Michelle. She is forced to reconfigure her femininity under the heavy costuming of a male business suit for capitalist success and consequently substitutes sex for emotional engagement, which Conor recognises during the break-up scene. While Conor unreservedly demands commitment, Michelle, seeming to be speaking as a medium for a modern mores, accuses him of naivety. Of course this is exactly the case as Conorguards a more traditional morality which he makes known to Michelle on their first date, ‘Mid-thirties male seeks similar, no time-wasters please’.
The film’s reliance on contrast is also exploited in its cinematography. Director Fintan Connolly has claimed that Caravaggio and Edward Hopper inspired the visual character of the film (Shields 2005:14), however its visual style is also highly reminiscent of Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven (2002) and, in turn, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955). Cinematographer Owen McPolin draws on a palette of red, blue, black and white that function as codas for desire, contentment, death and loneliness respectively. Harsh, clinical lighting floods bedroom scenes for the first half of the film awaiting Conor and Michelle’s liaison to transfer from detached sexual encounter to emotional engagement, consequently warming bleached white lighting to that of autumnal yellow. Again the film depends on clear parallels to fuse the transition from isolation to solidarity. In heightened contrast to bedroom scenes, Flynn’s bar, Conor’s environment, is a crypt of red walls covered in pictures of figures of the 1916 Rising, thus chastising desire with images of sacrifice and solidifying Conor’s position as frustrated anachronism. Both characters are also used as dual signifiers to signpost narrative direction, a point most obviously seen towards the close of the film with the death of Conor’s father. This sequence of shots first shows Michelle in full black dress then cuts to Conor attempting to wake his father in bed. This is followed by a shot of Conor carrying the coffin at the funeral which cuts to Conor and Michelle’s chance meeting, both dressed in formal black clothing, and finally consolidating the sequence with the closing shot of the film where both characters are in bed together.
Such a denouement obviously gives symmetry to the piece as the closing shot returns to the opening of Michelle’s face, the lighting having changed from a hostile blue to sensual red, the implied argument being that Michelle is now a content, emotional participant in her relationship whereas previously she was disenchanted as a result of her connection to her adulterous boyfriend Ivan. In terms of the clash of ‘New Ireland’ and its traditional counterpart the film proposes a meek compromise: Conor sells his pub and thus all vestiges of his past in an attempt to engage with ‘New Ireland’ in the form of his relationship with Michelle and one would assume a new career. Michelle has empathised with Conor over the death of his father thus reflecting ‘New Ireland’s’ lament for the past. However, it is a fundamentally conservative conclusion, promoting monogamous heterosexual coupling above all, re-affirming the film’s uninspiring exploration of the contemporary Irish relationship- drama.
Shields, Paula. ‘Sex on a Low Budget’, Film Ireland, Dublin, May-June 2005.