Unforch for us curious sluts, there aren’t many films out there that feature non-monogamous people in a sensitive or nuanced way. But don’t fret: we’ve compiled a list of six movies that don’t portray non-monogamous relationships as satanic cults (we see you, Tom Cruise). By Troy Michael Bordun.
With the recent release of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (dir. Angela Robinson, 2017) – a biopic about Wonder Woman creator Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), and their lover Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) – it’s worth revisiting some entertaining and thought-provoking fiction films that feature non-monogamous relationships. Moreover, looking back at this history is significant for the political present, a time in which political conservatives are waging a war against sexuality (for example, limiting women’s access to health care, anti-pornography resolutions, anti-sex work legislation… the list goes on). But “the tricky thing about non-monogamy,” writes Nathan Rambukkana in Fraught Intimacies: Non/Monogamy in the Public Sphere, “is that as soon as you start looking for it, you see it everywhere.”
This is certainly true for the history of cinema. It’s full of narratives that feature non-monogamy: characters with multiple love interests, swingers, and an overabundance of cheating, affairs, and jealousy. These films often feature violence problematically deployed as a catalyst to action and a way to punish those who deviate from the monogamous norm. How many movies have we seen where cheating women “get what they deserve;” jealous women are depicted as weak, stupid, frigid, domineering, or certifiably insane; and the men regain control of their masculinity, wife, and home by the end of the narrative?
While this variety of non-monogamy is a staple of the film industry, few movies address consensual/ethical non-monogamy (let alone polyamory) and, within the very small list provided here, even fewer have happy endings. Despite the lack of cheery resolutions – I wish there were a few more movies featuring non-monogamy that were positive through and through – five of the six below films seriously grapple with non-monogamy, its merits and pitfalls, and ask whether organizing one’s life in this way is worthwhile. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but an excellent starting point for a history of films that get close to depicting something that resembles consensual/ethical non-monogamy.
Brief Encounter (David Lean, UK, 1945)
Named the best romantic film of all time by Guardian critics in 2010, David Lean’s Brief Encounter, written by Noël Coward (based on his play Still Life), is an early attempt to think cinematically about non-monogamous relationships.
Narrated in voiceover and presented as a flashback following the “brief encounter,” this is only loosely a film about consensual non-monogamy. Laura (Celia Johnson) and Fred Jesson (Cyril Raymond) lead a normal — albeit a tad monotonous — married life. What I like about this exceptional melodrama is its relative simplicity: Laura happens upon Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) in a railway station after she gets a piece of dirt in her eye and he comes to the rescue with a clean handkerchief. The two agree to meet again (and again), and over lunch and cinema dates, they discover a mutual affection for one another. On sad but friendly terms, Laura and Alec eventually decide to part ways when they come to realize that a relationship will never materialize given the circumstances (given both their respective marriages and Alec’s new job in Johannesburg, South Africa). “The feeling of guilt, doing wrong is too strong, isn’t it,” Alec asks. He gives his final goodbye at the railway station and this shot, perhaps one of the most famous in cinema’s history, gets picked up by future films, most recently in Todd Haynes’s equally superb Carol (2015).
It is after this final goodbye that we can see the beginnings of an ethical approach to relationships. Laura returns to her husband in tears; he knows something is wrong, that she has likely been with another man (“You’ve been a long way away,” he says) and, rather than force her to reveal her feelings or confess, he provides her quiet comfort. I think we could all learn from Fred here: our lovers and partners need our support not judgment and condemnation.
Brief Encounter is certainly rich with pathos – haven’t we all been in Laura and Alec’s situation? “I’ve fallen in love,” Laura gloomily observes. “I’m an ordinary woman. I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” The melodramatic quality of the film, especially viewing it in the 21st century, is that Laura and Alec lack the language and social context to re-define their relationships. If only these characters had been born a few decades later, some sort of happy arrangement could perhaps be consensually arranged.
Jules and Jim (François Truffaut, France, 1962)
François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, a masterpiece of the French New Wave, established a precedent for non-monogamous love stories. Set in the years prior and after World War 1 and with voiceover narration by Michel Subor, we follow Jules (Oskar Werner), a man who loves many women yet falls for Catherine; Jim (Henri Serre), a more conventional type but who also loves Catherine; and finally, Catherine (Jeanne Moreau in one of her greatest performances), who develops intense love and affection for both friends but, strangely, only one at a time.
The shared love amongst these three friends never divides them despite Catherine’s insistence that she can’t settle down with Jules or Jim for too long. The narrator notes that she had said, “One can only love for a moment.” The philosopher Gilles Deleuze observed that films such as Jules and Jim marked a transition point in cinema’s history. Characters were no longer forced to make a choice, for example, the choice Laura must make between her husband and Alec. Instead, a number of films around this time developed what he calls “the space of the non-choice.” There is no either/or for the characters in Jules and Jim, just undecidability.
One such instance of Catherine’s undecidability comes after a marriage and child with Jules. On this particular emotional and sexual turnaround, Jim grows concerned: “What about Jules?” he asks, and Catherine replies, “He loves us both.” For a short while, the three live happily together, and Catherine makes the most of her time with both friends (before fleeing with Jim, then returning to Jules, then a failed sexual encounter with Jim, then back to Jules). It is this brief period of mutual affection that really shines for an ethics of non-monogamy: friendship is equally as important for happy non-monogamous relationships and encounters. The mutual love is, however, cut short.
Catherine’s excessive flip-flops between the friends is a clear parody of the choices characters are required to make by the end of Hollywood melodramas. In a further satirical gesture, the back and forth relationships eventually take their toll on Catherine and, in a shocking and humorous penultimate scene, Catherine drives herself and Jim off a bridge, careening into a river and killing them both. Because the ending is so obviously parody, we can’t dismiss the film’s inclusivity and serious treatment of non-monogamous individuals. The film’s relevance and impact is often acknowledged by directors in recent decades; after 1962, every fiction film about non-monogamy, whether overtly or not, pays homage to Jules and Jim.
Night after Night a.k.a. Nocturnal Uproar (Catherine Breillat, France, 1979)
French provocateur Catherine Breillat made headlines in early April after denouncing #MeToo and calling Asia Argento a liar and “traitor” (Argento accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault). While Breillat’s dumb remarks may color our perceptions of her as an individual, we can nevertheless appreciate the strength of her films.
Night after Night, Breillat’s first theatrical film (her first film, A Real Young Girl , wasn’t released until 1999), is unfortunately an unnecessarily vague tale of Solange’s (Dominique Laffin) extra-marital sexual encounters with Bruno, Jim (Joe Dallesando), and others. While this may be the director’s least known film, and easily her worst, it’s no less significant for its nuanced treatment of feminine sexuality and depiction of a non-monogamous individual.
Solange wrestles with her own desire, struggles with the power dynamics between herself and her partners, and asks herself whether receiving money from her husband or fucking in a one-hour hotel room make the men think she’s a “whore” (fucking in a hotel, she tells one of her lovers, is just a practical arrangement). She raises all these intellectual quandaries with her husband and lovers as well. Breillat finds her visual and narrative style here and this style allows the characters to express their feelings about sexual desires and non-monogamy and assists us in understanding them. On the aural side, we hear Solange’s internal monologue expressed in voiceovers, and sparse musical accompaniment is employed (the music is by the great Serge Gainsbourg) to allow us to feel the force of words and silence. Visually, we see Solange’s expressions in close up, see the closeness or distances between characters in medium shots, and Breillat doesn’t shy away from nudity, giving these scenes a heightened sense of realism.
Breillat will more successfully explore themes of gender, sexuality, and carnality in her superb middle period, from Perfect Love (1996) to Anatomy of Hell (2004). But my appreciation of these later films isn’t meant to discount Night after Night: the film is an excellent start to Breillat’s career and, in this brief history of films about non-monogamy, shouldn’t be overlooked. “I fuck whomever,” Solange tells her husband and a potential lover at the beginning of the film. A powerful assertion of a woman’s sexual desire, to say the least.
Threesome (Andrew Fleming, USA, 1994)
Due to an administrative error at the University of California Los Angeles, freshman Alex (Lara Flynn Boyle, of Twin Peaks [1990-91] and Wayne’s World  fame) is placed in a dorm with Stuart (Stephen Baldwin) and Eddy (Josh Charles). Eddy provides voiceover narration throughout the movie and, like Brief Encounter, the story is presented as a flashback.
Right from the get go, this underappreciated romantic comedy shows its characters at odds with social norms. In the opening sequence, Eddy discusses “deviancy” as he walks against the flow of student traffic. His reflections and his walk in the wrong direction echo a similar scene in one of the most well-known films about transgressive love and sex, Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1977). Similarly, in Oshima’s film, two lovers cast off the shackles of social mores to pursue their illicit desire. In one memorable sequence, Kichi walks against the tide of mobilized Japanese soldiers, placing him outside of this significant moment in history, namely, Japan’s entry into World War 2.
In addition to this indirect reference to Oshima, director Andrew Fleming – best known for his 90s cult movie The Craft (1996) – acknowledges the influence of Jules and Jim by having Eddy watch Truffaut’s masterpiece in his film class. Unlike Jules and Jim, Eddy’s love triangle adds a twist: Stuart wants Alex, Alex desires Eddy, but Eddy is attracted to Stuart.
In an effort to maintain some kind of normalcy, the roommates agree to remain friends. But Threesome’s premise is that friendship, romance, and sex(ual tension) don’t need to be independent of one another. The three friends flirt, touch, cuddle, and bathe together; they exchange glances and gazes and sometimes make off-hand remarks about hooking up with each other. (Later, a skinny-dip almost turns into sex before the friends are interrupted by a gaggle of Christian school children.)
Their attraction to one another eventually becomes self-destructive. The men get jealous of Alex’s lover Larry and none seem to want a relationship outside of the threesome. The tension reaches a tipping point at the end of the movie and the three have passionate sex with Alex taking the position of middle spoon. Stuart, a hyperbolic representation of the college bro, allows Eddy to stroke him gently on the thigh and he returns the favor.
After the sex, for no discernable reason, the three friends grow apart. Each go their separate ways but, as Eddy narrates during a somewhat awkward summary montage of the friendship, he has fond memories of that first year of college.
Three (Tom Tykwer, Germany, 2010)
Feelings of boredom and stagnation are often reasons to open up a relationship to outside lovers and partners. In Three, a 40-something childless and sexless couple (Hanna, played by Sophie Rois, and Simon, played by Sebastian Schipper) both fall for the same man. Initially the affair is kept secret, like so many love stories. Once the affair is unveiled, the characters have a revelatory moment: their marriage doesn’t have to dissolve but can expand to include Adam (Devid Striesow). Again we have a tale of three individuals, bisexuality presented seriously, and alternatives to monogamy that don’t result in some kind of gruesome death.
While the film gets its characters away from thinking in solely monogamous terms, they aren’t able to develop a language that includes polyamory, a trait common to all the movies in this list. Three might give us a happy ending, however, as all three have passionate (yet quite boring-looking) sex. In this final sequence, the childless triad is now expecting and I appreciate Tykwer’s boldness in featuring a pregnant woman in a sexual scenario. In the final shot of the film, and unlike the sex in Threesome, a man (Simon) is the middle spoon. The camera cranes upwards and leaves the three naked on a white bed in a pristine, empty white room, clearly outside of reality. Perhaps Tom Tykwer wants to suggest that happiness in a non-monogamous relationship can only be a fantasy…
The Overnight (Patrick Brice, USA, 2015)
For narrative economy, non-monogamous characters in movies are usually capped at three or two couples. The Overnight, a frustrating comedy produced by Jay (you may know him as Josh Pfefferman in Transparent) and Mark Duplass (best known for Creep), features the latter.
A conventional family composed of Alex (the always lovable Adam Scott), Emily (Taylor Shilling of Orange is the New Black fame), and their young son RJ move to Los Angeles from Seattle. They meet the hip Kurt (Jason Schwartzman) and are invited to have dinner at the home he shares with his wife Charlotte (Judith Godrèche) and their son. The evening turns into a long seduction after the children are put to bed. The movie aligns us with the “normal” couple as Kurt and Charlotte increase their eccentric behaviour and demonstrate their free-spiritedness. Alex and Emily should just drink more wine and relax – it’s LA!
The frustrating quality of the movie is the depiction of the swinging couple: Kurt is simultaneously “ridiculous and creepy,” suggests Sara Stewart of the New York Post, and Charlotte seems utterly sex-crazed. The weird couple screen an arty video of Charlotte breast-pumping and Kurt likes to paint anuses. Non-monogamous people are so strange!
In addition to a clichéd depiction of a non-monogamous couple, the ending of the movie painfully returns its characters to the trappings of heterosexual monogamy. After an incredibly sexy ménage a quatre followed by another coitus interruptus (the children burst into the room, not unlike the symbolic “innocent” children interrupting the triad’s sex in Threesome), the next time Alex and Emily meet Kurt, he reveals that he has been seeing a therapist about his swinging inclinations (and homosexuality). What’s worse: not a single film critic has anything to say about this conservative finale.
I wanted to end with this awful film because, seven decades earlier, Brief Encounter had far more to tell us about serious alternatives to monogamy. Despite all the progress made in the in-between years, The Overnight adds nothing to our understanding of relationships.
Troy Michael Bordun is a part-time contract instructor in Sociology at Trent University and Communication Studies at Concordia University. His book Genre Trouble and Extreme Cinema: Film Theory at the Fringes of Contemporary Art Cinema was published by Palgrave Macmillan in Fall 2017. Troy’s other recent publications can be found in Offscreen, Senses of Cinema, and the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, among others.