(above) Scene from Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac.
Watching the dreary sex scenes in 50 Shades of Grey got me thinking about sex in mainstream movies. They do a generally terrible job of fake sex, with the minimal foreplay and impossible positions, but what about when they try to add real sex? With the general availability of movies through streaming and Netflix, I thought it might be worth taking a look at real sex in mainstream films to see how well they are doing and if any of the movies incorporating real sex in the last few years is actually worth watching.
Directed by Lars von Trier
Cast: Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Connie Nielsen, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman, and Willem Dafoe.
The director’s cut of this is 5 ½ hours. For distribution, it was cut into two two hour movies. I had a hard time just getting through the first two hours. This is the third installment of what is known as his Depression Trilogy.
The conceit here is that he got big names to appear in the movie, and used digitally incorporated stunt genitals attached to unnamed performers to make it appear that they are having explicit sex. The producers also revealed that they used a prosthetic vagina. In actual viewing, this is not that big an improvement over just using body doubles, as he did in his earlier part of this trilogy, Antichrist.
The truth is, there are a lot of people who love Von Trier movies. I am not one of them. They are extremely talky, with characters lengthily ruminating on the things that Von Trier finds deep and illuminating. I just find them dull. Think of this movie like My Dinner with Andre but instead of courses, you have intercourses.
This is an art film, despite having major talent, and it is not considered part of his Depression Trilogy for nothing. It is sad, depressing, and dispiriting. It was not really made to be entertaining, but it is supposed to make you feel something, right up to the ending that the director admits he wants you to feel like a pebble in your shoe.
The premise is that a badly beaten Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is found in an alley in a pool of her own blood by kindly Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). He takes her home to nurse her back to health, and she tells him the story of her life through flashbacks. While the term nymphomaniac is inaccurate and degrading, she does suffer from a real condition, female hypersexuality. With this condition, women have a deeply negative view of themselves. Her life is quite sad, as is typical of the lives of women who suffer from this. They use sexual activity as a way to dissociate from emotional discomfort, stress, anxiety, depression, and unresolved childhood trauma. This is different from someone who is hypersexual but has a perfectly happy life. The point is, that the sex here is never joyful. It is just sad.
Directed by Catherine Breillat
Cast: Caroline Ducey, Sagamore Stevenin, Francois Berleand, Rocco Siffredi, Reza Habouhossein
I don’t think anyone has done more sexually explicit mainstream films than French director Catherine Breillat. Dreary, depressing, narcissistic, and pointless, Romance relates the story of school teacher Marie (Caroline Ducey), who is unhappy with her sex life with her boyfriend.
She goes on a series of sexual adventures, looking throughout completely disinterested, passionless and joyless. Even her scene with the very talented porn star Rocco Siffredi is lifeless.
And she talks. Constantly, and pointlessly, with existential drivel. Even when they gag her during a BDSM scene, we hear her internal dialogue- which is as annoying and pointless as her external dialogue.
Just when you think you could not hate the film anymore, or feel like you need to grab her hair and pin it back out of her eyes, her narcissism reaches a crescendo of such appalling immorality (and we aren’t talking sexual morality) that you lose any emotional connection with her at all (assuming you had ever developed any).
It has an amazing ability to make sex dreadfully uninteresting, and the title is strictly meant as ironic. This was the first contemporary mainstream film I had seen with graphic sexuality, and I figured it could only go uphill from here. I was wrong.
Caroline Ducey and Rocco Siffredi in Romance
Directed by Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi
Cast: Raffaela Anderson, Karen Lancaume, Delphine MacCarty, Lisa Marshall, Estelle Isaac, Herve P. Gustave, Marc Rioufol
Probably the most repellent of the bunch, horrible does not even begin to describe it. The plot revolves around Manu (Rafaëlla Anderson- a French adult film performer), who lives in a crime-ridden Parisian suburb. She and a friend are kidnapped and raped, which inspires her to go home and kill her boyfriend who fails to respond the way she wants him to.
She meets Nadine (Karen Bach- another French adult film performer), a prostitute who decides to travel with her as they go, for no real apparent reason, on a violent killing spree, with some pointless and decidedly unsexy sex along the way before they dispatch their victims, often right after having sex with them.
Their final unsavory act is to go into a sex club, which provides an opportunity for we viewers to see some additional explicit sex, and then slaughter all of the happily hedonistic participants. You can’t like the protagonists, you can’t understand what motivates them, you can’t condone what they do, so none of it is involving. Plus, the production values are terrible and the sex scenes are hard core but uninteresting.
Raffaela Anderson, Karen Lancaume commit another senseless killing in Baise Moi
Cast: Yekaterina Golubeva, David Wissak
Shot in California in a mixture of French and English, although it is not dialogue heavy. Many have commented on the sloppiness of the film, including a scene where they order ice cream without telling the guy what kind and then leave without paying, as if that is how things are done in the California desert.
The plot (such as it is) involves American photographer David who speaks little French, and French girlfriend Katia who speaks little English, and their location scouting in Joshua Tree National Park. This has them driving around a lot, but not doing anything resembling scouting or much of interest.
They have virtually no character and are not particularly attractive, so the explicit sex has little charge or even any point. There is some nice scenery, though, often more interesting to watch than the actors. The film meanders slowly for a long time until we get to the muddled climax, involving a particularly bloody and violent sequence that seems to come out of nowhere. Nothing really makes much sense. Nihilism and empty French existentialism meet in the desert and wind up boring each other.
David and Katia sun in the desert in Twentynine Palms
The Brown Bunny
Directed by Vincent Gallo
Cast: Vincent Gallo, Chloe Sevigny, Cheryl Tiegs, Elizabeth Blake, Anna Vareschi, Mary Morasky
This has made a lot of people’s “Worst Films Ever Made” lists, but frankly, I did not think it was that exceptional. It was one of the few films I have seen that I found essentially unwatchable, with one small exception- the sex scene.
The sex scene has Chloe Sevigny, one of the stars of HBO’s Big Love, sucking off Vincent Gallo. The scene itself is one of the more arousing in this roundup. It is explicit, real, nothing hidden, and she swallows. Actually, it is a better blowjob scene than in a lot of porn films, as long as you watch it out of context of the film.
Then again, maybe it just seemed more interesting because the rest of it is so unrelentingly boring. Thank god for DVD. You can go to just this scene. The rest of it involves watching director and star Vincent Gallo drive around in his car. A few things happen, none of it very interesting, but mostly he drives, and drives, and drives. Then he drives some more. We find out why in the twist ending (which is basically all that stands in place of an actual plot), but at that point, we don’t really care.
Vincent Gallo and Chloe Sevigny in The Brown Bunny
Directed by Christophe Honore
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Louis Garrel, Emma de Caunes, Joana Preiss, Jean-Baptiste Montagut, Dominique Reymond, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Duclos, Pascal Tokatlian, Theo Hakola
Isabelle Huppert plays Hélène, a wealthy bisexual woman with serious self-esteem issues who seems to be attracted to destructive relationships with men. Her most notably bad choice in relationships is with her 17 year old son, Pierre, played by Louis Garrel, of The Dreamers.
She and her husband both are having affairs, and their son is being raised by the grandmother. When he comes to visit them on an island off of Spain, the husband soon leaves on business and dies during the trip. Angry at his father’s infidelity, his mother explains that she is the same, and encourages his budding sexuality, pairing him off with her younger sexually aggressive and vulgar girlfriend Réa (Joana Preiss) in a scene that takes place in public.
Things go a little too far when he enters her bedroom in the morning where several lovers, male and female, have spent the night, and begins making love to Réa while his mother watches. Fearful of what might happen, the mother leaves, but assigns the beautiful Hansi (Emma de Caunes) to continue his education.
Along the way, he learns darker secrets about his mother, and things do not turn out well in the end, something we see the film heading towards for awhile. There are a lot of sex scenes, a little hard SM, and much that many will find very disturbing (especially the extremely dark ending). It is not a happy film or all that fun to watch, and most of the sex is not erotic, but at least it has some story and a professional cast to tell it.
Emma de Caunes and Louis Garrel in Ma Mere
Directed by John Cameron Mitchel
Cast: Paul Dawson, PJ DeBoy, Sook-Yin Lee, Lindsay Beamish
So far I’ve discussed several movies that were intended for mainstream audiences, but also included scenes of graphic sexuality. Without exception, I’ve found them all to be nihilistic and depressing, with a very negative and dismal view of sexuality. Based on my previous experiences, my expectations for Shortbus were exceptionally low.
Couples therapist Sofia Lin (Sook-Yin Lee) with husband Rob (Raphael Barker)
Perhaps part of it was my surprise to find that not only did I not absolutely hate the movie, but I came away moved and impressed. This was the first film with graphic sex that I have actually enjoyed. The sex scenes are very graphic, but not long enough for it to be a stroke film. They are all motivated by the narrative, and carry the story along.
You know this is no ordinary film right from the beginning. Starting with a pan across an artistic rendition of the Statue of Liberty, we pan back to see the entire city of New York rendered in the same style. We fly across the city and into the windows of some of the apartments. This becomes a motif in the film along with power brownouts, reminding me somewhat of L.A. Story and the way the weather interacted with the story in a magical way.
The director and the actors pull no punches with the sexuality, and seem to intentionally break as many taboos as possible. The very first scene shows a nude man in a bathtub, videotaping his penis- so the taboo of full frontal male nudity is out of the way right from the start. We then look into the window of a dominatrix and her client. Then we see a couple in the throes of passionate sex, going through several of the much more advanced Kama Sutra positions.
The lives of these characters will intersect in interesting and surprising ways. You really can’t guess which way this film is going to turn. There were a lot of directions I feared it would go, but was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t.
There is a lot of use of humor throughout, even during the sex scenes. There is a threeway with three men (and yes, the sex is all over the map, gay, straight, bi, cross-dressing, BDSM, orgies), and when one of the men asks the man having sex with him if he could make a little more noise, it evolves into all of them merrily belting out the star-spangled banner. It’s not played as camp, but as a humorous expression of the sometimes silly things we do during sex.
The main characters are James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy), a gay couple with a dark looming shadow over their relationship (and for a change- not AIDS), Dr. Sofia Lin (Sook-Yin Lee), a couples councilor struggling with her own sexuality and inability to achieve orgasm in her own marriage, and Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a dominatrix struggling with her inability to make real connections with people. Their lives are transformed as their lives become intertwined, with the pivot point being a New York pansexual sex club called Shortbus.
Dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish-foreground) in the sex club Shortbus
I’ve been to a lot of sex clubs. None exactly like this, but it certainly has more of the right feel than most of the depictions I have seen in both mainstream film (Eyes Wide Open was way off) and porn films. Most depictions of sex clubs are as these serious sex drenched landscapes rather than what they show here, a playful playground for adults in many different places in their sex lives. This director has been to actual underground sex salons in New York and models it after that and the Parisian salons of Gertrude Stein- smorgasbords of art, food, friendship and sex.
I especially appreciated the knowing comment when the host at the club explains to the new customer that they are having a film festival. He admits, “Oh, they’re boring, but the more boring they are, the more intellectual people think they are”. Boy, does that sum up my feeling about other films like this with explicit sex, along with the notion that the more depressing they are, the more acceptable the sex is.
Interestingly, the script was developed with the cast, which is perhaps why the sex works as well as it does. There is no question that making a film with explicit sex scenes is very challenging. The director also understands, as he has pointed out in interviews, that “sex is something knitted from the nerve endings connected to every part of a person’s life.” Rather than an act of miserable desperation or a disconnected moment, sex in this film is fully integrated into the characters lives. Sex is a tapestry of magic, joy, fear, and uncertainty, and this film incorporates all of that.
I got very involved with the characters, and cared about what happened to them. In almost all of the other attempts I’ve seen at incorporating explicit sex into mainstream films, I did not care about the characters at all. In the dreadful Romance directed by Catherine Breillat, I wanted the main character to die even more than I wanted the main character in Showgirls to be hit by a bus. In this film, when a character is at risk of dying, I was quite upset by the prospect. The characters have depth, and you get to understand why they are having to struggle so much in their lives as the story unfolds.
Ultimately, rather than a dreary exploitative look at graphic sexuality, this film reveals the redemptive power of sex in our lives. I imagine that a lot of people, not unlike the characters in the film, are stuck sexually and will not see past their own preconceptions and prejudices. If you can get past that, this film, while sad in many parts, is at its heart, a very joyful and life renewing film. If you love films and like sex, this well crafted and acted film is well worth seeing and probably one you won’t want to miss.