Sex on the silver screen: Poetic sex without erotic exaggeration in ‘Ida’

Tuesday, July 2, 2019 - 5:28pm

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As I neared the end of “Ida,” I was in awe of Pawel Pawlikowski’s (“Cold War”) quiet grandeur and romantic sincerity. “Ida” is a story of a young Polish novitiate nun (Agata Trzebuchowska, “Soniamiki: BWA”), who discovers her Jewish parentage a week before she is due to take her vows. The abbess tells Ida of an aunt, her mother’s sister, with whom the convent had been communicating. Raised in an orphanage, Ida has no memory of her family, and on the suggestion of the abbess she travels to meet her only known relative. The contrast between Ida and her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza, “Cold War”) is stark and canonical. As the two embark on a journey to learn the fate of Ida’s parents, this juxtaposition becomes increasingly clear before disappearing altogether.

Wanda is a chain-smoking alcoholic and former pro-communist prosecutor for the Polish state. Her chaotic cynicism is almost comical set beside Ida’s reserved faith. Early in their voyage, Wanda asks Ida if she’s ever had sinful thoughts (“yes”) or those of carnal love (“no”). On their road trip to find the graves of Ida’s parents, Wanda stops to pick up a hitchhiking musician. The boy, Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik, “Life Feels Good”) is a saxophonist travelling to a gig. Wanda encourages Ida to pursue the boy, though the ever-faithful Ida refuses. After a brief spat with Wanda, who began to mock Ida’s faith, the girl leaves to the hotel ballroom, where Lis is playing Coltrane for the few remaining partygoers. However trite the ‘Western-capitalist art allowing communist Europeans to express themselves and feel love’ trope, Ida is captivated by the soft jazz, and seems to discover something within herself as she listens. After this encounter, Wanda and Ida soon part ways with Lis to finish their search. 

Throughout the film, Wanda encourages Ida to break from her cloistered ways and give in, if only briefly, to lust and sin. Following Wanda’s death, Ida cedes to her aunt’s encouragement. Ida puts on Wanda’s clothing, smokes Wanda’s cigarettes and joylessly swigs from one of the many bottles Wanda left hidden behind the stove. Ida catches up with Lis and watches him perform before dancing with him to the same jazz she heard not long ago. The two have sex and speak frivolously of marriage and children. In the morning, Ida dons her habit and departs again for the convent, having lived her one night of sin.

“Ida” lacks the obvious sexual undercurrent of films such as “Nymphomaniac” and “American Pie.” Pawlikowski favors subtlety to gratuitousness, and the result is a poetic and gentle portrait of self-discovery. Sex is an often overused tool in coming-of-age stories, but “Ida” is different. While the journey with her aunt is a pivotal moment in the young nun’s life, as it coincides with discoveries of self-history and exposure to a more dynamic atmosphere, I’d be remiss to call it a coming-of-age tale. Ida’s character is largely the same at the start and end of the film.

We do not see Ida struggle, or grow or discover long-buried passion. Instead, sex and sin are treated as an object of curiosity. Pawlikowski makes no grand statements condemning one or another lifestyle. Ida lives a different life for a day, and the viewer is led to believe she is grateful for the opportunity. Ida does not want for more, nor does she wish for less. The entire film is characterized by balance. Perhaps due to Pawlikowski’s gentle directorial style or Lukasz Zal’s (“Cold War”) static cinematography, the film is calm and serious without crossing the line into morose.

Sex, here, is no less mundane than Wanda’s alcoholism or Coltrane’s jazz. It is not a tool or an event, but an experience. Perhaps the only departure from this gentle and unexaggerated approach to sex is also the clearest example of the male gaze in the film. When Ida returns to the convent before the death of her aunt, we see Ida ogling two fellow sisters as they bathe one another. As water exposes the form beneath a white nightdress, Pawlikowski injects perhaps the only moment of pure eroticism into the film. Even Ida’s tryst with Lis is fairly matter-of-fact. While playing a story-telling role, exhibiting that Ida does indeed have thoughts of carnal love, this interaction does so from a classically male perspective.

All told, sex does not overshadow the deaths of Ida’s family, nor does it act in opposition to Ida’s faith. The beauty of sex lies in its ordinary joy, a joy Pawlikowski captures truthfully and Trzebuchowska portrays with grace. In too many films, sex is heaven or hell. In “Ida,” sex is terra firma.