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By T.T. Stern-Enzi

With all apologies to both Floetry and Level 42 (the musical acts whose song titles inspired the title of this feature), I couldn’t help wondering what a recent spate of movies is trying to tell audiences about contemporary attitudes and societal mores when it comes to questions of love, sex and the idea of romance in the modern era. Filmed narratives slavishly subscribe to the notion of the three-part romantic arc – boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back – but sex, and more specifically, the need to dramatize it onscreen, always seems to muck things up.

Sex is a shorthand substitute for love. In addition, it is the kinky wrinkle we sometimes like to believe is an expression of character, and quite possibly identity.

Case in point, look no further than “50 Shades of Grey,” which barely dares to convince us that Anastasia and Christian are anything more than avatars of other characters (Bella and Edward – the “Twilight” power couple) who did not immediately jump into the sack. “50 Shades” was created to rectify that stalled fantasy for fans that simply couldn’t wait. Onscreen, audiences are treated to leather whips, handcuffs, and light spankings, but little of what amounts to even a semblance of affection between these rather bored stiffs.

And then, along comes “Focus,” which is supposed to be a more adult (R-rated) romantic thriller. Take if you will a picture (thanks, Prince) of Will Smith and Margot Robbie, playing touchy feely on a gauzy snow globe-inspired night, with a touch here, a lifted accessory there. Their game recalls strip poker or Truth or Dare, childish attempts to cop a feel, to teasingly see a flash of naked flesh. “I see you,” the characters are always saying to themselves and each other. “I see how you feel about me, and in the reflection of your eyes, I see my feelings for you,” but those looks are visual “tells” rather than truly earned emotional revelations.

Which is why I found myself awaiting “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” possibly the most honest realization of love and sex of the new entrants. Intriguingly, the love is laid bare, in the presentation of the characters and the affection for which both the filmmakers (writer and director) and the actors hold the characters, thereby guaranteeing a degree of love from viewers.

Fans of the first installment came to hold the characters in high regard, and now, as if to tweak the fairy tale formula, we don’t start with the anticipated happily ever after. We get life (a second or third attempt at starting over) and the familiar characters struggling with their individual foibles. They face their fears of rejection and/or actually achieving expected results, forging ahead with the next chapter in life’s never-ending saga.

What is not so boldly on display is the sex, which I suppose makes sense. These performers are not there to parade their naked flesh, but that doesn’t mean they don’t open up, behind closed doors. They do. Plus, they think and talk about it. They all realize that love, the desire to give and receive, drives every phase of life. There is honesty in watching Judi Dench and Bill Nighy engage in their tentative dance, expectant and fearful in every exchange. They stare into each other’s eyes, but retreat, sensing that they haven’t seen what they want from the other, while everyone else, standing outside the situation (other characters and especially the audience) certainly sees the palpable attraction.

And it is palpable, moreso than in either of the other earlier movies I mentioned. Dench and Nighy have chemistry together that doesn’t need whips and shackles or the lazy crutch of stripping naked to place hard bodies on display. We may never even see them kiss onscreen, and yet, we know (meaning that we have felt and seen) they have surrendered to each other. They have said yes, to plunging into the glorious depths of love. There is no grey or lack of focus in these romances.

Now that’s hot and heavy. Am I right?