It’s a habit of young people to believe that they have invented sex — that nobody got it so right before they did. John Schlesinger’s frank, observant drama of horniness, courtship, and disappointment, A Kind of Loving (1962), exposes the traps that kids fall into when left to figure out for themselves the intensely pleasurable acts that just so happen to be key to the propagation of the species. The male lead (Alan Bates), a draftsman in drably beautiful Manchester, in Britain’s northwest, lights up when he finally wins the attentions of Ingrid (June Ritchie), an office worker.
The movies have taught us to read his beaming, stammering interest in her as wholesome and cheering, but after a couple of dates — one full of promising movie-theater making-out, the next dashed by a killjoy third wheel — the young man flakes away, losing interest. Sure, he likes her when they’re alone, when they’re kissing and he’s fumbling at her sweaters, but that’s as far as things go. With his pals, he consults the nudie strokebook he carries in his jacket pocket with the never-leave-it-behind ethos his descendants today have for their phones. Ingrid has only her mother to talk to about these matters; when a heartsick Ingrid finally gets Vic, the young man, alone and discovers those pinups, she at last understands: Boys want one thing, and maybe it has something to do with the love that she yearns for.
So, together, a little passive-aggressively, they discover sex. He hasn’t brought any protection — the druggist, a woman, spooked him! — but still they get to it. Inevitably, after they’ve grown apart afterward, she has to track him down in an alleyway with the news: He really should have bought those rubbers.
What follows is the bleakest early-marriage drama since King Vidor’s The Crowd, but with a hopeful ending and the naturalistic approach of the British New Wave. The film has gained power as its milieu has receded from our times: It’s a feast of Industrial British life, captured in Denys Coop’s beauty-in-the-grime black-and-white photography, documenting northern factories and fog-choked streets, music and dance halls, raucous pub life, cramped flats, the off-season soupiness of the seashore. Honeymooning, Ingrid at first resists Vic’s advances, insisting that her mother had told her that sex would be dangerous to the baby; Vic reassures her with the only non-nudie book we ever see him read, a guide to marital relations that promises the opposite. The pair then find themselves caught, throughout their marriage, not just between his lusts and her demurrals, but between old ideas and the sexual revolution to come. Neither Vic nor Ingrid is an especially compelling presence, but the actors make the sad moments pierce and the bursts of jubilation explode.
By its end, Schlesinger’s debut film plays less like a study of these two people than a guidebook for the millions of miserable newlyweds they represent — “So you found yourself married because you didn’t understand the consequences of sex?” it seems to ask. Then, movingly, it offers advice about how to make it work.
A Kind of Loving
Directed by John Schlesinger
Opens April 7, Film Forum