A Stunning Sex Scene— With No Sex

The most erotically charged movie scene I've encountered recently occurs about 30 minutes into "Starting Out in the Evening," a small independent movie by director Andrew ("The Talent Given Us") Wagner. It's not a sex scene, exactly. No clothes are removed; no kiss is exchanged. The man, played with superb restraint by Frank Langella, is a formal, courtly novelist in his 70s, a reclusive writer highly prized by a coterie of literary intellectuals but largely forgotten by the public. The girl ("Six Feet Under's" Lauren Ambrose) is young enough to be his granddaughter. Ambitious, flirtatious, an avid worshiper of his novels, the attractive graduate student has persuaded him, against his better judgment, to allow her to interview him for her thesis on his work. Brazenly insinuating herself into his isolated life, she breaks down his rigidly enforced solitude. What exactly are her motives, we wonder? She's an ambiguous mixture of naivet? and cunning, so lost in her idealized vision of the writer that she can't quite see the real man in front of her.

In this scene they are in the kitchen of his shabby-genteel New York apartment, standing in awkward proximity when she dips her finger in a jar of honey and, fixing her gaze on his apprehensive eyes, daubs his forehead with the nectar. There is a frozen silence that contains a world of sexual ambiguity—the tiniest flickers of fear, wonder and arousal play across Langella's immobile face—and then she runs her honey-dripping fingers over the aged, ailing novelist's lips. You can feel the audience hold its breath. In my notebook, describing the scene, I write down: "!!" It's the moment when Wagner's quiet, psychologically supple character study (which could be a companion piece to Philip Roth's new novel, "Exit Ghost") snaps into place and takes you over. I won't say what happens. But like most of this refreshingly subtle film, it's not what you expect, and it's not something you've seen before.