The beginning of Eclipse, the third episode of The Twilight Saga, finds Bella and Edward (Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, of course) cuddling passionately ? though chastely, of course ? in a meadow full of wildflowers.
The day is just sunny enough to bring out the frosty sparkle in Edward?s skin, but not bright enough to kill either him or the brooding, minor-key mood.
Bella is reciting Robert Frost?s poem Fire and Ice, about competing notions of how the world will end. Supposedly it's for an English paper, but who is Bella kidding? ?From what I?ve tasted of desire,? she intones, ?I hold with those who favor fire.?
She should know. Desire might as well be the brand name for the blend of natural and artificial flavors that infuses this wildly popular series of books and films.
Eclipse, the middle installment ? Stephenie Meyer?s four books will be made into five movies ? raises the level of romantic intensity considerably, and also nudges Bella?s heretofore somewhat abstract longings decisively in the direction of physical lust.
Sitting at the apex of a romantic triangle, drawn increasingly toward both the cold, undead Edward and her warm-blooded and shirtless werewolf friend, Jacob (Taylor Lautner), Bella understands the elemental dichotomy of Frost?s verse in ways that Yankee poet might never have intended.
Her predicament is both the stuff of high, swooning melodrama ? the preferred Twilight mode ? and traditional romantic comedy.
?Face it,? Jacob deadpans, looking right at his wan, shirt-wearing rival for Bella?s affections, ?I?m much hotter than you.? And judging from the noise and temperature in the theater where I saw Eclipse, a lot of Twilight fans (including the 14-year-old girl I took with me as an expert witness) agree. Maybe I was in a Team Jacob stronghold, or maybe the whole goth-emo-bloodsucker craze is starting to wane, but the producers of the Twilight movies may face a bit of a dilemma in the next two chapters if audience sentiment turns against the eternal love of Edward and Bella in favour of the slightly more conventional mammalian match between Bella and Jacob.
Jacob makes a pretty strong case, both that he is more suitable for Bella ??With me, it would be as easy as breathing,? he says ? and, more boldly, that she really wants him, even if she can?t admit as much to herself. And while there are the usual arguments about which of these guys is better able to protect Bella, what is really at stake is each one?s theoretical ability to satisfy her.
I say theoretical because the sex appeal of the whole Twilight enterprise is based on the impossibility of actual sex. ?Dad, I?m a virgin,? Bella tells her anxious father, Charlie (Billy Burke), surely the only person in the English-speaking world to whom this comes as news.
The dangers of male sexuality symbolised by Edward?s and Jacob?s monster natures have always loomed large in Ms Meyer?s Twilight world. A man?s unconstrained appetite (the vampire?s thirst) or unchecked anger (the wolf?s predatory rage) poses a potentially fatal risk for a woman, and what makes both Jacob and Edward good guys is their willingness to constrain their powerful innate impulses in the name of love.
There exist women, like Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard), the villainess, and Edward?s charming sister Alice (Ashley Greene), who are vampires, and also at least one, Leah (Julia Jones), who runs with the wolves, but this does not really change the essential sexual politics of the story.
Not that these are as straightforward as they might seem. Those who mock (or praise) the pro-abstinence message of The Twilight Saga tend to miss the way the movies in particular embrace the sensuous pleasure of sublimation with the kind of fervor you usually find only in old Hollywood or present-day Bollywood entertainments.
The consummation of Edward and Bella?s love ? which will come after their marriage, at Edward?s insistence and in spite of Bella?s plea for earlier action ? is likely to be a big disappointment. Maybe not for them, but I suspect for whatever Team Edward diehards are still around by then.
But that is a matter for a future review. Eclipse, directed by David Slade (who follows Catherine Hardwicke and Chris Weitz and whose previous credits include 30 Days of Night and Hard Candy), is a more robustly entertaining film than either of its predecessors.
The previous entry, New Moon, was a sustained (and to some viewers, tedious) exercise in delayed gratification. You had to wait a long time to see Mr Lautner unveil his pectoral muscles or morph into a wolf, and Mr Pattinson vanished altogether.
This time we are treated to nicely costumed flashbacks to vaguely defined earlier eras, album-cover tableaus of the Cullen clan and the Volturi (including Dakota Fanning but minus Michael Sheen, for now) and some moderately thrilling if visually muddy fight sequences.
If there is a bit more humour on display here ? some of it evidence that an element of self-conscious self-mockery is sneaking into the franchise ? there is also more violence, and, true to the film?s title, a deeper intimation of darkness.
What there isn?t, as usual, is much in the way of good acting, with the decisive and impressive exception of Ms Stewart, who can carry a close-up about as well as anyone in movies today.
Mr Lautner still seems to have recently escaped from a high school cheerleading squad somewhere, and Mr Pattinson?s pout conveys not the existential angst of a lovelorn immortal, but rather the peevishness of a guy who just lost a Greta Garbo lookalike contest ? for the third time in a row! ? to his own girlfriend.