Director: Marija Kavtaradzė
Writer: Marija Kavtaradzė
Cast: Greta Grinevičiūtė and Kęstutis Cicėnas
Duration: 104 minutes
A sign language interpreter walks into a dance studio — everything changes and nothing changes.
In Lithuanian filmmaker Marija Kavtaradzė’s Slow, love is messy. Our protagonists first meet each other when Dovydas (Kęstutis Cicėnas) volunteers to interpret for a batch of hearing-impaired kids participating in Elena’s (Greta Grinevičiūtė) dance class. After the session ends, Dovydas hangs back, a little awkward, waiting for Elena to come out of the room so he can ask her out. Elena, hesitant but charmed, agrees. There is an immediate sense of familiarity between the two. When Elena worries that she’s sweaty after her dance class, Dovydas bends to sniff under her arm before reassuring her that she smells just fine. The couple walk aimlessly, no destination in mind, getting to know each other. Everything is going perfectly. A few dates down the line, when Elena makes a move on Dovydas, he tells her he really likes her but gently pushes her away. Dovydas, it turns out, is asexual.
What do you do when everything about a person is right but there is a fundamental difference in compatibility? The first scene of Slow — shot with a shaky camera like many sequences in the film, lending to its occasionally voyeuristic quality — features Elena having enthusiastic sex with a man who begs her to tell her she loves him; she absent-mindedly obliges. For Elena, sex is a means to feel desired, powerful and satiated. And so when a man to whom she is genuinely attracted refuses to hook up with her, it does a serious number on her self-confidence. Elena, drunk and shaken, goes to her ex’s house later that night, asking him if he thinks she’s beautiful before allowing him to pleasure her while she zones out.
Their special connection keeps drawing Dovydas and Elena back to each other. During her students’ showcase at a dance camp, Dovydas and Elena share a moment under the lamplight of a gazebo, their hands brushing with all the innocence of teenagers experiencing their first love. The easy chemistry between the two is exhilarating, and Slow’s biggest strength. They decide to give their burgeoning relationship a chance. Elena reigns in her libido, while Dovydas puts aside his sexual indifference to focus on her pleasure. The sex scenes in the film are distinctly unerotic. Dovydas is awkward and fumbling, while Elena is put off by the notion that he is not deriving any real enjoyment from the act. Their relationship, on the other hand, is lovely and filled with romance of the most unassuming kind. Elena feels comfortable talking about her past with Dovydas — something she struggled to do with previous partners. Dovydas stands by her side when Elena’s mother berates her over her career choices. There is playful teasing and profound confessions, there is dancing together to music only they can hear, there is tender fondness like neither of them have felt before.
One night, Elena’s ex-lover storms into her apartment, declaring that he is in love with her. Elena allows him to crash on her couch as he is in no state to go home on his own. Dovydas is upset when he learns that Elena sought out this man after he had confessed his feelings for her. Elena defends her decision by saying that she only did it because he rejected her. “But I didn’t reject you,” says Dovydas. In an attempt to make a point, Dovydas initiates a particularly vigorous bout of sex, punctuated by Elena’s ex snoring in the background. It’s a funny scene on the surface, eliciting more than a few laughs in the theatre, but the context makes it heartbreaking. Elena cottons on a few moments later, and stops Dovydas from going further. The film expertly unpacks Dovydas’ insecurity and Elena’s helplessness when it comes to their sex life, or lack thereof. In one scene, an inebriated Dovydas waxes lyrical about the rigid relationship systems that were put in place ages ago, and which everyone is now meant to follow without question. He half-heartedly suggests having an open relationship, which would allow Elena to fulfil her needs with other people. Elena clings to the idea of monogamy and a perfect love with Dovydas.
Despite their best efforts, the relationship slowly begins to crumble. Elena is furious to discover Dovydas masturbating in the bathroom one morning. She views it as a personal slight, as though he is perhaps lying about his asexuality, or just doesn't find her attractive. For him, the act is a purely physiological one. Elena’s lack of knowledge and unwillingness to do research about asexuality is frustrating, but her confusion and concerns feel authentic. Amidst the petty fights, there are poignant moments of intimacy, complemented by a gorgeous original soundtrack by Irya Gmeyner and Martin Hederos. In one memorable and extended sequence — shot through a mirror so we get both their perspectives at the same time — Dovydas and Elena stare at each from across a room, smiling about a secret only the two of them know, dancing ever so slightly. The song that plays in the background is “We Fucked It Up” by April Snow, whose wistful chorus ends with the line: “I've realized I wanna be with you.” Ultimately, however, Dovydas and Elena, both equally strong-willed, are at an impasse.
The thing about Slow is that Dovydas and Elena really, really love each other. It is painfully obvious in the way they look at each other, the way they understand and always find their way back to each other. In the penultimate scene of the film, the two embrace after a big fight, crying and confessing their enduring love for each other. You think that this is it, they’re going to make it work after all. The next shot is of Elena in a club, passionately kissing another man. You realise that they had been saying their final goodbyes.
Slow is a rom-com (and yes, it is delightfully funny in parts) that does not offer up an idealistic happy ending with a bow on top. Elena realises that the lifestyle that would accompany a future with Dovydas is not for her. Dovydas, in turn, rejects a relationship in which he would constantly feel inadequate over something he cannot control. There is an initial sense of frustration and hopelessness at the ending — isn’t their love for each other enough to work through all the rest of it? Is it not possible for an asexual person to form a loving, long-term relationship?
The film's portrayal of asexuality is rare and empathetic. It also flips the script by depicting the man as being entirely uninterested in sex, and a woman for whom it is an important aspect of her life and identity. Through Dovydas and Elena’s brief but lasting encounter, Slow epitomises that old cliché: It is not the destination that matters but the journey. Regardless of how their relationship ended, Dovydas and Elena do not for a moment regret falling in love with each other. They will always be the great loves of each others’ lives, forever transformed by the other. And what could be more meaningful than that?
A sign language interpreter walks into a dance studio — nothing changes and everything changes.