Lithuanian filmmaker Marija Kavtaradze’s sophomore narrative feature Slow, which premiered in the World Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival—winning that section’s Directing Award—is a tender study of a new couple navigating their own brand of intimacy.
In the film’s opening frames, sexually liberated dancer Elena (Greta Grinevičiūtė) is in bed with a man who asks her to say that she loves him so that he can get hard. She hesitates, then rather unenthusiastically plays along. It’s an introduction that reminds us that sex often takes all kinds of negotiation to satisfy our partners and ourselves. But what if sex is off the table? Is that the most important element of a relationship for Elena, whose encounters up until now have mostly been casual?
As well as rehearsing for an upcoming contemporary dance show that she’s performing in, Elena begins teaching a class of deaf kids, preparing them for a camp they’re attending on the coast. Clearly a little nervous about not being able to communicate directly with her students, Dovydas (Kęstutis Cicėnas), an amiable sign language interpreter who joins her in the studio to translate, helps put her at her ease. Part of the reason that the kids are there is to help them to connect with their bodies, Elena explains, and she is certainly in touch with hers, as emphasized by frequent shots of her warming up, rehearsing, and getting deep-tissue massages. She’s a passionate, sensuous woman.
There’s immediate chemistry between Dovydas and Elena, and Grinevičiūtė and Cicėnas are a delight to watch create it. When they begin hanging out after class, Elena is quickly smitten, telling her dancer friends that she feels like she’s always known him. We follow them over the next days and weeks as they stroll around the city streets, sharing details about their lives. Elena, for instance, gives Dovydas the real story behind the tattoo on her ankle that she usually lies about (as we’ll see her do with another man later in the film). Recalling the warmth of movies like John Carney’s Once, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, Kavtaradze brings a freshness and real specificity to these scenes as she captures the essence of that magical, rather intense time of going from strangers to intimates.
Of course there are often things we initially hold back when we’re getting to know someone. As they spend more time together, Dovydas feels the need to tell Elena that he’s asexual. Although her first reaction is to think he’s essentially saying that he’s just not that into her, she proves to be patient and generally understanding as he shares what his experience of being asexual has been. It feels significant that, along with Elena, we as an audience get to know Dovydas pretty well before learning about his asexuality, so by the time he comes out it feels like just another aspect of who he is, rather a solely defining one. Although Dovydas is in the position of having explain himself to Elena, he’s already comes to terms with own asexuality and is comfortable in who he is. He’s endearing and a little goofy, with a tendency to tell dad jokes, and although he might not have sexual desire in his eyes (something Elena says she misses), their mutual care and affection for one another is palpable. In one memorable scene, Dovydas makes a bold, sweet gesture at his deaf brother’s wedding. There’s no music playing, but he shares his headphones with Elena and they have an impromptu private silent disco for two, with an infectiously joyful Dovydas busting out some terrible moves, while Elena tries to overcome her self-consciousness.
Although it might not be sexually charged, there is electricity in the deep human connection between them, and we can see their pleasure as they slowly fall for one another, leading to a first kiss that’s full of meaning for the characters. As the narrative progresses, there are a number of bedroom scenes as they try to work out the dynamics of a relationship where one partner is asexual and the other isn’t. Elena frequently says that she wants something “normal”, but Dovydas encourages her to expand her mind beyond heteronormative expectations of how couples should behave. While he throws out the idea of having an open relationship to help keep them together (after he’s had a few drinks), for Elena discovering that Dovydas masturbates in the shower feels like a betrayal, though he tries to explain that for him it’s not a sexual act.
In other hands, some elements of the screenplay dealing with Dovydas’ asexuality might have come off as didactic, but the directness of the dialogue fits with Elena and Dovydas’ attempt at frankness, and Grinevičiūtė and Cicėnas’ performances are so natural and engaging that their discussions feel authentic. In fact, one intriguing aspect of the film is its examination of human communication that goes beyond words.
One of the rich pleasures of Slow is Laurynas Bareiša’s sensitive cinematography. Shot on Kodak 16mm film, it has a gorgeous grainy look that enhances Kavtaradze’s meditation on tactility. With its handheld closeups, our attention is heightened to touch, as we see hands come together, or Dovydas’ fingers run across Elena’s face. Using natural light contributes to the sense that we’re right there with these characters in their most private spaces and moments.
The songs that fill the soundtrack, several by Martin Hederos and Irya Gmeyer, both add to the romantic vibe as well as make you really listen to the lyrics, examining our expectations of love. Along with Vincent Barrière, Hederos and Gmeyer also composed a delicate, balmy breeze of a score which Kavtaradze’s uses sparingly. Listen out for a track by Monika Liu too, who represented Lithuania at last year’s Eurovision.
As the couple begins to go around in circles, trying their best to make things work but hitting the same stumbling blocks, Slow meanders a little in its third act and might have benefitted from a slightly tighter edit, but I was so invested in these characters that it didn’t detract from my enjoyment. This is a relationship that I’ve never seen on screen before and one I was deeply touched by. Elena and Dovydas felt like real people to me, who stayed with me long after the end credits rolled.
By James Kleinmann
Slow received its world premiere in the World Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, screens again in-person on Friday, January 27th, Saturday January 28th, and Sunday, January 29th and is available on demand until Sunday, January 29th via the festival’s online portal. For more details and to purchase tickets head to the official Sundance website.