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SFF 2023: Asexual Intimacy on the Big Screen; Slow by Marija Kavtaradze

This review is part of Tharunka’s continued coverage of the 70th Sydney Film Festival. Read the rest of the reviews here. 

In a time and age where heterosexual sensuality has become comfortable and common on the big screen of the cinema, what kind of intimacy can push these newly set boundaries? Slow (2023), directed by Marija Kavtaradze, explores the complexity of being asexual, an often neglected sexuality in film. By realistically portraying a relationship between two people who experience love and physical desire very differently, Slow manages to bring something fresh and necessary to the world of romantic cinema.

Focusing on the relationship between her two main characters, Kavtaradze’s film traverses the intricate intimacy between a carnal Elena (Greta Grinevičiūtė) and asexual Dovyda (Kęstutis Cicėnas). But is it done well? As a person who has been eager for their sexuality to have its place in the film industry, I can confidently claim that this movie does a valuable job for asexual representation. 

The asexual experience is often considered as something too difficult to understand, too uncommon to be significant, or simply nonexistent and a “phase”. Yet Slow begins to attentively communicate the asexual experience in all its broadness and specificities. Through the character of Dovyda, audiences’ expectations of asexuality are questioned and reinvented. Where many consider all asexual people to be sex-repulsed, Dovyda’s characterisation challenges that. In a conversation on this topic between the couple, Dovyda explains sex is “not gross” to him, but that he simply does not want it. 

The film also disputes the idea of asexuality as a phase or lack of love. Despite their struggle to navigate a level of sexual intimacy that fulfils them both, Elena and Dovyda are emphatically in love. Yet, Dovyda’s conspicuous love, care and attraction to Elena never changes the fact that he is, was and remains, asexual. 

Communication was also a fundamental component of this movie, and not just through words and conversation but particularly through body and movement. Elena is a contemporary dancer and Dovyda a sign language interpreter; connecting to others with their actions is significant even outside of their relationship together. These choices of profession for the two characters not only allow for beautiful and metaphorical parallels between scenes, but also force the audience to become more in tune with movement as a form of conversation. 

Yet, despite the refreshing portrayal of communication and consent between the characters, the struggle between their contrasting sexual desires is realistically messy. It does need to be stated that, while Dovyda’s asexuality was explored well, the film does not centre on this subject; asexuality is utilised more as a plot device to explore the larger issue of opposing needs in relationships. Elena has difficulty comprehending how Dovyda could truly desire her without sexuality involved, and also feels disappointed in being unable to fully express her desire for him in a way that feels familiar. Likewise, Dovyda experiences the unfortunately common doubt asexual people have: Is there something wrong with me? Am I constantly disappointing my partner?

There is a careful attempt to navigate these feelings on either end, to find a compromise. But this, too, is difficult. When Dovyda attempts to fulfil Elena’s sexual needs without being completely sexual himself, a key connection is lost for Elena. When Elena expresses her sexual interest in Dovyda, he has to withdraw. He makes the situation clear: “I can’t apologise every time”. Feeling inadequate, Dovyda even suggests an open relationship so Elena can still fulfil her sexual needs with others. But this idea, as with the other interactions, leaves them both disappointed and discontent. It is a realistic portrayal of how much more there is to maintaining a relationship outside of mutual love. 

However, it would be a disservice to this movie to wrap up without mentioning a few of its other stirring features. Slow is shot on 16mm film, visually creating a closeness and intimacy with its audience that hooks them into the relationship on screen. The soundtrack of the film is moving in the way it is able to correspond so thoughtfully with the images and plot at hand. The music utilised during Dovyda’s interpretation scenes was particularly powerful, strongly reflecting his own internal sentiments despite the songs being composed by another. On the subject of Dovyda’s usage of sign language, the portrayal of individuals with hearing impairments throughout this film – while not being the focal point – was done with obvious conscientiousness and fondness. 

As tragic as it is heartening, Kavtaradze’s Slow skillfully and laboriously touches upon a real and significant form of intimacy and turmoil in relationships. It is a reality often misrepresented or simply not represented at all. With hope, a film like Slow on the big screen indicates a movement towards depicting various other manifestations of asexual relationships to come. 

Editor: Alexa Stevens