Most films stem from the relationships between characters. Friendships, antagonists, romances, and sexual relations have long been the focus of screenwriters. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, desire and explicit sexuality dominated the box office. However, as our understanding as sexuality has changed, so too have the ways we depict desire and longing on the big screen. With Slow, premiering at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, director Marija Kavtaradze announces herself as a skilled, humanist director. In her latest film, she builds a romantic relationship between an asexual sign language interpreter and an allosexual dancer. How she explores this dynamic makes Slow one of the more surprising arrivals at Sundance in some time.
Contemporary dancer Elena (Greta Grinevičiūtė) enjoys her life as a single, somewhat promiscuous woman. While she’s grown frustrated with the dating game and hookup lifestyle, she finds joy in the feeling of being desired. When she meets Dovydas (Kęstutis Cicėnas), a sign language interpreter for the deaf, she feels an immediate attraction. The two build chemistry quickly and begin to spend time outside of work. However, when Elena tries to define their relationship, she is met with a surprise. Dovydas is asexual. They commit to their relationship, but each begins to find difficulty in trusting their partner.
Kavtaradze pulls double duty as the writer and director, which helps her tackle the specificity of this relationship. She pushes the characters to bicker and show true distrust in one another. Yet she also finds moments to show their attraction to each other, even if it does not culminate in sexual pleasure. Kavtaradze builds in truly erotic sequences for these two, even if that eroticism only makes sense within the context of the relationship. Finding ways to showcase relationships like the one between Elena and Dovydas relies on specificity. In this case, the Kavtaradze envelops us in the smallest details so we understand the intimacies of the pair.
By building in these intricacies, we can quickly understand when a faux pas occurs. The distrust from each fully fleshed-out character helps create unique ticks that send each other over the edge as well. There’s also confusion over the role of sexuality, especially when jealousy creeps into the relationship. The screenplay feels like it carries on some scenes too long, but more often than not, it captures a beautiful and unique moment that we rarely see on screen.
Part of this power comes from our leads. Grinevičiūtė plays Elena with relatable skepticism. Yet there’s also a discomfort she reveals as the film progresses. It’s possible that Elena has confused physical intimacy for emotional intimacy, and removing that physicality from the equation leaves her exposed. This discomfort is palpable and understandable. Grinevičiūtė delivers on the smallest, moment intimate moments of the film, which elevates Slow considerably.
Meanwhile, Cicėnas must handle the extreme anxiety of an asexual life. The actor does not get the traditional tools to showcase desire, a challenging task for any performer. Yet he must express awkwardness when he chooses to get sexual, but also show ambivalence to his scene partner begging for sexual contact. The film makes a wise distinction that Dovydas can have sex but does not feel or desire of allosexual individuals. Cicėnas takes this distinction and disappears into the role, allowing us to see his insecurities as they bubble to the surface. He still displays the pain and anger of a jealous lover. The performance he gives over the course of the film opens the doors for viewers to actually understand asexuality.
While Slow lives up to its name occasionally, the vast majority of Kavtaradze’s story is gripping. Watching two brilliant actors like Grinevičiūtė and Cicėnas circle each other is why we go to the movies. Most important, they provide all the trademarks of excellent love stories in years past. The fact that Kavtaradze presents a new lens through which to see a love-story is special. However, her talent in bringing out the nuances of that relationship is what makes Slow an instantly important piece of world cinema.