Like last week’s LGBT list, this installment will look at the chemistry between couples in film; this time heterosexual. Criteria demands that definitive romantic interest be found by at least one character. Like all of my lists, this is personal preference. Two actors may have fabulous chemistry together, like say, John C. Reilly and Melora Walters in Magnolia, but they were never considered for this list, despite being one of my favorite cinematic couples. Why? Great chemistry is not enough. Palpable is again the word of choice, (also scorching, as is used in the list title) but beyond that, a certain secret ingredient must be present. What that is I could not say; I will attempt to reason through it via my explanations. We all have our own reasons for being particularly drawn towards certain romantic interactions between two characters.

There will undoubtedly be a couple of choices on here that will elicit a “Hmm…I would not think of these two for a list like this”. But that is precisely what makes a list like this so great; everyone’s would likely be drastically different. Sexual interaction between couples on this list has an extremely wide range from wildly intense relationships to a chaste boy-meets-girl romp. There is a nice mix of films here, recent and old, a few from other countries. There are many different kinds of love stories, allowing a wide range of circumstance to be present. Also interesting is that none of the actors on this list appears more than once.

A lot of this is treading the same introductory ground as the LGBT chemistry list, I realize. But I hate posting lists without intros or reasons. As frustrating as it can be, as I always confront my limitations as a film blogger head-on, it is important for me to work through it and never simply plop down a list and click on ‘publish’.

I sincerely invite you to list some of your own choices for this list in the comments section. I would love to read them.

Beware: There are some spoilers in the mix.

10. Humphrey Bogart as Phillip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall as Vivian Rutledge in The Big Sleep (1946)

Choosing between To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep was difficult, but I went with the latter, mainly because I happen to love the film a lot more. Bogart and Bacall as an onscreen pair muster up intimidating hype, seemingly impossible to live up to. That it does is a feat. That it goes further and surpasses the hype is difficult to fathom. Bogart and Bacall transfer their lifelong romance to the screen which continues to incite wonder today. They are backed by a screenplay co-written by Faulkner (yes, that Faulkner) that memorably sacrifices coherence for an addictively broad tone of consistent intrigue. Furthermore, the exchanges (chockfull of risqué innuendo and wordplay) between Marlowe and Vivian reveal a playfulness; a constant testing of the minds. Yes, Bogart fares equally well with Martha Vickers and Dorothy Malone (it is understandable that the producers were worried about just how good Vickers is, resulting in her performance being chopped up). That does not dim our appreciation of the famous couple’s work here.

9. Tippi Hedren as Marnie Edgar and Sean Connery as Mark Rutland in Marnie (1964)

There is nothing really romantic about this pairing and it may seem like an odd choice to some. Hitchcockian perversity hits an all-time high here in a forced relationship rife with trauma and sometimes laughably dated ‘Intro to Psych’ character work. Mark sees Marnie through his own arrogance; as an impenetrable pet project. Marnie allows Hitchcock to visually display the inner psyche in an even more outwardly purposeful way than ever before. The director is just as fascinated by Marnie (and Hedren for that matter) as Mark is. The film is short on plot (rare for the director) and is instead entirely about Marnie’s inner demons. As Mark tries to figure her out, so do the filmmaker and the audience. Countless time could be spent looking at this film with a feminist perspective, likely finding the film more problematic and reductive than anything else.  As for the chemistry, many think the opposite and feel something is lacking between the two. I give them, and the film, more credit; the two have a ton to work with and their oddly successful coupling owes more to the material than anything else. These two are on the list primarily because of their unique circumstances, and that each scene carries with it an obsessive desire to penetrate one woman’s mind, creating uncommon tension.

8. Ralph Fiennes as Count László Ede Almásy and Kristin Scott Thomas as Katherine Clifton in The English Patient

Components of The Big Sleep and Marnie include crackling dialogue and situational captivation, but The English Patient’s inclusion on this list is entirely based on the pure unadulterated passion between Fiennes and Thomas. Their scenes are all-consuming; the definition of romance. It does not even feel like acting. The lacing of love affair and tragedy makes for all-the-more heavy impact.

7. Monica Vitti as Vittoria and Alain Delon as Piero in L’Eclisse (1962)

Antonioni’s third in a trilogy on alienation amongst the young and beautiful further proves why Vitti was the perfect cipher for the director’s examination of ennui and lack of communication. But for this list, we can forget about all of that. With Alain Delon thrown into the mix, we have arguably the two most beautiful people of their time period in a film together; Alain Delon and Monica Vitti. The mere prospect of the pairing turns my brain to rot. In practice it is a dream come true. While the characters are a means to justify the end for Antonioni’s grander vision, it does not lessen the impression these two leave with the viewer. He is an enthusiastic stockbroker and she is an unsure young woman who doesn’t know what she wants. Moving beyond physical attraction becomes a problem between the two. The struggle between wanting something more, and being unable to coalesce into anything substantial, leaves them at a standstill. Still, their physical attraction is something to behold. The scene featuring the two kissing between glass is a lengthy poetic dance, and it might be the sexiest scene from any of the couples featured here.

6. Maggie Cheung as Su Li-zhen and Tony Leung as Chow Mo-wan in In the Mood for Love (2000)

Who says a couple needs to get physical in order to have smoldering chemistry? Nary can a kiss be found in Wong Kar-wai’s seminal and sumptuous period film. It is because the two never consummate their feelings for one another that make the interactions between Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung so special. While countless other hackneyed films about affairs exist (and many good ones), In the Mood for Love is all about not acting on ones feelings for another. How often do you see a story like this? Leung and Cheung are magical together. Cheung is decked out in some of the most beautiful period costumes known to film. Wong regular Christopher Doyle unforgettably captures the actors and creates atmosphere with his camera. And Shigeru Umebayashi’s famous score captures the yearning between Mo-wan and Li-zhen. This may sound like a beautiful film with nothing much going on underneath, but the opposite is true. Every scene between Leung and Cheung is riddled with layers and the film is beautifully acted with innumerable subtlety. They have motives for acting on their feelings because they believe their spouses are cheating; and yet they do not. You will not find unconsummated passion that matches this film.

5. Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre and Michael Fassbender as Rochester in Jane Eyre (2011)

From my initial review of this year’s adaptation of Jane Eyre; “It is when the two actors are brought together that the magic happens. It is a rare thing when the romantic leads have the chemistry the story demands them to have; these two do. The film is most engaging when the two are onscreen together, not just from of the power their scenes have, but because of the way they portray the evolution of their relationship. Buffini makes sure that different circumstances surround each scene they have together, making every single interaction between the two unique.”

4. Cary Elwes as Wesley and Robin Wright as Buttercup in The Princess Bride (1987)

The reason The Princess Bride has remained ever so strongly within our hearts is because it is pitch-perfect on all counts. This also goes Robin Wright and Cary Elwes as Buttercup and Wesley. They have chemistry to spare but it is because there are several kinds of tension apparent. In the beginning, they display the sweet and pure simplicity of love. When she is unknowingly kidnapped by him, a hateful banter forms that presents an oppositional romance. There are times when intensity takes hold not present in those first few scenes. By the end, we are back where we started with the innocence of the beginning, as they share the only kiss the two shares in the film.

3. Jimmy Stewart as Alfred Kralik and Margaret Sullavan as Clara Novak in The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

If I can get The Shop Around the Corner on any list of mine, you better be damn sure I’ll try. Don’t get me wrong; this absolutely deserves to be here without a doubt; there was no sacrificial lamb to get this cherished treasure on the list. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan were one of the first couples that came to mind when brainstorming for this. First, they don’t really care for each other. Then, he discovers that she is the pen pal he has fallen in love with. He has an advantage, and their interactions change. Indeed, she disdains him all the more, never withholding harsh criticism when possible, while he sees her in a new light entirely. While the film classifies as romantic comedy, their conversations go far past the depended-upon witty banter. There is something truly special, and indeed indescribable, at least to me that these two bring on the screen together. There are times where they speak and it is as if there is nobody else in the world. I also recommend seeing their other onscreen pairing in The Mortal Storm, a much more serious film that does not get the recognition it deserves.

2. Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lee Holloway and James Spader as E. Edward Grey in Secretary (2002)

Sadomasochistic relationships are so very rarely, if ever and certainly not in the US, portrayed with any kind of seriousness, matter-of-fact storytelling or examination. I consider Secretary to be an important film. Yes, this topic had been broached before, but the kind of exposure this film received, makes this a remarkable feat. The characters Gyllenhaal and Spader play are developed; the film rightly never looks down on them, displaying a kind of exhilarated acceptance that truly is ‘scorching’. Spader and Gyllenhaal are outstanding together. They give the film the mandatory feeling of desperate and uncontrollable need. They also give their characters the proper dimensions required of them and are able to throw themselves into every scene and moment. I also love that Gyllenhaal is our protagonist and that the audience enters his world via her character as opposed to the opposite. And to top it off, the film has a happy ending. Spader and Gyllenhaal have never been better.

1. Emmanuelle Devos as Carla and Vincent Cassel as Paul in Read My Lips (2001)

The moment I started brainstorming this list, I knew my number one, even though it was a film I had only seen several months ago for the first time. Describing it is a daunting task, but here it goes. Cassel and Devos share something together here that I have never seen before and their dynamic is mesmerizing. It manages to balance a passionate undertone, but at the same time, contain a quietness and subtlety that is stunning to witness. Also, the film is told from the female perspective; she is the voyeur here, the one captivated by Cassel. She hires him as an assistant, knowing he is an ex-con, but he is attractive and her work environment is such a miserable place for her; why not? In the workplace, she is in control of him. He works for her. He is not very interested in her, but once he learns she can read lips due to significant deafness, he becomes interested in what she can do for him. For every element of control she has, he exploits her for his own criminal purposes. Yet, she willingly jumps into this scenario, knowingly allowing herself to be used. And he does care for her; kind of. It’s a very quiet streak of kindness, not threatening his motives, but still ever-so-present. She is dowdy, mocked by co-workers, feeling ugly and useless. The attention Cassel give her may have ulterior motives, but it is attention nonetheless. She is needed by someone, and she is willing to subject herself to this for that need from him and from those all-too quick moments of appreciation before he goes back to taking her for granted again. As you can see, there is so much going on here between these two, and it is incredible to see Cassel and Devos play this so sexily and subtly together.


One thought on “List: 10 Cinematic Heterosexual Chemistries that Scorched the Screen

  1. I believe that Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love is the ultimate chemistry movie. One could argue that it was the added power of the cinematography that pushed it over the edge, but even the still-camera shots have chemistry-tension that can be cut with a knife. Also, in my opinion, the unrequitedness of their love is what makes the pair’s on-screen chemistry even more enduring than even the most epic of kisses.

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