A Brief History of Actual Sex in Movies
As you've probably heard by now, the new Gaspar Noé movie, Love, features a bevy of unsimulated sex scenes. Many who don't consider themselves prudish in the slightest have dismissed the film as pornography masquerading as art-house fare. What they don't necessarily realize is that although explicit onscreen sex tends to give stateside audiences pause, it is not out of the norm on the festival circuit—whose most prestigious stops are concentrated, not coincidentally, in Europe.
Call it selection bias, but, to these eyes, it seems that an unusually high number of well-regarded films have utilized this graphic technique over the last few years—Nymphomaniac, Starlet, and Stranger by the Lake, to name a few. The lion's share of these have, of course, been produced abroad and only received a limited domestic release, which isn't as affected by an NC-17 rating. (If anything, the status ofNymphomaniac and now Love as willfully niche products has allowed their marketing teams to play up their subversive content via suggestive and/or beyond-NSFW posters.)
Love may be the latest to throw its hat in this particular ring, but it's very far from the first. To better prepare yourself for Noé's 3D provocation—which, I'm duty-bound to report, isn't as worthy of your hard-earned dollars as something like The Wonders, which also opened last week—consider taking a brief tour of cinematic history's most transgressive sex scenes.
An early example is A Song of Love, a 26-minute French film (original title: Un chant d'amour) made in 1950. Notable for its voyeuristic plot, Jean Genet's movie concerns a prison guard who gets his rocks off by watching an inmate masturbate and, after a minor tiff with said self-abuser, makes the prisoner suck his gun. It was banned not only for its explicit scenes of pud-pulling but also for its overtly homosexual overtones, which was the most problematic aspect for many. In part because of that controversy, Genet never directed again.
Over the next few decades, several other European films followed suit, whether it be in Denmark (Gift, 1966), West Germany (Hotel by the Hour, 1970), or Sweden (They Call Us Misfits, 1968). Misfits came close to being censored until the minister of education stepped in. Scandinavia really had the market cornered for a while there, with many such films (most notably the seven-part Zodiac series) essentially receiving normal treatment: reviews in national newspapers and only a few cases of censorship and/or banning. Jens Jørgen Thorsen, whose 1970 adaptation of Henry Miller's Quiet Days in Clichy lived up to its source material by featuring hardcore sex, nearly received official support from the Danish Film Institute on his next project until Pope Paul VI protested its blasphemous religious content.
We haven't been so accepting here in America, though. As with many other things, we have John Waters to thank for bringing scenes of unsimulated fellatio to domestic screens. Pink Flamingos, in addition to making Divine a cult hero for generations, was also banned in such usually open-minded locales as Australia, Norway, and Canada. When it was re-released stateside in 1997 to celebrate its 25th anniversary, the MPAA gave it the NC-17 stamp of disapproval. Other than the whole eating dog-shit thing, they weren't too pleased with the close-up of Divine giving an actual blowjob. Go figure.
Perhaps the most respected purveyor of real-life sex is In the Realm of the Senses, a Japanese movie that only got made because it was officially recognized as a French production. Nagisa Oshima courted acclaim and controversy in roughly equal measure throughout his career, nowhere more so than here. The movie's explicit nature gave it trouble with censors and banners in America, England, Canada, Portugal, and its home country, among others. It also has a distinction of being in the Criterion Collection, whose website features the disclaimer "WARNING: THIS FILM IS SEXUALLY EXPLICIT."
Not nearly as well thought of is Caligula, whose excesses remain memorable for all the wrong reasons. Probably the most expensive production on this list ($17.5 million in 1979), it features an extended orgy in addition to numerous other bouts of full-on sex. Al Pacino and William Friedkin entered the fray a year later with Cruising, with Pacino as an undercover cop investigating a series of murders in New York's gay club scene. Most of the real action took place in the background, but wasn't exactly difficult to notice. Friedkin had done an excellent job of demolishing the goodwill he built up with The French Connection (which won him an Oscar) and The Exorcist by directing Sorcerer, his underrated movie from 1977 about a motley crew of drifters transporting highly volatile nitroglycerin through South America in big rigs. Cruising didn't do him any favors, either.
None of these directors made as questionable a decision as Vincent Gallo, whose controversial The Brown Bunny climaxes with a scene in which his character receives a blowjob from Chloë Sevigny (who happens to be Gallo's real-life ex-girlfriend). The film was pilloried upon its world premiere at Cannes in 2003, leading to an escalating back-and-forth between Gallo and Roger Ebert, who deemed the filmmaker's pet project the worst film ever to screen at Cannes. Gallo responded by calling the critic fat; Ebert retorted by paraphrasing Churchill; Gallo put a hex on Ebert's colon; and Ebert claimed that watching a video of his own colonoscopy was more entertaining than The Brown Bunny. Point: Ebert.
Not everyone was as unkind (and even Ebert responded favorably to a shorter, re-edited version), but the film has continued to be defined by this one scene—which may be the biggest argument against featuring explicit sex in movies. It can become a distraction, a way of pigeonholing something. The real challenge, then, may lie in not letting this aspect alone shape a movie's legacy
As for whether explicit sex adds to cinema, it's like anything else: It depends on the film itself. Starlet fares best among recent examples; Sean Baker's low-key story of a porn actress living and working in the San Fernando Valley benefited from its cleverly edited shots of the eponymous star in the act. (As Lars von Trier did in Nymphomaniac, Baker also opted for body doubles in these sequences.) When it works, it fells incidental to the plot, yet essential to the overall tone. There is never any question of shock value or exploitation, which to say: The sex serves the narrative, not the director.