“I feel like a fucking teenager.”Det. Frank Keller, Sea of Love
Knocked silly, knocked flat, sideways downREM, “Me In Honey”
These things they pick you up and turn you around
Say your piece
Say you’re sweet for me
Teenage love and lust in all its messy and passionate glory is the ultimate love, right? I mean, that’s what books and movies seem to teach us. Teenagers, just kids discovering their capacity to feel for god’s sake, fumbling with bra straps and condoms in the cluttered back seats of used cars, everything new and overwhelming, as if their hearts might actually explode from the intensity of it all.
But that sort of intense love between two people isn’t only the provenance of the young and the restless. Little-known fact, but adults can and do bring that sort of unfettered passion to their relationships. Sometimes the fictional stories we tell each other even explore this, helping to remind us that we don’t dry up and die a slow death after thirty, that we are still capable of truly transcendent love and lust long after we’ve learned how to unhook a bra or slide on a condom.
Few films have ever captured the chaotic intensity of two adults falling in love better than Harold Becker’s Sea of Love (1989). Ostensibly a crime drama, with Al Pacino’s NYPD Det. Frank Keller investigating a series of murders, the film’s lasting legacy is owed to the honest, raw, and thoughtful handling of the central romance between Pacino and Ellen Barkin as potential suspect in the case Helen Cruger. From the moment Frank lays eyes on Helen he’s a goner. Becker and cinematographer Ronnie Taylor document Frank’s awestruck response as Helen walks into the restaurant by slowly zooming in on his face. Placing the camera on an actor with a face as expressive as Pacino’s is never the wrong decision, and in this case it yields especially beautiful results. His big, soulful eyes widen as he stares intently, almost in shock, at the sight of the gorgeous woman walking towards him. It’s an intense and passionate moment, signalling the torrid relationship the two characters are about to have.
That intense, red-hot chemistry will be the theme of their relationship: combustible sexual and emotional desire propelling them into a relationship they never saw coming but quickly realize they can’t live without. Pacino and Barkin are on fire throughout. This was Pacino’s triumphant return after fives years away from the screen and pairing him with Barkin was a stroke of genius. Their chemistry feels real, which leads to intensely intimate sex scenes. Quite possibly the hottest scene between them only hints at sex. In the grocery store, Helen wears nothing but a black trenchoat and high heels, seductively teasing Frank as she walks the aisles, until he eventually slips his hand inside her trench, moving it higher and higher up her bare thigh, until he reaches…well, you know where.
The late ’80s and early ’90s were the last great era for sex on screen, with a slew of movies portraying adult intimacy…in the bedroom, on the floor, on the kitchen table…you get the point. Onscreen sex was scorching hot back then, from major films like Basic Instinct or Bull Durham to an endless parade of B-movie and direct-to-video erotic thrillers. Movies weren’t afraid to be sexy, sultry, or even deliciously trashy. Maybe I’m just an aging Gen Xer telling kids we had the best movie sex in my day, so just get off our lawn already. Maybe. Nah, I’m right about this. Fight me.
Sea of Love is one of the best entries in that era’s plethora of sexy erotic thrillers, thanks in large part to its cracking script by Richard Price. The dialogue between Frank and Helen, as well as Frank and his partner Det. Sherman (John Goodman, who has excellent friend-chemistry with Pacino), is sharp and incisive. It’s adults talking about adult concerns, entirely influenced by decades of work and relationship struggles. These are characters who’ve experienced turbulence and trauma in their lives. Discretion in language is unimportant to them; they’ll speak freely and bluntly to one another because adults have at least earned that right.
Wordless scenes between Pacino and Barkin are just as expressive. The two flirt and fuck with the sort of intensity only adults can muster, having survived enough damage to realize when they’re faced with a truly transcendent opportunity. Their chemistry is particularly intense because they seem to recognize the rareness of their intimate physical and emotional connection. An opportunity like this probably won’t happen for either of them again, so their passionate seizing of this moment feels urgent, necessary, beautiful. This intensity can erupt in volatile discussions, as Helen and Frank negogiate their complex emotions, which are additionally complicated by the nature of Helen’s ties to Frank’s murder invesigation.
“These things they pick you up and turn you around.” Michael Stipe had it right. Love—real love—“knocks you silly, knocks you flat, spins you sideways down.” That feeling of falling for someone—that disorientating, mesmerizing, chaotic beauty of love—permeates Sea of Love. The film’s hard-nosed neo-noir tone only further serves to intensify the emotional impact. Everything feels urgent. That sense of urgency makes Sea of Love eternally relevant, especially for anyone who’s been around the block a bit and understands that life is short, far shorter than we realize when we’re younger.
At the end of the film, Frank pursues Helen down a crowded New York sidewalk, dodging and weaving human traffic while laying bare his feelings. He’s trying to talk her into getting back together with him, when a man walking in the opposite direction smacks his shoulder right into Frank, hard, sending him flying back. This was not scripted! Just the sort of random moment that happens while filming in New York. The best part is how the actors respond. Barkin starts to crack up, and Pacino, also about to laugh, doesn’t lose a beat. He immediately hustles right back to Barkin’s side while still trying to woo her back. Amazing. Becker loved it and kept it in the film, and rightly so. Two world-class actors making spontaneous movie magic. The moment perfectly sums up Frank and Helen’s love story: they can’t be kept apart. It’s simply not possible. If a serial murderer investigation couldn’t tear them apart, nothing will. They’re two magnets drawn to one another. They’re going to wade out into the sea of love, and take a chance. Together.
I’ve always chosen to believe those two crazy kids have what it takes to make it.