Erotic equations: Love meets mathematics on film

Laura Spinney, contributor

Sex and math may not be the most obvious pairing, but Edward Frenkel knows otherwise. The 41-year-old mathematician and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, sacrificed his clothes and €100,000 to show the world the beauty of mathematics. The result, shot in three days, is the 26-minute-long erotic film Rites of Love and Math, which premieres this week in Paris.

Like many artistic projects, Rites was born of serendipity. Frustrated that the outside world's image of mathematicians owed more to Russell Crowe's schizophrenic genius in A Beautiful Mind than to any mathematician he recognised, Frenkel decided to set the record straight.

rites of love and math.jpg

On a trip to Paris, France, he met a film-maker called Reine Graves, who offered to help. While waiting for inspiration, they heard about a newly discovered film by the deceased Japanese writer Yukio Mishima.

In 1965, Mishima produced and acted in a short film based on one of his own stories, Yûkoku (Patriotism), which depicted the ritual suicide, or hara-kiri, of an army officer following a last passionate encounter with his wife. Mishima was fascinated by the ecstasy that both sex and violent death can elicit, and five years later, committed hara-kiri himself. It might have been the notion that he had rehearsed his own death that drove his widow to suppress the film. She hid the negative in a tea jar, whence it emerged 35 years later, and Patriotism, also known as The Rite of Love and Death, was released in Japan in 2006.

In Frenkel and Graves' homage to Mishima, the soldier is replaced by a mathematician played by Frenkel. Having discovered the formula of love, and realised too late that in the wrong hands its power could turn to evil, he tattoos it onto his lover's belly during their last meeting, so as to preserve its beauty beyond his own impending demise.

Set in the Japanese Noh theatre, like Mishima's film, Rites is silent except for extracts from Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde and some electric guitar. It is beautiful to look at, even if the story does owe more to Dan Brown than to Mishima.

If Frenkel's goal was to bring more people to maths, he can congratulate himself on a job well done. The formula of love, which is actually a simplified version of an equation he published in a 2006 paper on quantum field theory entitled "Instantons beyond topological theory I", will probably soon have been seen - if not understood - by a far larger audience than it would otherwise ever have reached.

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So the Pillow Book but with math instead of prose? :-)


If math needs a "formula for love" in order to become mainstream, then the only conclusion possible is that math isn't meant to be mainstream. To put it another way, there is no formula for love - there isn't even a list of ingredients. At best there is a genome, but by themselves genomes are too incomplete to be considered formulae by any rational (i.e. scientific or mathematical) person.

Science and love are best kept distinct, just as science and religion are best kept distinct.


The other problem with this is yet another "mathematical" film's point being "be seen - if not understood . . ."

OK, so it would probably be hard to come up with a film that actually both teaches maths and keeps its audience interested - but surely a really creative mind could try. For instance, you could just show the mystery of how to work out the area of a triangle in a square, or the orbits of the planets and how Kepler thought that Saturn and Jupiter were outside and inside (respectively) a triangle.

I haven't seen this film, of course, and it may be a lot better than the impression I'm getting, but it sounds like it just perpetuates the image of "beautiful, but impossible to get", or indeed "beautiful, but it's as likely that you'll get it as that the equation for love can be true".


Wonder when it will be released...sounds unusual, to say the least.


Tim, kindly return to your hugbox immediately.


My love of Science has just been deflated.

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