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“Slow” director on creating an intimate, asexual romance: “We wanted this film to be very corporeal”

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There are not many romances featuring asexual characters, but the disarming Lithuanian film, “Slow,” screening at the Sundance Film Festival (in person and online) sets a gold standard. This moving drama has Elena (Greta Grineviciute), a dancer, falling for Dovydas (Kestutis Cicenas), a handsome sign-language interpreter. As they get to know each other casually, he blurts out that he is asexual — specifying that he is not attracted to anyone sexually. This rocks Elena’s world a bit; she meets up with her ex, Vilius (PIjus Ganusaukas), in an almost knee-jerk response.

“He is not repulsed by sex, as some asexual people are. We say clearly that he is not like that. He just doesn’t want it or need it.”

Elena and Dovydas start dating seriously, however, getting cozy and intimate, and even having sex on occasion — because asexual does not mean nonsexual. Moreover, Dovydas cares deeply about Elena, and wants her to feel passion even if he doesn’t need the same physical connection himself. As they negotiate their relationship, and she tries to accept the arrangement, Dovydas suggests she see other people if she has a desire to do so. 

“Slow” shows the pitfalls, such as jealousy, that the couple experience as they fight about their relationship. Elena rejects Dovydas at certain times, and Dovydas overcompensates at moments that have them determining if and how they can be together. The appealing actors both give strong performances that capture their conflicted emotions.

Writer/director Marija Kavtaradze spoke with Salon about her sensitive romance.

What prompted you to tackle the topic of asexuality, and what informed Dovydas’ character?

I wasn’t familiar with asexuality. I read an article about it, and I didn’t see a lot of asexual characters, but the topic stayed in my mind. I was reading and researching, and then I decided to write a screenplay about it. It’s a relationship story and a love story. I thought it was interesting and important to make Dovydas asexual because he is a man. Our expectations of gender in relationship are often that if she had been asexual, for us, as an audience, it would be much easier to accept. In my country, growing up, the narrative was that men always want sex — and it is the only thing they want — and women don’t, and that’s how it is. Their characters helped me rethink things about gender that go without saying.

The film is an “issue” movie in that the characters must navigate his asexuality with the drama hinging on will they stay together? Can Dovydas be the person Elena needs? He may be asexual, but he is not nonsexual. Can Elena accept that? What decisions did you make in charting the couple’s relationship?

It was tricky, but very interesting, that he can perform sexual activities. He is not repulsed by sex, as some asexual people are. We say clearly that he is not like that. He just doesn’t want it or need it. For Elena, it is not enough, so we, as viewers, hope that they could work it out. They could have an open relationship; he brings this topic up. But I didn’t put emphasis on her just needing sex; she wants desire from him more than sex. He feels he is still not enough, even though he is trying. There is an intimate scene where she performs oral sex ,and he goes to give pleasure and she stops him. The film is about sex, but the main issues they have are not only about sex. They are both trying to give each other what they think the other person needs, but they do not think about their own needs. Their communication is not as strong as it could be.

The film is told mainly from Elena’s point of view. What was your intention in addressing asexuality from the perspective of someone in love with an asexual person rather than from Dovydas’s experiences? It certainly gives the audience an identification point, but we only get to know him through her eyes. Can you talk about that approach?  

I was thinking about perspective. I do identify with her more; she’s a female character, and audiences who are not familiar with asexuality will be trying to understand about what asexuality means if they haven’t read about it, or don’t have their own experiences, or don’t know anyone who is asexual. I wanted it to be balanced. It is more of a relationship story; it’s not just her story. We are not only with her; we get to know him and his feelings too, even though the film is seen more through her eyes.

We first see Elena in a romantic clinch where she is being coerced by her partner. She also navigates issues of consent with Dovydas as they engage in physical contact touching and sexual intimacy. Can you talk about presenting sex and consent in this way? 

“I found we did not need nudity in any scene. I felt that every sex scene that we shot were not approached as sex scenes.”

I haven’t thought about it in that way, but she is coerced in that first scene, and we can see that in her expression. When I was thinking about Elena’s character, I was thinking about boundaries and how close she can get physically to Dovydas. She asks him if she can kiss him and perform oral sex. I want them both to be respectful to each other because we see how they care about each other and love each other. I want the audience to root for them to be together and be happy. So, when they ask, “Is this OK?” and check their boundaries, it shows how much they care. But I think the biggest question mark is when her ex-boyfriend Vilius, comes and Dovydas starts to have sex with Elena. There is not a moment where he checks if touching is OK, and she doesn’t have time to process what is going on. In that moment, she doesn’t want to reject him, but she is letting something happen that she does not really want.

Yes, she has a more physical relationship with Vilius, and an emotional relationship with Dovydas and the film suggests that dichotomy. I want to talk about the bodies in the film. I like that she is a dancer, and he is a sign language interpreter, so both characters have “expressive” careers. You focus on their bodies, but they are rarely sexualized or objectified. The sex is discreet; there is no nudity, no objectification of bodies. Can you talk about filming bodies in “Slow?”

I didn’t decide not to show naked bodies, but I found we did not need nudity in any scene. I felt that every sex scene that we shot were not approached as sex scenes. That’s why it doesn’t feel objectified, because I’m still with the characters and I am more interested in what they are feeling than how do they look. We had an intimacy coordinator with the project, and I was so happy about that, because we could dive precisely into every moment. I wanted everything to look real, and natural, and recognizable, but I wanted the actors to feel as comfortable as possible. We all had trust. I didn’t want the intimate scenes to make them feel less of their character or like an object for the audience to enjoy.

I am curious how you approached the film visually? Much of the film is shot in an intimate style with close-ups that emphasizes the couple’s closeness. But there is a terrific scene of Dovydas dancing in a bar, he is seen in a mirror and Elena is mirroring his actions. Can you talk about how you filmed the characters and conveyed their connection?

The way I developed the visual style was by using a mood board with a lot of pictures by Nan Goldin, who makes intimate images with naked bodies. I was interested not in the bodies, but in the intimacy that I felt she had with her subjects. I talked with the cinematographer about how to convey this feeling of intimacy and bodies. We wanted this film to be very corporeal, to feel it in the dance and everywhere that would be natural. We used lights to feel the tone of the skin to create a feeling of realness and closeness to the characters. What do we need to do to put this intimacy we created with the actors on screen and not lose it? There was this feeling and chemistry. What helped was using a long lens for the close-ups. It gave me such a romantic feeling. 


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Ultimately, what do you want viewers to understand about asexuality after seeing your film?

Researching the film, I was reading about asexuality and talking to people who identify as asexual. There is such a big spectrum. Every story is different, and people have different experiences. I am not explaining clearly what it is. I am sure there will be a lot of questions. When I first saw or heard something about asexuality, I had questions — what is it?, and so on, so maybe this can be the start for people to dive deeper, get more familiar, and talk openly about it. I feel empathy for asexual people. In many stories, I kept hearing this narrative that you have to prove yourself all the time, because no one believes you. If you are asexual, people say, “You just haven’t had good sex yet,” or “You will become sexual,” or “Maybe you are homosexual and don’t accept it.” Every asexual person has this experience. If we read and see more, we might know more rather than open your mouth and say something stupid. If you have questions, you can Google it after the film to learn that asexual people masturbate. I want to respect what Dovydas’ character says and believe it. I am not explaining it for everyone.

“Slow” premieres at the Sundance Film Festival in person on Jan. 21, with encore screenings Jan. 22, 23, 25 and 27. The film will also be available for viewing online Jan. 24-30. For tickets and more information, visit the Sundance site.

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