You may laugh. Even snicker. But it’s a problem. Sex scenes today, in general, stink.
True, this is a broad statement, and there are many exceptions. I wonder, though, if filmmakers in the not-so-new millennia often view such content as obligatory, like a car chase in an action flick, rather than something integral that pushes the storyline. Sex has become de rigueur in mainstream movies geared to adults—so much so that we expect a little mundane naughtiness in our cinema, particularly if it’s rated “R.” Without a bit of steam, the dish remains uncooked.
What we really need, however, is the reason for the steam. And I find that most of the time, it’s not there.
Marcus Nispel’s mostly execrable Conan the Barbarian (2011) exemplifies this problem. Yes, it’s Conan; lustiness is part and parcel. Yet the heaving, gyrating sex scene involving the titular muscleman and his love interest felt artificial, as if grafted onto the screen. It didn’t move the story; in fact, it stopped it. You knew they were going to make love sooner or later. You didn’t know it would be so dull.
Sex in cable series such as Game of Thrones (2011-present) occurs so frequently that it loses its erotic quality. It gains, however, the impetus to drive the proceedings forward. Oftentimes, these scenes contain dialogue that sheds light on the characters or provides sufficient foreshadowing. As a collection of episodes, Thrones offers luxury. A two-hour theatrical film doesn’t. The latter requires economy.
Which is evident in a film that may have the best sex scene of all time: Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). The ghostly tale of a man and woman traveling in Venice after the death of their daughter, Now features a coupling that’s actually sad—an expression of their love and despair without an ounce of salaciousness. It helps define the movie. It’s critical.
Similarly important yet tonally opposite is the sex scene in Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), in which Faye Dunaway’s TV executive climaxes while talking about ratings in the middle of the act with her high-ranking comrade (William Holden). The moment is funny and distressing at the same time and offers an insight into her vacuous, callous character. Who knew that TV numbers could be so exciting?
Unexpected perceptions are what typify those two sequences. That’s what sex is really about, anyway—isn’t it? If it’s done by rote, it becomes uninteresting … though as Woody Allen says in Love and Death (1975) in response to the statement that loveless sex is an “empty experience”: “Yes, but as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best.”
Empty is certainly not the way to describe the lovemaking in Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), during which Tim Robbins’ executive confesses to a murder, one of the disturbing highlights of the film. On the other hand, it’s completely accurate for the sex montage involving Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin and Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson set to the Simon and Garfunkel song “April Come She Will” in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967)—but in a powerful way. They finish as the melody comes to an end, but not happily; there’s no love there, no warmth. The two partners are as cold to each other as any pair can be and are just using each other for gratification. It’s one of the most telling moments of the film and essential to its plot.
No one could claim that the partners are cold in Dover Koshashvili’s Late Marriage (2001), which prominently features a graphic, lengthy sex scene between a man and his lover, a single mother who is scorned by his family. This is almost a grueling sequence but it’s also helpful, as it shows the connection between them—something that is absent between the man and his fiancée, whom he is ultimately forced to marry. An indictment of cultural convention, Marriage shows that sex onscreen can be meaningful and erotic at the same time.
But we don’t get that a lot in movies of late.
In my most disconsolate cinematic musings, I sometimes wonder if the era of taking risks with such content has ended—even in an age when on-camera nonsimulated sex has made it to the (sort of) mainstream. What is daring now in terms of erotica? It can’t be something that’s ultimately just sexy. It has to be something that’s vital, like the sequences cited previously. And questioning why we’re viewing something must become part of our moviegoing process.
So I question every sex scene I see nowadays in the cinema. If it’s in the storyline, there must be a reason. If there isn’t, then it tarnishes the film—just like any other component. As consumers, we’re voluntary voyeurs, and erotica certainly has an inherent appeal. The issue is: Are we going to see movies in the theatre because of that or something more?
I know my answer. Today’s filmmakers should, too.