Lights, Camera, ACTION: “The Notebook”

Welcome to the first installment of Lights, Camera, ACTION. Each month, Rachel Vorona Cote will choose an erotic scene from film or television and walk you through its quirks and kinks, particularly as they pertain to female lived experience.

When I was 20 years old and curating my Facebook interests to fashion an aggrandized, blasé version of myself, I was hell-bent on muffling my appetite for melodrama. So I would not have admitted to you that “The Notebook“’s storied, rain-drenched love scene instantiated my most cherished fantasies of carnal bliss.

My hunch is that you are acquainted with this cinematic rendering of hydrated coitus. Allie (Rachel McAdams) and Noah (Ryan Gosling), estranged for seven years, reunite when the betrothed Allie determines that she can’t wed flush sucker Lon (James Marsden) before a quick jaunt to Noah’s home—built entirely according to her adolescent predilections—in coastal South Carolina. Shock of shocks, Allie and Noah pirouette into bed together after a few dollops of stale banter and a boat ride witched into potent aphrodisiac, thanks to the heady triumvirate of a bucolic backdrop, the exchange of charged gazes, and heavy rainfall’s symbolic reveal of still-vital passion.

“It still isn’t over,” Noah insists, after Allie learns of his prodigiously determined and, thanks to her conniving mother, one-sided, pen pal endeavor. Thus drop the panties – or one imagines this is the case. In the incandescent world of “The Notebook,” lyrical peeling of sheer stockings insinuates full dishabillé.

Plausibility be damned. I gobbled up this coital candy and hit replay – but furtively, mind you. Guilty pleasures are designated as such because we are reluctant to—even fear—incorporating them into our self-perceptions. And often, they deliver unpalatable reminders of the secret and fundamental selves we desperately eschew – out of pride, out of self-preservation, or out of shame.

In college, I subscribed to the old “High Fidelity” chestnut that what you like is paramount to meaningful relationships. But at the time my self-esteem trembled and flopped like a fledgling tree in the wind, and I interpreted “meaningful relationship” as one galvanized by my ever-so-discerning taste. Like any upstanding young woman, I sought companions whose regard for me would deflate the moment I revealed my susceptibility to the same slushy clichés so many of us disavow.

But embracing “The Notebook”’s melodrama required an even more perniciously fraught self-admission: it meant divulging my emotional porousness, that insistent and acute vulnerability to the world and all its provocations. Skin as thin as mine was accustomed to collecting residue from quotidian sensitivities, tiny pricking pebbles, just barely submerged. It certainly could not withstand a film meticulously crafted to coax tears, and, truth be told, I wanted to succumb. And yet, doing so struck me as imprudent. Why indulge what seemed a masochistic impulse to feel more than I already did?

I had lost my virginity the previous year, urging myself into the bed of someone I regarded entirely in terms of conquest. My intense disposition was ill suited for dating’s ephemerality, I determined – but was I not nonetheless entitled to a bounty of orgasms? I selected an attractive acquaintance and endeavored my clunky variety of seduction.

This arrangement, initially loose and pleasure-oriented, seemed to achieve my goal of emotionally suspended body-talk. Even after we began having sex, I smugly congratulated myself on the protective measure of choosing someone I would never love. Until, of course, it occurred to me that I did love him. My new knowledge more embodied than lexically manifested, I sought the soothing pressure of his mouth and hands the way I sought more intimate crevices. When he left me early that summer, I understood that him doing so was only possible if I had considered us together in the first place.

Handing myself over to the pastel magic of “The Notebook” and its depictions of lithesome, moonstruck sex only rubbed my face further into the dirt. I had nurtured two companion fantasies. The first: me careening through sexual encounters, holding my emotional intensity in abeyance as I cultivated a devil-may-care, playful attitude towards co-ed romps. And the second: that extracting the realistic from the cinematic was psychologically unnecessary because, however the rest of the world carried on, I could organize my life around romantic love. Regardless of the narratives I fashioned, when someone intrigued me to the extent of active pursuit, I wanted him to fall in love with me. For if he loved me back, perhaps my emotional multitudes, always broiling just beneath the surface, would be safe in open air. Perhaps the climate of affectionate companionship would offer me sanctuary from the needling suspicion that the world and I were too much for each other. It has taken me nearly a decade to understand that no lover can create that context for me.

notebook-kiss

A few weeks ago, I returned to “The Notebook” with my husband Paul in order to write this column. My first impulse was to lampoon, and, to be sure, the film offers generous material for that approach. As they row through the marsh, Noah compares Allie to migrating geese; she—so he thinks—will return from whence she came, leaving him once more bereft. The kiss on the dock loses luster upon examination, resembling nothing so much as a waterlogged, tight-lipped bite that could have knocked out Rachel McAdams’s front teeth. Noah’s passion renders him more dementor than human, yet somehow Allie emerges with a soul encased in her mortal shell.

notebook-sex2

And the groping approach to the bedroom? It’s frankly superfluous and desperate in its premeditation. The first floor must somewhere provide sufficient cushioning for two people ferociously tearing at one another before they have even reached the outer threshold. But Noah has planned this moment. Just as a fully stocked art studio awaits Allie’s heretofore hypothetical arrival (creepy), so has Noah contemplated the broad strokes of this fleshly reunion: Marvin Gaye-paced coitus on a right and proper bed – not the hardwood floor of their first, ill-fated encounter. Thus the needless, ungainly ascent to the bedroom, which I admit does afford a brief, but decent view of the Gos-sauce’s taut upper torso.

notebook-wall

I need not trouble you with much commentary on the hyper-choreographed love scene itself. Movie sex is, after all, often very stupid. Allie and Noah grind at a sloth’s pace, and that’s well and good – savor the moment and all that. But sex without discernable thrusting aggravates me—in art and in life—and there’s precious little to see here. Moreover, one would think intercourse only requires upper body movement; in the case of Allie and Noah, heaving torsos provide the key to ecstasy.

notebook-sex1

But still, I write mostly to convince myself. Bless Allie for neglecting to remove her pearls, for their leisurely drape across her collarbone as she sighs in the afterglow. If I owned a set, I’m not sure I wouldn’t wear them at least once, although my practical husband would almost certainly insist that I set them aside. And thank goodness for Paul that our one flight of stairs—narrow, dark, and steep—would be hazardous to navigate with me draped around him; we would kill ourselves and, depending on her whereabouts, the cat. If I laugh at “The Notebook” now, I only steel myself against that capacious softness within, always threatening to overtake me. Love, as it occurs to me, will forever harbor a cinematic sheen.

If movies like “The Notebook” need revising, it’s not because they rebuff sexual realism. What matters far more is its carelessness with another reality, one both weighty and essential: race.”The Notebook,” like so many Nicholas Sparks adaptations, is whitewashed and blinkered in its rendering of Southern history. Long live sexual melodrama, I say – but let it exist within an honest and progressive context. I locate my desires in”The Notebook” with especial facility; shared skin pigmentation offers that advantage. It’s far easier to gaze beyond a surface when its similitude invites you, to daydream pleasures painted in your hue. But fantasy must be democratic. Fantasy belongs to us all.

Rachel Vorona Cote is a contributor and columnist at Jezebel, but she has a tendency to write all over the Internet. You can find her on Twitter here.