Something is going on in today's movies. Or, more precisely, something is not going on.
In "The Age of Innocence," Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis are riding in a carriage, their unspoken passion throbbing in cadence with the horse's hoofs. Suddenly, Mr. Day-Lewis does something shocking. He unbuttons Ms. Pfeiffer's tightly knit glove and kisses her wrist.
In "Shadowlands," Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger seek refuge from a rainstorm in an empty barn. They embrace, and she reaches under his sport coat to caress his back.
In "The Remains of the Day," Emma Thompson tries to wrest a possibly verboten novel from Mr. Hopkins' grasp. As shot, the sequence resembles a romantic dance routine.
In Hollywood's first mainstream AIDS drama, "Philadelphia," the major display of open affection between longtime companions Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas occurs when Mr. Banderas kisses the fingers of the bedridden Hanks.
Is the Age of Oprah longing for "The Age of Innocence"? At least one therapist thinks so.
"The media is full of stories about Michael Jackson and Lorena Bobbitt," says Wendy Weltman Palmer, a marriage and family therapist in Dallas. "The talk shows overflow with people coming out of the closet about everything. People may be recoiling from so much openness on talk shows. They may be yearning for a little bit of containment."
It's ironic, then, that Hollywood, which once satisfied our sublimated cravings for the exotic and the erotic, may be answering our yearnings for something more discreet and classically romantic.
Think back to what these actors were doing just a few years ago. Ms. Pfeiffer was brandishing leather as Batman's nemesis, Catwoman, and Mr. Day-Lewis was fantasizing about female patients as a libidinous doctor in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." Ms. Winger was frolicking nude in "An Officer and a Gentleman," and Mr. Hopkins was a cannibalistic killer in "The Silence of the Lambs." Mr. Banderas was acting kinky in "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down," and even Mr. Hanks was behaving badly in "The Bonfire of the Vanities."
Although the trend toward gentility seemed to reach its apex last fall, with the releases of "The Age of Innocence" and "The Remains of the Day," it shows no signs of disappearing. Mr. Hopkins, who has seemingly made a career out of playing repression ("The Lion in Winter," "Magic," "Howards End"), stars in the recently released literary love story "Shadowlands." In the just-opened "Intersection," two of Hollywood's least camera-shy stars, Richard Gere and Sharon Stone, share only one love scene. They're fully clothed, and she's worried about messing up her hair and wrinkling her dress.
Coming up, according to the Hollywood Reporter, is Tom Cruise in a possible remake of the 1949 classic "The Heiress," a film Martin Scorsese watched more than 50 times before directing "The Age of Innocence." Warren Beatty is behind what could become the most romantic movie of 1994, "A Love Affair," a remake of 1957's "An Affair to Remember" -- which itself served as inspiration for last year's yearn-but-don't-touch hit, "Sleepless Seattle."
Most directors, predictably, chafe at lumping their movies together under the suffocating label of Films About Repression.
"There's no comparison [between 'The Age of Innocence' and 'The Remains of the Day']," says "Remains" director James Ivory, whose other works include "Howards End" and "A Room With a View."
"With Daniel Day-Lewis in 'The Age of Innocence,' the choice is a matter of honor, not suppression. The butler in 'The Remains of the Day' chooses to do as told because it's his profession. Daniel Day-Lewis' character was in a position to do whatever he wanted, and he chose to stay with his wife. It's a comment on today's lack of moral clarity that people think he's been suppressed."
Mr. Scorsese, noted for his richly cinematic portrayals of physical violence, called "The Age of Innocence" his "most emotionally violent movie." Indeed, the tightening of a woman's garment seems almost like an act of strangulation, while the snipping of the tips of men's cigars uncomfortably suggests self-castration.
"Sex is the main arena for repression, and when sexual repression occurs, as it does most pervasively in 'The Age of Innocence,' the sensuousness has to come out in other areas," says Dr. Ronald Schenk, a Jungian analyst and therapist in Dallas. "The display of food in that film was extremely sensuous, as was the display of all material goods."
If the ritualistic dining sequences in "The Age of Innocence," with suggestive glances transcending the flawlessly decorated dinner tables, were tantamount to foreplay, the famous eating scene in 1963's "Tom Jones," and its countless imitators, might be seen as the consummation of the act. Movie symbolism often works in mysterious ways.
Yet, if sensuality is occurring in horse-drawn carriages, in candle-lighted dining rooms and in rain-dampened fields, it is frequently absent in movie bedrooms.
"There's definitely a backlash to the love affair with promiscuity that occurred in the '70s and '80s," says psychotherapist Gail Rola, who works in Dallas. "The effectiveness of 'Fatal Attraction' was partly because, for the first time in a long while, accountability came into the picture. Michael Douglas was held accountable for his actions. Audiences felt the relief of a child who's been caught at some misdeed and has been given definite limits."
For years, as the predominantly male film industry slowly got accustomed to feminism, screenwriters struggled with finding a new set of female role models who would be acceptable to mass audiences. There's still a shortage of solid women's roles, but in 1993 Holly Hunter played a multifaceted character in "The Piano." Emma Thompson continued her string of intelligent, insightful characterizations and Michelle Pfeiffer proved she could do something beyond purr like a feline and pose provocatively on a piano.
There's a flip side to Hollywood's burgeoning desire for discretion. Cinema buffs often maintain that the amorous suggestiveness of older films was more tantalizing than the explicitness of modern movies.
"Repression is sexy. It's a tease," Ms. Rola says. "Repression prolongs those really exciting erotic feelings you have at the beginning of a relationship. It's hard for those feelings to continue in day-to-day life because you become so aware of your partner's vulnerable points."