The French coming-of-age drama Blue Is the Warmest Colour.
The French coming-of-age drama Blue Is the Warmest Colour.
'Don't you want to press your body against the star of American Gigolo?'
'Don't you want to press your body against the star of American Gigolo?'
Stranger By The Lake, a homoerotic thriller.
Stranger By The Lake, a homoerotic thriller.

Washington - Is it just global warming, or has it gotten a tad steamy at the cinema lately? No sooner had viewers taken in the long, graphic lesbian sex scenes in the French coming-of-age drama Blue Is The Warmest Colour last year than they were treated to Stranger By The Lake, a homoerotic thriller (also French) set in a gay cruising site, at which men could be seen pleasuring each other and themselves with unsettling frankness.

Upon emerging from that well-crafted – if borderline pornographic – tableau, they could go watch Nymphomaniac, Lars von Trier’s two-part fictional biopic of a neurotically promiscuous young woman, played as an adult by the epitome of boho chic, Charlotte Gainsbourg.

For the past year or two, it seems, movies have become obsessed with sex, continually upping the ante on tone, subject matter and explicitness – and 50 Shades Of Grey hasn’t even come out yet.

Or perhaps “exponentially more obsessed” is the better term. Sex has been a dependably attention-grabbing element of cinematic style virtually since the medium’s inception – or at least since the 1920s, when silent films like Sunrise seethed with erotic innuendo beneath the moralistic melodrama.

The decades that ensued found Hollywood exploitatively embracing and phobically avoiding sexuality on screen, alternately pandering to and resisting the dictates of religious leaders, civic censors, hypocritical ratings boards and audiences occupying that singularly American psychic space between Puritan disapproval and prurient voyeurism.

The 1960s had I Am Curious (Yellow) – whose hype was helped by the film being seized by customs agents at the US border; the 1970s had Last Tango In Paris, starring Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider and an uncredited stick of butter; the 1980s had 9½ Weeks, about a sadomasochistic affair between a Wall Street executive and SoHo gallery girl; and the 1990s, Stanley Kubrick’s fetishistic domestic drama Eyes Wide Shut.

By the 2000s – memorable for Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton’s volatile sex scenes in Monster’s Ball, director Michael Winterbottom’s experimentation with non-simulated sex acts in the erotic omnibus 9 Songs, and actress Chloe Sevigny pleasuring director and co-star Vincent Gallo in The Brown Bunny – it seemed as though film-makers were engaged in an escalating arms race of shocking audiences, offering them sexual material as explicit as pornography, but burnished by art-house credibility.

Of course, since the days of Swedish imports featuring casual nudity and naughty bits, art films have existed in a mutually supportive pas de deux with porn, benefiting from the publicity that attends controversial screening ratings while appealing to discerning audiences who wouldn’t be caught dead in an adult theatre. (Put simply, in a porn film, sex can be dirty, kinky or super-hot; in an art house film it’s “transgressive”.)

The challenge today is that, rather than being relegated to disreputable theatres or scruffy back sections of video stores, porn is on the home entertainment centres and portable devices of discerning connoisseurs everywhere.

How do you shock mainstream audiences who can now have their most florid sexual fantasies acted out 24/7, at the click of a mouse? And how can audiences be anything but bored or amused by efforts that increasingly look like the bids for attention of a petulant arrested adolescent?

Those anxious questions seem to have produced a rash of films predicated not on liberation and expression, but on creeping pessimism and dread, epitomised by a recent boomlet in movies about internet porn addiction: starting with Steve McQueen’s 2011 film Shame, starring Michael Fassbender, and continuing last year with Thanks For Sharing and Don Jon. Sex has been portrayed not as tantalisingly elusive, naughty or – heaven forfend! – fun, but the stuff of pathology, isolation and fatally distorted values.

Meanwhile, audiences have been treated to what amounts to an onslaught of images – on big and small screens – that have taken realism to new heights (or, depending on your taste, new lows).

While HBO puts out its usual steady stream of envelope-pushing images in shows like Girls and Game Of Thrones, basic cable has tried mightily to get into the act: the image of teenager Paige walking in on her parents engaging in an acrobatic display of mutual gratification in The Americans is one that neither she or millions of fans will ever un-see.

Even Wes Anderson has seen fit to include an image of a man receiving oral sex in his new movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel – a moment all the more jarring for being so out of place within the director’s fussy, steadfastly asexual house style.

Granted, it’s the briefest of glimpses. The trick, Anderson knows, is striking the right balance between refreshing honesty and off-putting vulgarity.

“We found out that… people will leave the theatre if you have full frontal nudity for an extended period of time, (but) if you make it five seconds they’ll laugh and say it was great,” producer Judd Apatow – who helped invent the raunch-com – told the Hollywood Reporter.

“That’s the ratio of how much penis people can handle in a movie. Five seconds yes, 20 seconds no.”

There’s a whole lot more than 20 seconds of the full Monty in Stranger By The Lake and Nymphomaniac, each of which portrays sexuality less as a function of desire than pathological impulses. Both films portray fleeting moments of ecstasy, but for the most part sex is depicted as a furtive, joyless endeavour.

By contrast, the opening scene of the new HBO show Looking, set in a cruising area in a San Francisco park, is played for fumbling, even innocent laughs.

For its part, Blue Is The Warmest Colour wasn’t as groundbreaking for the images it contained as for the length of time the camera spent on them: when the film made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival last year, the buzz immediately centred on an astonishing seven-minute love scene between characters played by Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos.

It’s true that the sequence went on much longer than a conventional sex scene, but within the context of a three-hour movie, it was an organic part of the whole, one that only accentuated what felt like a raw, intimately observed chronicle of a pivotal chapter in a young woman’s life.

Regardless of how they deployed sexuality, all three films traded on the curiosity of viewers who, with sex now available on their devices of choice, have fewer and fewer reasons to leave their homes to be provoked, titillated or carnally enlightened.

It goes without saying that despite their most strenuous efforts to go there, few of the most explicit movies could be called sexy: it’s what is withheld, rather than what’s shown, that creates those familiar delicious frissons, whether it’s the sight of Mark Ruffalo feeding Julianne Moore a piece of his tender-hot home-made pie in The Kids Are All Right or Diane Lane recalling an afternoon of illicit lust while commuting back home in Unfaithful.

In a newly pornified pop culture, the most shocking depictions of sex may not be the most painfully outlandish S&M scenarios of Nymphomaniac or the explicitness of Stranger By The Lake, but the portrayal of sex as a part of daily life – and as such a source of projection, frustration, vulnerability, disappointment and awkward, uncosmeticised lust.

One of the most genuinely gobsmacking moments I’ve had in the cinema in recent years, sex-wise, was when Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones played a couple seeing a therapist in the 2012 comedy Hope Springs – not a masterpiece of a movie, but one that tackled older-generation sex with admirable honesty and surprising straightforwardness.

In a similar vein, the romantic dramedy Le Week-End takes a sometimes funny, often-searing look at the ebb and flow of physical desire as it plays out in a 30-year marriage. (“May I touch you?” Jim Broadbent’s Nick solicitously asks Meg, played by Lindsay Duncan. “What for?” she bites back testily.)

Whether it’s Lena Dunham’s zaftig Hannah uncomfortably adjusting her corset in Girls, or Broadbent admitting to Duncan that he’s “become a phobic object for you”, these shows and movies restore sex to something of its rightful place – not as an impossibly aspirational ideal or coarse, nihilistic compulsion, but a vector for expression, playfulness, intimacy and recognisably human foibles.

It turns out that film-makers can still elicit shocks – whether through outrage, recognition or vicarious desire: they need only explore all those shades of grey, which number far more than a measly 50. – The Washington Post


Sex in the cinema: A timeline

By Michael O’Sullivan

Nudity at the movies is nothing new. Some of the earliest action committed to film – going back to the movement studies of photographer Eadweard Muybridge in the 1880s – involved naked human bodies running and jumping.

It wasn’t long before film-makers figured out other naughty things for people to do in front of the camera. In response came the Motion Picture Production Code, a set of standards imposed on the American film industry in an attempt to keep things clean. First enforced in 1934, the code’s strict censorship wasn’t dropped until 1968, replaced by an early version of the voluntary rating system it has today.

But the bar keeps being raised. (Or is that lowered?) Here’s a brief history of some of the milestones along the way from the initial loss of our cinematic virginity to Nymphomaniac.

Ecstasy (1933): Hedy Lamar plays a newlywed fleeing a passionless marriage in this Czech romance, the first non-porn film to depict the sex act.

The Seven Year Itch (1955): Marilyn Monroe’s low-cut halter dress – blown skyward by a gust from a subway vent in this comedy about marital infidelity – signalled the dawn of the modern era of movie sex.

I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967): The subject of a censorship battle that went all the way to the US Supreme Court, this erotic Swedish drama introduced America to the more liberal erotic standards of European cinema. It became a hit after its 1969 release in the US, reigning as the highest-grossing foreign film until 1994’s Il Postino.

Midnight Cowboy (1969): The gritty story of the friendship between a male prostitute (Jon Voight) and a con artist (Dustin Hoffman) was the first (and only) X-rated film to win an Oscar for best picture.

Last Tango in Paris (1972): Marlon Brando’s portrayal of a man involved in a purely physical relationship with a much younger woman (played by a 19-year-old Maria Schneider) shocked audiences for its graphic sex and nudity.

American Gigolo (1980): Richard Gere, playing a narcissistic male escort, made history as the first major American movie star to go the full Monty.

Porky’s (1982): The age of the raunchy teen sex farce officially begins with this crudity- and nudity-filled yuk-fest.

Henry & June (1990): Inspired by the diaries of Anaïs Nin, the drama starring Fred Ward and Uma Thurman was the first major Hollywood film to receive an NC-17 rating in the US. Created to replace the X rating, the new designation warned of content that, while not pornographic, was nevertheless unsuitable for children.

Basic Instinct (1992): This erotic thriller scandalised audiences for its depiction of rough sex, lesbianism, bondage and Sharon Stone famously uncrossing her legs and leaving nothing to the imagination in her portrayal of a bisexual murder suspect.

Kids (1995): Larry Clark’s cinema-verite story drew criticism for its non-judgemental portrayal of underage sex that many saw as child pornography.

Brokeback Mountain (2005): Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger brought star power to Ang Lee’s groundbreaking story of cowboys in love.

Shortbus (2006): When shown at Cannes and Toronto, this art house film by Hedwig and the Angry Inch director-writer-star John Cameron Mitchell – with its numerous permutations of unsimulated sex – was the most explicit yet screened at those festivals. – The Washington Post