" Oh come come now. Just because you sold your soul to the devil, that needn’t make you a teetotaler. "
— Edward Arnold, The Devil and Daniel Webster

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

Sponsored links

At first, XX/XY looks titillating. It starts, rather quickly, with a menage a trois. It seems like a cheap, pandering way for a first-time filmmaker to draw attention to himself. But the last two-thirds of the movie change course and give deeper meaning to the first third, salvaging the movie, turning it into a serious drama.

Three’s Company

The three-way scene is not so titillating after all
The three-way scene is not so titillating after all

Coles (Mark Ruffalo) meets a cute girl, Sam (Maya Stange), at a college party. She likes him too, but she’s here with her friend Thea (Kathleen Robertson). Coles propositions Sam, and with the alcohol to loosen things up, and perhaps in order not to leave her friend alone, she suggests with a teasing, naughty smile that Thea join them. Thea ups the ante by agreeing to it.

So Coles, Sam, and Thea get it on. At this point I assumed I was watching soft-core pornography, and not a serious drama. But their three-way ends badly, with Sam crying, not having any fun. The morning after, things look a little different. Sam has regrets, but she and Coles decide to see each other again and pretend nothing ever happened. Thea remains their friend and their now-awkward relationship continues. For now.

It finally ends when, after one of their many drunken parties, Sam catches Coles and Thea going at it in her own bedroom. Coles and Thea don’t really see much wrong in what they’re doing — after all, this is how their relationship started — but Sam feels betrayed.

Another You

Flash forward almost a decade. The three have gone their separate ways. Coles has carved a niche for himself as an animator and married a beautiful, rich woman. Sitting in a café, he notices Sam go by. They chat. She is in town, having just returned from Europe where she called off her engagement. She is hooking up with Thea and her husband that night for dinner. She invites him and his wife to tag along, as though they are old, dear friends.

The triple date is a big success, and they all begin to see more of each other.

On the surface, the Sam and Coles’ friendship seems genuine and platonic, but welling up within Coles and Sam is a longing that hasn’t completely died away.

My Old Flame

Is there an old flame? Is it stronger than Coles’ current, stable love? Should he and Sam act on it? If they don’t will they regret it later?

These are the confusing matters of the heart and libido that XX/XY asks. They are difficult questions with no easy answers. One might call Coles and Sam immature for lacking moral certainty in such a situation, but they also share a base emotional honesty in not suppressing (or being able to suppress) these desires that are all too present.

After all, Coles loves his wife Claire (Petra Wright) and the life they share. Unfortunately, he loves Sam too, and that’s just not acceptable. There is no way to express his love for both. Life isn’t fair. Biology, hormones, or the wiring in his brain is in direct conflict with the rules of society. And if he tries to talk about his feelings, he gets slapped down for being selfish and having adulterous thoughts. He sums it up perfectly when he says “there’s no room for honesty in a healthy relationship.”

Autopsy

Mark Ruffalo is the perfect actor for this role. Chick cuts open Coles’ heart and lays it out to be viewed by a voyeuristic audience. Ruffalo is a good specimen because he’s one of us. As Coles, Ruffalo is not movie-star good looking, he’s not a human ideal, he doesn’t even come across as particularly smart. Emotionally, though, he is able to open up. He has fewer inhibitions and bigger appetites than your average Joe. He’s the perfectly patsy for an emotional dissection. He’s not particularly happy about going under the knife, but he’s a good subject for illustrating the anatomy of love and lust.

Stange and Robertson give fine performances as well, but of all the women in XX/XY, perhaps the best performance comes from Wright, playing Coles’ wife. It’s a role that could easily have been realized badly. Her character could have been defined by blind jealousy. Instead, she tries to see Coles’ position, even if she has good reason not to forgive him.

Down with Love

Many William Bennett would chide XX/XY for not being more moralistic. There really is no moral to XX/XY except perhaps “beware of love.”

But for better or for worse, Chick doesn’t claim to have the answers. His higher responsibility is to emotional truth, and he’s saying “here’s a painful situation with no good solution.” XX/XY is probably not a good movie for a first date. It is the right kind of movie to spark an interesting dialogue on love and the institution of marriage, but maybe only between friends or stable couples.