Sex and the movies: The age of anticlimax

The Graduate - sexWe need better sex scenes in the movies.

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.

Don't Look Now - sexMaking a sex scene boring is easier than it sounds. We have to ask: Why do we want to see this on camera? Is it because we’re titillated? Or is it because we need to see it—that it’s crucial?

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?

Network - sexUnexpected 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.

Late Marriage - sexIn 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.



Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse ( that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

16 thoughts on “Sex and the movies: The age of anticlimax

  1. Hmmm, I would have to say that most sex scenes in cinema or on television just seem completely unrealistic. I heard that there was a real one in brown bunny (Vincent Gallo). the film that struck me as the most intriguing in terms of “sex” and sex scenes I suppose was Crash (David Cronenberg). You can read my review of crash here The one at the ending of the Secretary (Steven Shainberg) was obviously fake but rounded of the story nicely.

  2. I like movies about sex. some good ones are In the Realm of the Senses, last Tango in Paris, Beyond the Valley of the dolls,and Betty bluoe. But I hate sex scenes inserted into movies that have non-erotic themes. these scenes do nothing but slow down the movie to the poit that when the story picks up again, I have lost all interest in it. If you want to see sex handled with style and controversy, check out the new peter Greenaway picture, Goltzius and the Pelican Company. I found the sex scenes in network and dont Look Now incredibly stupid. They were like set pieces over which thed audience was expected to ooh and aah. I for one have no interest in watching tacky actresses like Faye dunaway and Julie christie simulate sex. As a teen, I enjoyed watching sexy actresses like Catherine Denueve and Brigitte Bardot, but all that seems silly to me now. Sex is a tactile act, not a visual one, one that is best shared between two people inn the same physical universe. too much of cinema is predicated on acts of non-consensual sex between humans and ghosts.

    • Realm of the Sense and Last Tango in Paris are definitely worthy choices for this category! And I agree with you, to a certain extent, Bill, on such scenes often slowing down films that don’t overall have erotic subjects. I have to disagree with your assessment of Don’t Look Now and Network, however, as well as of Faye Dunaway and Julie Christie–both of whom delivered strong performances in their respective roles. They were definitely set pieces, but they were also germane and conveyed important insights about the characters. So I feel like they were warranted. And although the question of tactile versus visual is an interesting one–I think the latter definitely can be relevant. As for Greenaway, he’s an intriguing director, though I don’t always agree with his choices; he did create an interesting, though rather unpleasant, scene in The Draughtman’s Contract that I still remember to this day.

      • ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’! Now you’re talking. One of my favourite British films, and certainly one of Greenaway’s best. (Not for the sex scenes though, just the whole thing) Regards, Pete.

        • Hi, Pete–The Draughtsman’s Contract is definitely unique, and one thing I like about Greenaway is that he doesn’t seem to be afraid to take cinematic risks. He’s not my favorite director, but he’s one of the few filmmakers today to instill his movies with a distinct flavor. And The Draughtsman’s Contract certainly had its share of memorable scenes! A strange and interesting flick.

  3. a couple of memorable sex scenes from recent years: the one from “The Losers,” and the one from “The Heartbreak Kid.” and yeah, “Mulholland Drive” was great, too. for good, non-exploitative sex scenes, you pretty much have to look to the indie flicks.

    • I think that’s an interesting point about the indie films, Duncan, and brings up the question of whether the problem is mainly with mainstream films and the need to provide scenes that are accessible or tame versus ones that take cinematic risks. There may well be more risk-taking in indies, though I will say that some indies I’ve seen are rather conservative cinematically. It’s definitely a complex issue!

  4. I found this article most interesting Simon. I have tried to think back over the films I have seen, where a sex scene, good or bad, made the film special, or placed it in a list of my favourites. I can really only think of the scene between Catherine Denueve and Susan Sarandon in ‘The Hunger’ (1983), to the background music of ‘Lakme’, by Delibes.
    I also liked the performance of Jane Fonda in ‘Klute’ (1971), as the prostitute Bree Daniels. Her insincerity, and the manipulation of sex, and its use as a means to an end, is actually relevant, and she plays it to perfection.

    Films where sex was the substance of the film, as in ‘Emmanuelle’ (1974), and ‘9 1/2 Weeks’ (1986) were simple exercises in titillation, and did not really work either way for me; as sexy films, or complete films, but with sex.
    I had to smile at the example of ‘The Graduate’. When I saw this film at the cinema, I thought Anne Bancroft was far more desirable than Katherine Ross! And I was only 16 at the time…

    Regards from England. Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete! Very astute comment, as usual! I think it’s interesting to see the evolution of films from the supposedly erotic films of the late ’60s and ’70s to today. At one time, I think these films were regarded as novelties; now, however, in an age where nothing seems to be hidden onscreen, they’ve lost their luster. The montage in The Graduate, which was comparatively discreet, said more about the characters than anything in 9 1/2 Weeks. But that’s like comparing apples to 9 1/2 week-old applesauce. 🙂

  5. Many thanks, CK! It’s interesting that you mention Lynch and Von Trier–two directors whose body of work has frequently been offbeat. Many times, we find gems in such films, and I wonder if mainstream directors can learn from this. Whether I agree with their choices or not, Lynch and Von Trier certainly offer perspective!

  6. Great article, Simon. You’re right, on screen sex is a rather neglected topic and there are few interesting ones. ‘Don’t Look Now’ and ‘Network’ are two of my favourites too. ‘Get Carter’ also has a funny one which cuts between Caine making love to his latest triumph and him shifting gears and driving his fast car.

    Of recent times the most interesting sex scenes I can think of come from the works of David Lynch and Lars Von Trier. Particularly Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway’ and ‘Mulholland Dr.’ have rather erotic yet haunting stuff.

    • With you on Mulholland Drive CK, erotic scenes indeed. And I have just remembered ‘Bound’ (1996), with Jennifer Tilly, and Gina Gershon. How did I forget that one? Cheers, Pete.

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