You’ve heard about the spit, right?
In the new drama Disobedience, from Chilean director Sebastián Lelio (of the Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman), Rachel Weisz drips saliva into Rachel McAdams‘s mouth during their climactic sex scene. It sounds, well, disgusting, but in context it actually adds to the intimacy between these two women. The thing is: You have to wait for it. There are a lot of subtle glances and unspoken moments before they give into their passion. Disobedience is a slow burn.
Sometimes the most satisfying cinematic sex scenes are the ones that take a while to get to, where the chemistry between actors is so intense that you’re practically yelling at the screen: “Just do it already.” These are especially prominent in queer film, where there are often societal forces to keep characters apart. But they can also occur in the most mainstream fare imaginable. (See: The Notebook.) Here, nine of the most notable, excruciating slow burns in film.
Weisz and McAdams play Ronit and Esti, women who were raised in an Orthodox Jewish community in London. They started their romance in their youth, but were caught, and Ronit, the daughter of a venerated rabbi, left the community to pursue photography (and, presumably, the life of a heathen) in New York, while Esti married their best friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), also a rabbi. When Ronit’s father dies, she returns home, surprised to find Esti as a dutiful wife. In the beginning of the film, they barely speak to one another, their interactions marred by tension and resentment. But as they stalk around the deceased’s home, Esti’s resistance to her feelings falters, and she kisses Ronit. But that night they are thwarted: It isn’t until Ronit takes her out of their suburb, to a hotel, that they finally have sex and all the formality disappears. Esti takes off the wig she must wear as a married woman; Ronit unsnaps her undergarments. And then there’s the spit, which truly removes all the borders between them.
The often forbidden nature of queer romances on screen—as in the case of Disobedience—often yield narratives where the primary text is the subtext. With Carol the 1950s setting adds an extra layer of remove to that. Riffing on the cinema of the era, director Todd Haynes presents an entirely buttoned-up society. In a world where all sexuality is coded, housewife Carol’s pursuit of shopgirl Therese is even more so. It’s only when they get out of New York, and land in a motel on New Year’s Eve that they are allowed to express their desire. Even that plays out with restraint. Carol (Cate Blanchett) opens her gown and cups Therese’s head. They kiss, before Therese (Rooney Mara) asks her partner to lead her to bed.
There’s a good argument that Atonement shouldn’t be on this list—the sex scene happens in the first act of the movie. Still, Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel is a master class in withholding from its audience. Up until their upright sex in the library, James McAvoy’s Robbie and Keira Knightley’s Cecilia regard each other with the utmost intensity. They simmer in a game of emotional chicken, sniping at and provoking one another. It only lasts 30 minutes, but it’s basically unbearable. What follows contributes to the film’s slow burn qualities. All the audience wants—especially after Robbie is wrongly accused of rape—is for the central couple to be together, but they are constantly being pulled apart. In the final blow, we learn we were watching an invented tale that gives them a happy ending. They both died during World War II.
On Chesil Beach
The other movie starring Saoirse Ronan and adapted from a novel by Ian McEwan takes a much different approach to its slow burn sex scene. The film, which will be in theaters May 18, primarily takes place on the wedding night of Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Ronan) and is almost entirely about them gearing up to have sex. From the outset, it’s easy to tell Florence is extremely nervous, and while Edward is anxious as well, he is also eager. Flashbacks that show their courtship make you root for the couple, but something between them is misaligned. As they finally build up to the actual act, Florence’s fears are cast into focus, as is Edward’s ignorance. Bracing herself, she attempts to guide his penis to her, at which point he ejaculates, and she flees in terror. All that build up and the audience’s hopes for a show of tenderness turn sour. Of the films listed here, On Chesil Beach is an outlier in that what actually transpires is not really very sexy. It’s sad, fraught, and signals the end of romance rather than the beginning.
A great example of commercial fare that doesn’t cheaply manipulate your emotions. The beloved Nicholas Sparks saga The Notebook pulls its lovers (Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling, of course) apart just before they are about to have sex in an abandoned plantation for the first time early in the film. It takes about 40 minutes and a bunch of intercepted letters for them to get to their rain-soaked make-out session that turns into wet sex in the same location, decades later, and since renovated.
Out of Sight
Cat and mouse games are extremely good for these purposes, and Steven Soderbergh does it right in 1998’s Out of Sight. George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez are bank robber Jack Foley and federal marshall Karen Sisco, and they meet while he’s escaping from prison and end up sharing a famously intimate car ride in a trunk, which jump-starts their flirtation. But you and they have to wait until the third act before they finally meet up on a snowy Detroit night and do the deed. At that point, the fact that they are going to fall into bed is basically predetermined. Soderbergh cuts between their verbal foreplay in a hotel bar and their physical foreplay in a room upstairs. The lights are low, the result is inevitable, and the payoff is satisfying.
For most of the run time of Richard Linklater’s classic walk-and-talk, Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) are having intellectual intercourse. So it only makes sense that their journey through Vienna would lead them into one another’s arms. It’s the middle of the night and they land in a park, splayed out on the grass. Céline explains that as soon as she got off the train she knew she was going to sleep with Jesse, but debates whether or not that is a good idea. They start making out and the camera cuts away. We can infer the rest. Or can we? Because in its sequel Before Sunset, Céline doesn’t remember having sex with Jesse. He didn’t have a condom, she says, and she never has sex without a condom. He, however, is certain they went all the way. Something, however, definitely happened that night.
Call Me by Your Name
Call Me by Your Name has been criticized for the fact that director Luca Guadagnino cuts away when Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) meet at midnight and have sex in the balmy Italian night. And while the Oscar nominee from this year may not be very graphic, it does bathe in the crackling spark between these two, languishing in their initial antagonism, before inching them closer together. During the first part of the movie, you have to settle for a touch of the bare shoulder or even a handshake, but once Elio kisses Oliver and grabs his crotch all bets are off.
This might be a surprise pick, but the underrated teen comedy Adventureland makes you wait its entire run time to pair off Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart‘s characters, employees at a rundown amusement park. Seriously: They finally take their clothes off in front of one another and prepare to have sex in the last minutes before cutting to black. For what looks like a goofy period piece, Adventureland is surprisingly melancholic. Eisenberg plays James, a virgin depressed about his circumstances for the summer, who pines after Stewart’s Em, dealing with her own shit by having an affair with a married mechanic. Both actors are top-notch at awkward lust, and that’s on display in those final moments when James ventures to New York to track Em down.