No Right Time: Sex and the City (2008)

Sex and the City (2008) | New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

“Forty is the last age a woman can be photographed in a wedding gown without the unintended Diane Arbus subtext,” deadpans Vogue editor Enid (Candice Bergen), moments after soliciting newly engaged Carrie Bradshaw for the magazine’s annual “age” issue. The subsequent photo shoot constitutes Michael Patrick King’s 2008 Sex and the City film’s most iconic montage: modeling big names in bridal couture amid out of season peonies and ropes of pearls, Carrie proves, one hand-worked yard at a time, “there can be a happy ending over 40.”

Can there? For the film, as for Vogue, this line is more marketable copy than conviction—a parent fantasy to “having it all,” where time is the unspoken, immaterial substratum of professional and personal fulfillment. The modal contingency of a happy ending over 40 suggests you, a woman, can sink the necessary decades into artistic exploration without corrupting your psychic or age-based eligibility for long-term partnered life. However reactionary, it’s a fancy the film frames with awareness—in the form of Enid—that while happiness is uncertain, ends are assured. Carrie leans on a ladder in body-skimming Oscar de la Renta. She arches by a window in Fall 2007 Galliano for Dior. Radiant in every silhouette, she evades the grotesquerie of women photographed by Arbus, who died in New York from suicide at age 48.

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Sex and the City takes its cue from the possible happy ending to depict and derail Carrie’s Cinderella story, batting viewers between bourgeois wish fulfillment and red-eyed desolation: a vacillation fans of the series would recognize, even expect. See Emily Nussbaum’s elegant diagram of Sex and the City’s dark side, from the anti-heroism of protagonist Carrie, to the complexity and moral ambivalence oft conveyed within the episodes’ staid formula. At the heart of said darkness was the show’s evolving attitude toward time—specifically, its regard for the subjective, gendered experiences of time’s passage. Here’s Nussbaum on the final season’s pairing of Carrie with baroque Russian artist Aleksandr Petrovsky (Mikhail Baryshnikov):

It felt ugly, and sad, in a realistic way. In one of the season’s, and the show’s, best episodes, [Carrie] saw other older women settling…or falling out of windows (the hilarious Kristen Johnston, who delivered one of “Sex and the City” ’s best monologues: “When did everybody stop smoking? When did everybody pair off? . . . I’m so bored I could die”). The show always had a realpolitik directness about such social pressures; as another HBO series put it recently, winter was coming.

In the scene Nussbaum cites, Carrie brings Aleksandr to a sedate cocktail party where Enid fails to suppress her attraction to him. Gently confronted, Enid spells it out: men her age, her caliber—established, discerning, over 50—are attending parties with women like Carrie, just young enough to put Enid’s demographic to pasture. Meanwhile, Kristen Johnson’s veteran party girl is likewise unintelligible within the hallowed couple space. Rather than fasten to a fellow satellite, she ejects—stumbling through an open window as if sucked summarily through an airlock, into the space where all vulgarities hostile to species propagation drift unanchored and disappear.

Settle or die, the party says. Within an episode, Carrie complies: moving to Paris with her Russian, and eventually back to New York with formerly elusive long-time paramour Mr. Big. Four years later, the Sex and the City movie revisits this very ultimatum, giving characters and spectators alike the sensation of having been approximately here before.

Sex and the City (2008) | New Line Cinema

For Carrie, marriage emerges as a protective measure against future disenfranchisement, ensuring legal recourse to the penthouse apartment Big has bought for them to share. It’s her second engagement but his third marriage, and, for Big, the specter of critical scrutiny fueled by Page Six publicity bloats the affair beyond recognition. Unable to see past the wedding to his bride, he doesn’t show. Though Big instantly thinks better of it—navigating against traffic to catch Carrie in front of Bryant Park—by the time they intersect, the present has already passed into one of two modes of time film scholar Linda Williams pins to melodramatic effect: too late.

“At its deepest level,” writes Williams, “melodrama is an expression of feeling toward a time that passes too fast.” At its very surface, Sex and the City is replete with expressions of feeling toward time—passing too fast or too slow, comprising paralyzing pasts and unforeseeable futures. Sex and the City is centrally, relentlessly fixated on time.

There’s the fairytale monologue that plays over the opening credits, invoking the ageless image of New York as a revolving door for ambitious naïfs. Year after year, 20-something women come to New York in search of the two “L”s: labels and love. As four young women trot by Carrie on the sidewalk, she narrates the encounter’s implications: “20 years ago, I was one of them.” When Carrie breaks the news of her engagement at lunch, Charlotte (Kristin Davis) shrieks in the airy dining room, spreading her fingers for emphasis: “She’s been going out with the man for 10 years!” Fluent in romantic deadlock, the restaurant breaks into applause.

In bed with Big, Carrie reads a fake multivolume love letter anthology, seeking proof of love’s duration in the 18th century. Elsewhere, duration is a burden: Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), blurting, “Let’s just get it over with!” when husband Steve suggests she get on top. There’s Carrie KonMari-ing her past in a closet-as-catwalk montage, and Miranda mechanically reviewing the next day’s schedule when Steve interrupts to say he’s cheated; you almost expect her to ask, Where did you find the time? In lieu of intertitles, holidays organize the plot like a greeting card aisle, hallmarking Halloween, Christmas, a New Year’s trek through snow to Miranda, a Cinderella valentine from Charlotte’s daughter emblazoned with Williams’ second melodramatic temporality: “Just in time.”

Slouched under a ceiling of Mylar hearts, Miranda confesses a quick but fatal exchange with Big at his rehearsal dinner. “I was waiting for the right time [to tell you],” she pleads. “There is no right time to tell me you ruined my marriage,” spits Carrie. In fact, for much of the film, there is no right time, full stop—few occasions where time is cooperative. I think a lot about Samantha (Kim Cattrall), typically fiercely protective of her time, walking to the window of her oceanfront home after boyfriend Smith works too late to enjoy the sushi dinner she’s hand-rolled and arranged across her body. There’s a world of regret in that tepid nigiri plopping piece by piece to the floor. Despite themselves (and each other), these are women either preparing themselves into bespoke meals for grateful consumption, or looking out windows onto other lives, with time enough to wonder where theirs went.

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Sex and the City (2008) | New Line Cinema

According to Miranda and Steve’s therapist, their reconciliation depends, symbolically and materially, on meeting at a neutral location, at which point “the past no longer exists.” In one of the film’s genuinely affecting moments, the camera finds Steve in the crowd on the Brooklyn Bridge and cuts between their relieved approaches as Al Green croons, we could never see tomorrow. Green’s “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” weighs the risk and potential of living in the moment, a rosy shortsightedness that’s equal parts exhilaration and exposure to pain. It’s fitting, and for more than the film’s closing wave of conflict resolutions.

In the sequence marking Carrie’s arrival to her unrefundable honeymoon in Mexico, we really can’t see tomorrow. Initially, weight shifts between tones; the girls race to dismantle a heart-shaped installation of red rose petals on the master suite bed, while Carrie removes her sunglasses in the bathroom mirror, blinking at her bloodshot reflection in what must be the hotel’s only unforgiving light.

Entering the room, Carrie sloughs off her coat and climbs onto the bed in her clothes. “It’s going to be a gorgeous sunset,” Samantha offers. “Close the shutters,” she replies. Samantha glances at the others and closes one wooden panel. “All of them,” says Carrie. The last remaining shutter’s click concurs with a cut to black, and darkness holds for a moment before the frame fades in on Carrie asleep, a shaft of striated light crossing her face.

She’s under the sheets, but still in her clothes. In the foreground, Miranda sits on the bed. Carrie has slept through the night. “Did I dream it?” She asks. Miranda shakes her head and Carrie flips to her other side as the image fades out.

We cut back to the image as Charlotte clicks the bedside lamp, softly explaining the day has passed, it’s evening. “So?” Carrie says. The sight of her shoulder worked free of fabric recalls the uncanniness of falling asleep fully dressed, the tangled discomfort you’re too exhausted to correct. She lifts a hand to cover her eyes and Charlotte turns off the light.

Fade in. Carrie opens her eyes to muted clanking. Carrying a breakfast tray, Samantha insists she eat something before going back to sleep. Carrie sits up and opens her mouth, letting Samantha feed her shallow spoonfuls of yogurt. She looks at the shuttered window and the shot cuts, again, to black.

When Sex and the City devotes a montage to fashion (“labels”), we get curated spectacle: no downtime. No lint brush. Here, on Carrie’s honeymoon (“love”), elliptical editing—conventionally used to condense cinematic time—instead protracts Carrie’s so-called “Mexi-coma,” promoting transitional fades and seconds of darkness from punctuation to locution: not simply administrative, but expressive.

There’s a lot in this film that’s appallingly dated. Take the disdain for Brooklyn (not for its population density, but its desolation); Carrie’s inability to interface with a touchscreen; the phobic dismissal of Princeton grad Paul for interviewing (at a Starbucks??) in hot pink heels. Even Carrie’s portal to feeling the future—the February edition of New York Fashion Week—aptly purports to be about what’s “next,” while relying on cycles of citation and recurrence; the stuttered zooms and quick pans from rows to runway models are straight-up House of Style.

But the relative patience showed to Carrie’s pain cocoon? That much is evergreen.

As it turns out, in Sex and the City, it’s not too late. Carrie will ultimately unlock a trove of apology emails from Big, all ventriloquized famous guy love letters except one: “I will love you forever.” And in her newly (hideously) redecorated apartment, in what I like to imagine is a subliminal shout-out to the snow globe on Susan Alexander’s vanity, an hourglass sits on Carrie’s desk, replacing the preciousness of memory with a sign of perpetual motion. A reminder, in collusion with Samantha’s 50th birthday, that the planets move even when we can’t.