The main concept: why we should embrace sex scenes instead of avoiding them.
How did you feel about it? When asking individuals in the aftermath of a movie’s sex scene, there are often complaints that it did not live up to expectations. This is true even among directors – for every sensual master like Claire Denis or Pedro Almodóvar, there is a well-known reserved director like Spielberg or Tarantino who does not prioritize sex in their films. Even younger viewers from Generation Z are hesitant about sexual content on screen and question its role in storytelling. A quick look at the social media platform X (formerly Twitter) reveals disapproval of X-rated material, with one individual stating “a fade to black is enough.” To which the only logical response is: what kind of content are these people consuming?
A depiction of sexual activity, similar to actual sex, is unlikely to be satisfying if it is not performed by individuals who are skilled or interested in learning. Those who oppose it may have only experienced unrealistic or unnecessary sexual scenes in film. However, films such as Chantal Akerman’s Je Tu Il Elle (1974), Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behaviour (2014), Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1997), and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) – all of which heavily feature sex – are complex enough to disprove the argument that “no mature person in history has ever watched a sex scene and thought ‘yes, that was a masterpiece.'”
The final scene of Akerman’s film features the first openly lesbian sex scene ever shown in a mainstream movie. This was released in the same year as Barbara Hammer’s groundbreaking short film, Dyketactics, which also explores sex as a means of empowerment and self-expression. The main characters, Julie and her girlfriend, are shown to be voracious in bed, as evidenced by the opening line, “I’m hungry.” However, the scene’s structure and composition add complexity to this sense of abandon. It consists of only three shots, lasting a total of 10 minutes, and is filmed with a static and restrained camera. Despite the physical intimacy portrayed on screen, the audience is still kept at a distance, adding an intriguing layer to our identification with the characters.
The use of casting adds a new twist: the director, who plays Julie, transforms what could be seen as vulnerability into an act of self-determination. The same goes for Akhavan, who as the star, director, and co-writer of Appropriate Behaviour, has the authority to decide how her body is portrayed on screen. In one pivotal scene, a threesome occurs and the power dynamics between the woman and the couple constantly shifts unpredictably. Those who believe that fading out can convey this level of complexity only need to watch Call Me By Your Name (2017) and see how a film loses its seriousness due to timidity. The film’s screenwriter, James Ivory, questioned the director Luca Guadagnino’s choice to pan the camera away from the stars, Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, and towards trees instead of showing them in an intimate moment.
A recent survey conducted by UCLA revealed that the younger generation, often referred to as gen Z, desires to see more positive and inspiring content in which individuals overcome challenges. This sentiment brings to mind the image of Timothée Chalamet, who in the film Lady Bird (2017), offers a realistic perspective to a despondent Saoirse Ronan: “You’re going to have numerous mediocre sexual experiences in your life.” Movies have a knack for capturing awkward and unfulfilling sexual encounters, surpassing what most individuals experience in their personal pornographic fantasies. Some examples include Anna Paquin losing her virginity to a smirking and inexperienced Kieran Culkin in Margaret (2011), or Gina McKee’s character in Wonderland (1999) taking the night bus home after a disappointing quickie, only to have her date sulkily eat leftovers from a saucepan.
Intimate scenes on screen can be humorous, such as the symphony of creaking bed-springs in Delicatessen (1991), or destructive, like when Emma Thompson and Jeff Goldblum wreak havoc on an entire apartment during a passionate encounter in The Tall Guy (1989). These scenes can also set the tone for the rest of the film. In Happy Together (1997), a relentless and intense 90-second sex scene between a couple foreshadows their impending breakup and adds a melancholic undertone to the rest of the story. On the other hand, the lengthy lovemaking at the beginning of Betty Blue (1986), although in a mediocre film, creates a sense of urgency and heightens the tension.
The well-known scene in Don’t Look Now, however, takes place after we have become familiar with the main couple, portrayed by Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, who are mourning the loss of their young daughter. There are numerous captivating elements present, including the actors’ closeness, the camera’s closeness to them, and the creative editing, which cuts to shots of the couple getting ready before bringing us back to their turbulent bodies. Roeg even hints that the lovers may be attempting to have another child at this moment in order to ease their grief, providing a glimmer of hope amidst the film’s emotional turmoil.
Removing sex from films would be just as absurd as forbidding dinner-table scenes or facial hair. Luckily, there are plenty of modern film-makers who know how to incorporate sex in a tasteful and uninhibited manner. Three of last year’s greatest movies – Passages by Ira Sachs, Joyland by Saim Sadiq, and Rotting in the Sun by Sebastián Silva – all use sexuality in fascinating and bold ways. Two upcoming adaptations of literary works also heavily feature sex: Yorgos Lanthimos’s film adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things, starring Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo, and All of Us Strangers, with Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal, adapted by Andrew Haigh from Taichi Yamada’s novel. Directors should not let objections from prudish viewers deter them from including sex scenes. Instead of seeing them as a source of discomfort, film-goers should appreciate the richness and complexity that these scenes can bring to a story.
Exploring the Intersection of Sex and Narrative in Contemporary Film by Lindsay Coleman (Published by IB Tauris)
“Don’t Look Now” written by Paul Newland (published by Intellect)
Jody W Pennington’s book, “The History of Sex in American Film” published by Praeger, explores the evolution of sexuality in American cinema.