On Sunday afternoon, my wife and I sat down to watch a movie titled “Circle of Friends” starring Minnie Driver as the main character “Benny”. I’m not sure about the rating, but I’ll just let you know that sex is a central theme (***Spoilers ahead***). The setting of the movie is a small conservative Catholic-Irish community outside of Dublin, where three girls who have been friends since childhood (a shopkeeper’s daughter: Benny, a more wealthy man’s daughter: Nan, and an orphan in the care of nuns: Eve) grow up and eventually go to college. Some scenes set up the plot and begin a strange trajectory. 1) The girls wonder about boys in small ways at first. 2) The priest speaks of premarital sex as sin, and puts the burden of purity on the girls in a sermon. 3) A professor at the college begins to speak about a small tribal group where adolescents are given complete freedom at puberty, and they blissfully engage in sex. So these three scenes unleash the experimenting in the rest of the movie. Each of the three girls awkwardly yet romantically find a man that they feel that they are in love with, and slowly through parties, they begin relationships with them.
An ironic twist in the movie really causes a new stir in the plot. The girl who was raised by nuns, gains access to a house the nuns have kept up for her that had once belonged to her parents. Since nuns go to bed at 8 pm and they won’t come to help upkeep it, the home becomes a place for parties for the college students to dance first, and then pair up. Out of the three girls, Benny and her date played by a really “cute” guy named Jack (Chris O’Donnell), are the most conservative because Benny decides to listen to Catholic doctrine and keep herself pure. Eve plays around, but is not fully developed as a character, but Nan becomes the antagonist by dating a wealthy Protestant (taboo) who says he loves her. They then use Eve’s nun-house as a rendezvous for her boyfriend’s fantasies, and eventually she becomes pregnant. That boyfriend, Colin (Simon Westward – one of my favorite actors), ends up being a jerk. He decides that they cannot keep the baby, or become public because of the Catholic-Protestant tension, and he writes her some guilt money. Nan, scandalized and hurting, makes a bad decision. She goes on a Rugby trip with Benny’s boyfriend Jack, and then when he is incredibly drunk, she sleeps with him. A bit later, she announces that he, Jack, is the father of the Baby! And then they are honor-bound to be married to support the child because they are Catholic with Catholic values (Though they have not lived out these values in private, a baby forces public values…).
Benny finds out, is hurt deeply, and throws herself into her work because her Dad had just died. This doesn’t last long though, because Eve eventually finds out about Nan’s scheme, and exposes the whole plot. This is where the movie gets really strange to me. Benny, instead of holding onto her values when Jack was unfaithful, decides that the reason that Jack was unfaithful, was because she too wasn’t giving him sex! He comes over and declares his undying love for her, and that he’s always loved her. Benny turns to him romantically and forgivingly; after some time she decides to lose her virginity to him that day. They go up to the nun-house, and the movie ends with a pan out of the nun-house, and the line, “Forgive me father, for I have sinned.”
I was furious. Shaking my head, and unable to remain seated, I could not believe that the movie ended this way.
Let’s apply logic to the ending. Nan had given herself to a man who said that he loved her without ever testing whether that statement had any proof or everlasting context. That was the root of the problem and the reason for deception (evil) in the movie: Non-Committed Love! And here, at the end of the movie, Benny gives herself to Jack in the same way. In a Non-Committed, unproved fit of emotion. She has completely removed the rational process from her decisions. So in my opinion, that is not the end of the movie. In fact, that ending sets up the same problems that the plot tried to solve. And yet the film’s writers glorified in pre-marital sex as if that were the seal of a relationship. The Fallacy is, as we have already seen demonstrated in the same film, that it is fully possible once the man (which the community priest is silent towards a man’s responsibility to purity of self and other) has sexual union with the woman, that the man can walk away without any burden. This causes distress for the woman, who had expected endurance of relationship, not a walk away. They show two different situations, one with consequences, and a second which is nearly identical, yet because the credits roll, we imagine a better ending. By why should we expect a good ending? There is no commitment to endurance, to everlasting love! No societal accountability, to ensure that the union lasts, and is supported by those older and wiser. There is no vision for a future, or the furtherance of a family, or productivity to one another’s benefit. No, either party is free to walk away at any time.
From the beginning of the movie, the society was very conservative. The priest, though he was wrong putting the burden of chastity solely on the girls, showed that there was societal limits that were in place for some reason or another. Perhaps it was for protection and sacredness of marriage and the marriage bed, or perhaps it had degraded into the “proper” thing to do and people could not remember why they were to be “proper”. It does not matter, it was a conservative culture. Then the professor spoke on the Tribal People and their happiness with unbridled sex between adolescents. This thought (idea) was somewhat analogous to a Beetle being brought into a new environment, where having no natural predators, spreads and destroys the native vegetation. Trees die, and the ecosystem is changed forever. The striking image of the Bold and Confident Professor is singed with sadness to me, because his proclamations are said with no consideration of the consequences of introducing such an idea to a more controlled society; particularly to a specific young group, whose identities are being formed, and who are curious and ripe for experimentation. By merely saying a few words of caution, the Professor could have started a dialogue about how this “idea” would interact with the current social system were it to be implemented, but like a Mad Scientist, he leaves his findings free to be interpreted and applied in individual ways, regardless of the damage it caused.
And I wish not to be judgmental. I only wish this post to be a conversation and a warning. The movie itself demonstrates that there are consequences, though there is no dialogue to hash it out. You have to figure it out on your own that the relationship between Benny and Jack will now be tinged with his unfaithfulness, and that lingering doubt that they will last, that the future is secured by a committment that is ideal, and beyond our frailties. People get hurt, and relationships are irrecovicly damaged, when a group decides that Non-Committed “love” and Sexual Experimentation are to become the norm rather than an exception that can be cared for. I see within this movie, and its problems, seeds for an argument against a basic set of values in Hollywood’s films. A quick assessment:
1) The traditional roles of Husband and Wife are a joke (see Transformers 2, beginning scenes; also: Simpsons/Family Guy)
2) It is assumed that sex is a test (rather than a gift saved) for the possibility of marriage (see Friends, Monica and Chandler)
3) Those living in chastity are fools (40 year old Virgin)
4) Sexual exploit stories are part of the coupling adventure (Every Hugh Grant Film ever)
And none of these values are correlated with the Love that Jesus Christ and his follower Paul, spoke of: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” (Paul’s letter to the Romans)
What the priest forgot in “Circle of Friends” is that it is not just the woman’s responsibility to maintain purity until a Committed, Accountable, and Society Supported Relationship (called a marriage by most) is formed – It is everyone’s responsibility. The man must protect the woman, the woman must protect the man, and each must look to ones own purity. This is not meant to hold people back, but to ensure the best quality relationships for the future. Relationships based on Trust, Long Lasting Love, Hope, and Giving. Not on Fear, Indulgence, Resentment, and Taking; all of these being the modern symbols of marriage, perhaps because people have modeled marriage as inhospitable rather than what it can ideally be. But the ideal stands. It is love that goes outside of oneself and protects the other – and commits to the object (person) of that love by giving him or her alone, the goodness of the marriage bed. It is my belief that if Sexual Ethics would be preserved as a good discipline, and not despised as a hindrance to fun, then more people would see marriage as Sacred, and not the joke that it has become, while things like Adultery, Sexual Exploitation, and Non-Intimate Relationships would decline, and children of the future would see that this generation was committed to making a safe and loving world for their nurture and education. It is possible to turn culture in another direction, but there has to be vision, and beyond that vision, people can commit to one another and role-model self sacrificing, self disciplined love, which are ingredients in the strongest of all possible relationships that lead to good marriages.
With every movie I see, I get angrier at our assumed values. Though no one can live a perfect life, I do think that people can at least speak of an ideal, something that we can compare our lives to in order to see if we are doing well, or need to do better. Do you agree?