In the Realm of the Senses: Sex and Cinema

sex Different from the othersHere in the States, they say the hardest thing to do in sports is hit a baseball. In film, the hardest thing may be to film a good, honest sex scene. There are plenty of reasons for this. Unless you routinely scatter banana peels around your home, sex is the closest most of us are likely to come to slapstick comedy. It is messy and awkward, at least if you are doing it right. Any kind of deviation from the normal, any hint of kink or fetish, is likely to produce nervous titters from the audience. Add to that the artificiality of the act on screen – the fact that two or more actors, in various states of undress, are performing in front of camera and crew, under lights, and in make-up, over and over again to get it just right, and the whole endeavour just seems off-putting. Finally, even if the filmmakers get it just right, audiences are still prone to reject what they are watching. They may be afraid of being deemed perverted if aroused, or equally afraid of being considered prudes if not aroused. Either way, detachment and condemnation are the safest reactions.

And yet, sex is all over the history of film. Moving image pioneer Eadweard Muybridge may have been studying human motion in his sequential photography, but he sure seemed predominately interested in the motion of naked women. Jean Renoir began making movies so that he could photograph his lover Catherine Hessling. When Hollywood had to fight back against television’s encroachment after World War II, it tried special effects and colour and wide-screen. But its best weapon was sex. When cable had to gain a foothold in challenging television in the 1980s, once again, it turned to sex. Whether they do it well or not, movies keep doing it.

I was reminded of the American film depiction of sex after watching John Turturro’s new film, Fading Gigolo. It is a modestly pleasant, very thin comedy, which is largely about sex, though it really has little to say on the subject. Which is not uncommon here in the States. In America, our wonderfully melted pot of personal freedom and puritanical morality, sex and film have always been in a troubled relationship. Has there ever been an American movie that dealt with sex in a groundbreaking and frank manner? The most sexually provocative character in the history of American film, Mae West, was effectively neutered by the implementation of Hollywood’s Production Code in 1934. Her film career nosedived and in the past 80 years, no one has reclaimed her mantle. There have been some highly sexually charged movies – both Screwball Comedy and Film Noir Crime produced quite a few. But sexuality was by rule the subtext in those movies. I realise there are many audience members who prefer it that way, and when it’s well done, say in Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1950), or Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940), the screen does virtually drip with sex. But when I sat down to think of movies that have dealt with the varied colours of sex in a sophisticated and ground-breaking manner, no American movies came to mind. Not Samson and Delilah (1949) or Peyton Place (1957) or The Brown Bunny (2003). Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986) came closest, but I think that movie is much more significant as a ground-breaker in the area of African American Independent cinema that in the area of sex. So here are seven movies that say something important about sex in one way or another, none of which come from my home country.


sex I don't want to be a manI Don’t Want to Be a Man (Ernst Lubitsch, 1918)

This is a slight comedy and if you want to make arguments for other titles in its place, I understand. But it’s here for several important reasons. It is largely forgotten that in the immediate aftermath of World War I, when Europeans challenged every past notion of propriety, homosexuality had a brief flourishing in major, cosmopolitan capitals: London, Paris, and Berlin. Richard Oswalt’s landmark plea for tolerance, Different From the Others (1919), made with the support of early homosexual rights activist, Magnus Hirschfeld, is partly lost to history. But Lubitsch’s comedy, which is almost certainly a better film, remains. It features his early film muse, Ossi Oswalda, as a tomboy frustrated by societal requirements that she be a proper young lady. She dresses as a man and goes out for a night on the town. Oswalda is a delight in the role, and the movie has a lot to say about gender stereotypes. But what is most remarkable is the sequence toward the end, when Ossi, pretending to be a man, has a drunken make-out session with another man. They hug and kiss playfully and publicly, and no one raises an eyebrow. It is a brief signal that such behaviour in 1918 Berlin, if not exactly standard, was also not apocalyptic. It was merely good fodder for comedy. Of course, such behaviour would not be openly tolerated in Berlin for very much longer.

Summer With Monika (Ingmar Bergman, 1953)

The first section of Bergman’s film career is concerned primarily with sex and the impossibility young couples face when trying to forge a life together. That period is capped by his two best films to that time, both in 1953, both starring Harriet Andersson. Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) was about the attraction between an older man and a younger woman. But Monika was all about young lust. The two lovers are drawn together by their mutual yearning for freedom, and sex becomes the means of escape. America would repeatedly look to the more permissive society of Sweden for its sexual titillation, and Andersson’s very brief, and heavily promoted, nudity did cause quite a stir. But it was another moment from the film that has had more lasting impact. Late in the movie, after a falling out with her nice guy husband, the thrill-seeking Monika goes out to a bar to look for men. At one key moment, cigarette in hand, she turns directly into the camera. Bergman holds the shot as she stares right at us, the single greatest “I know you want to screw me” image ever put on film.

Intentions of Murder (Shohei Imumura, 1964)

Where have you gone, Setsuko Hara? Hara was the proper young Japanese woman in so many of Yasujiro Ozo’s movies. But Shohei Imumura wasn’t interested in the traditional Japanese woman. He worked at Nikkatsu, and Nikkatsu targeted the youth market with contemporary topics. “I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure.” That was Imumura’s mission and Masumi Harukawa, the slovenly heroine of Intentions of Murder serves that mission beautifully. Her character Sadako begins as the typically submissive wife, but she also snacks and takes lazy breaks from her boring routine. She has desires not typically associated with Japanese heroines to that point. And later, when she becomes a victim of rape, she turns the tables on the man who assaults her. Without ever succumbing to the prurience of cheap exploitation revenge fantasies like I Spit on Your Grave (1978) or Ms. 45 (1981), Imumura was able to craft a feminist film from a most unlikely source.

Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1973)

Pauline Kael compared it to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps and opined that sexuality in cinema would be forever changed by Bertolucci and Brando. A few years prior, Bertolucci had made an outstanding movie called The Conformist (1970) about a man who submerges his fears of inadequacy into passionate political involvement with a fascist regime. Here, he examines a man who submerges his fears of mortality into a passionate sexual relationship with a young woman. The middle-aged Brando was ideal for this role and the sex is desperate and violent, tactile and perverse. It became a cause célèbre, and a stick of butter became a notorious punch line to many a joke. 40 years later, it retains much of its power, though its most interesting legacy is just how wrong Kael was. There was no revolution in adult depictions of sexuality. There has just been a lot more skin.

In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima, 1976)

From the country that censors the genitalia of performers in its pornography comes the second revolutionary film on my list. Oshima set out to challenge Japanese censorship laws and he found the perfect vehicle in the true-life story of Sada Abe, 1930’s geisha who murdered and mutilated her lover in a fit of passion. There is graphic nudity and sexuality throughout In the Realm of the Senses and it ends with one of the most shocking finales in the history of film. The film won awards. The film was banned. It was debated and censored all over the world. Oshima was brought up on charges in Japan. He was eventually acquitted. And much like Last Tango, the most interesting thing about it today may be the way that it failed to bring about any serious change in the nature of sexuality in cinema.

Outrageous! (Richard Benner, 1977)

The third title from the ‘70s is from Canada. Like I Don’t Want to Be a Man, it is a comedy and it also deals with homosexuality. Those facts should not be forgotten. The top two films on the AFI 100 Greatest Comedies list were both cross-dressing movies, though neither Some Like It Hot nor Tootsie were about homosexuality. Even a hint of femininity in men still finds much easier acceptance if offered in the guise of comedy. Outrageous! is significantly cheaper than most of the other movies on this list and it has an amateurish quality that actually works in its favour. It also has infectious performances from its two leads. Craig Russell, as a shy hair dresser whose real personality comes out when he takes to the stage as a female impersonator, and Hollis McLaren, as his mentally unstable friend, are both joys to watch and they give the two main subject matters – gender identity and mental illness – a playful warmth and humanity missing from most films on similar topics.

Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)

Forty years after Last Tango, McQueen teamed up with Michael Fassbender to create another portrait of a sexually addicted man. The movie takes place in New York, but all of its primary creators – director, writer, actors – hailed from the British Isles. Compared to the similarly-themed soft-boiled American mediocrity Thanks For Sharing (2012), this is light years ahead. It has its share of full frontal nudity, both male and female, but it is most potent in its nuanced portrait of sex as therapy and commodity, and how it suggests that our psychological hang-ups about it are the source of much misery.

I admit I am being a bit rough on my home country here, and if I really tried, I could come up with American films that could be included. Boys Don’t Cry (1999), or any of several other Christine Vachon produced films, deals with sexuality in a sophisticated manner. But the predominant attitude in America – where you can gut and gouge victims to your heart’s content for an R rating, but one semi-erect penis gets you an NC-17 if you’re lucky – seems to still be best expressed by Katharine Hepburn’s Rose Sayer in The African Queen (one of the most sexually charged of all Hollywood movies from the end of the Golden Age). Sex may indeed be our nature, but “nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put in this world to rise above.” I suspect there is plenty more rising left to be done.


Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at

5 thoughts on “In the Realm of the Senses: Sex and Cinema

  1. jon, you have done a fine job of approaching the subject from many different angles. for my money, the besy american film about sex is “splendor in the grass.” The Warhol films are also notable for their candid depiction of sexuality. for recent international fare, “nymphomaniac” was excellent, and “Anatomy of Hell” a masterpiece. “Chamanka” ih s perhaps the best movie i have aseen that depicts the sexual charisma of the insane. Mostly, though, I agree with you in that sex is portrayed unrealistically in american movies, mostly soft-core nonsense for viagra-enhanced masturbation. In order for sex in the movies to be as powerful as it is in real life, it has to be tied to a story that shows the effect of the sex on the characters, and not just be voyeuristic crap. the actual depiction or non-depiction of the sexual acts is not nearly as important as the effect of it on the characters and story. look at splendor in the grass. nothing is shown, but two lives are destroyed. Lolita is another one that shows the destruction of a man through his misplaced sexual desires. and as for the joy of sex…..well, we get a lot of that in the movies of the thirties that show absolutely nothing!

  2. This is an important topic, Jon, and it’s one that frequently falls by the wayside, I think, in mainstream cinema. There is definitely a problem with honesty in movie sex scenes today (I touched upon this topic recently in a post here:, but I’m wondering whether the issue is that sex isn’t regarded as a moving and/or empty experience along the lines of Don’t Look Now and The Graduate, respectively … though as Woody Allen opines in Love and Death: “As empty experiences go, it’s one of the best.” I think there’s a lack of perspective in many contemporary films today that calls attention to this issue, and the movies you point out above are well chosen (though, as usual, I disagree with Kael’s hyperbolic comparison of Last Tango in Paris to Stravinsky’s great, seminal Le Sacre du Printemps.

    One sex scene that I thought was particularly strong was a relatively nongraphic one in 12 Years a Slave, in which the protagonist has anonymous sex toward the beginning with another slave amid a sea of people among which they’re forced to sleep. This scene brought out the need for companionship, for touching, for connection that I think sex provides, and its power was emphasized by the crying after the act.

    • You’re right Simon. There have been movies — even American movies — that have said more about sex and portrayed more sexual variation than I am acknowledging. It has just always seemed curious to me that we can create Miley Cyruses by the truckload but fall so far behind much of the rest of the world when it comes to speaking openly about sex, or portraying it potently on screen. Thanks for weighing in.

  3. Interesting to see the situation from an American perspective Jon. Things are very different over here, with fairly explicit sex a regular feature of most TV dramas, let alone European films. The films I enjoy most are those without sex scenes, unless it can really be seen as relevant to the plot. As an example, Guccione’s ‘Caligula’, at least in the uncut version seen over here, might seem to contain an unnecessary surfeit of outrageous sex and violence. However, given the depravity of the Roman Empire, it does serve to illustrate the excess of that period. (If only the producer’s motives had been to do this, instead of profiting from the outrage)
    I much prefer ‘The Conformist’ to ‘Last Tango’ and see it as an example of Bertolucci at his best. As for ‘Ai No Corrida’, I could only watch it once. Like a drug induced hallucination, it is perhaps an experience well worth trying but best not to repeat.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. I know there’s a difference between what’s enlightening and what’s merely graphic, and the ease with which sexuality can be portrayed in the 21st century can certainly take away from the former. I think here in the States we missed that era in the ’70s when graphic sex was still something new and exciting to explore on screen. I wonder when that time will come around again.

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