sex, lives and mouths agape: talking sex in cinema

So last night I was watching ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’ (yes we’ve already established I like watching romantic comedies; get over it) and that coupled with other films I’ve seen recently got me thinking about sex in the movies. As mentioned before I’m currently writing a film set in New York called ‘The Wingman’ – in short, a film about a guy who comes out of a long-term relationship and becomes sexually promiscuous, engaging in a series of one-night stands as he better attempts to understand who he is and what he wants. It’s a frank and honest account of awkward sexual encounters, mind-blowing one night stands and the importance of physical interaction both in a relationship and in those fleeting moments that life offers. There’s no intention for it to be graphic or rife with nudity to please audiences; it is intended to be a real depiction of sex and its importance in relationships and life.

Sex is such a taboo subject, even in this day and age; I’ve never understood why people get so embarrassed when buying condoms. Yeah okay it’s an intimate and somewhat personal action but at its core the very act is engrained in our DNA – we have to do it to survive as a species. We all do it, we all know that we all do it yet we’re afraid to talk about it and even worse, we’re afraid to face it when we see it on screen. What’s more, we’re afraid to accept the levels to which some films go when depicting sex. Why? Why fear something that is so natural to every human being?

No Sex

Film itself is a voyeuristic medium; we’re forever engrossing ourselves in someone else’s life. Whether it’s fictional or not, that voyeuristic act is still there. Every line a character says and every scene that moves the narrative forward should be placed perfectly so that our interest remains focussed and we believe everything that is happening. The same goes for the sex scenes – now I get that some flicks won’t show any nipple or will fade to black at the first sign of flesh but that’s wholly dependent on the market that film is going for. Yet for the other genres that are marketed for a more mature audience, the sex scenes can often vary. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some voyeur that loves getting his kicks out of seeing a bit celebrity nip; as a writer I’m all about honesty and truth and there’s no way I’m going to connect to what the characters are feeling with slow fades, porno-style jazz music and gyrating that looks more like dancing than fucking.

A sex scene should be like every other scene in a film: it is there to move the characters and the story forward. No scene should be in a film if it does not serve the purpose of the narrative or the characters’ journey. It’s like having gravy with your corn flakes. In film studies it is called mise-en-scène – every single thing in the frame is intended to be there, from the calendar on the wall to the shirt the character is wearing. If it doesn’t serve the narrative, it shouldn’t be there. That is what is so important about sex scenes in the movies but often they are so misguided and fall foul of the mark they are trying to hit. You either get poor scenes depicting sex that no-one has ever had in real life, or you get gratuitous sex and nudity that serves no purpose other than to draw the attention and revenue of young teens that are thinking with their other head. I don’t believe in nudity or sex in film to tick a test audience’s boxes; it has to be there for the story, for the film and for the characters.

Secretary

When trying to communicate a characters emotions and feelings, a sex scene is a powerful tool to do this. It’s sometimes not enough for two characters to talk or flirt with their eyes to give the audience an idea of what it is they are feeling. It also works because as I said earlier – sex is an inherently natural and intimate act between two people; it’s where you are most exposed and susceptible to a connection as you are literally laid bare. It’s also where the true emotions your characters have for each other are most obvious: what kind of sex they have will evoke to the audience how your characters see each other. This might be where some viewers are unable to face a sex scene but the film is dependent on this kind of pivotal scene to propel the story forward.

Just like in life, actions speak a lot louder than words. A connection that is established is never, ever undone. An intense heat and chemistry so electric it makes passers-by blush is and only ever will be truly between two people. It can’t be ignited with anyone else. It might be different but it will never be the same with someone else. Years might pass and contact may diminish as life moves us on but never is that connection broken, it will always be felt the moment those two people meet again. It’s a unique, incredible and intense connection. It’s almost impossible to describe the body’s reaction to this kind of feeling – how all self-control is lost and mentally your brain turns to soup. There is no thought process; just the one simple desire to do what feels so natural with that person. Now granted it’s impossible to act this as it’s something that cannot be replicated, but the rawer the scene is, the greater the viewer’s depiction of the characters feelings that any words that can be said.

There’s a plethora of scenes we could plough through (excuse the innuendo) to show the good and the bad, but as film is a unique experience, each viewer interprets one scene differently. For me, the worst sex scene in modern cinema has to be the gargantuan exaggeration of love-making seen in Titanic. I mean really Cameron – your visual representation of their love is a steamed up car and an orgasmic hand-plant on the window? No-one produces that much sweat or steam going at that pace – you need at least four hours! It’s terrible – it ruins every bit of emotion those two brilliant actors built up over the course of the film. It is a shoddy, unrealistic, emotionless representation of their love.

Titanic

Now I can’t really pick out a ‘best’ sex scene – aside from the fact that it sounds incredibly perverted to have a favourite, I don’t think there’s a ‘best’ to choose because when it’s done right, it’s unique to the characters in that film. It has served its purpose and has moved the narrative and the characters forward. From films like Monsters Ball with the raw and graphic scene between Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton, to the very real depiction of sex and emotional connection between Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway in Love and Other Drugs, each scene has exposed a more honest and open interpretation of the characters feelings and their connection to each other.

Love And Other Drugs

We shouldn’t be afraid of sex in movies. Despite some wayward supposed ‘art’ films that depict real sex in attempt to utilise the controversy as a tool to gain notoriety, a sex scene is pivotal to a films narrative. Those films that depict real sex attempt to realistically portray their characters’ intimacy when all that is achieved is alienation from the audience. When it’s done right – within the boundaries of taste and by serving the story and the audience’s connection to the characters – the taboo surrounding sex is forgotten and we’re no longer confronted with an ideology of what we should and shouldn’t be seeing; instead we are left with a deeper understanding of the characters, and perhaps then even our own.

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