The March 2002 issue of Movieline was their 10th annual “Sex”-themed issue. Tying into that theme, Michael Atkinson declared that Hollywood had given up on sexy movies. But European filmmakers were more than making up for it.
It has been said that Hollywood, and movies, are all about sex–but if that’s true, then lately, Hollywood and movies have been barely about anything at all. Where has the sex scene gone? Put it in perspective: In 1972, the most respected actor in the world, Marlon Brando, took all of his clothes off and had at it with pillow-lipped tart Maria Schneider on film. Then, he issued very specific commands involving a stick of butter. Now, imagine you’re my mother. You loved On the Waterfront, you loved The Godfather, you go to see the new, supposedly sexy Brando flick. There in the dark, your world is rocked. You go home to my unsuspecting father and conceive my little brother, who, it can be said, owes everything he is to Marlon Brando and his midlife ya-yas.
Those were the days. Thirty years later, where’s our Last Tango in Paris? Sure, Last Tango was something of a freak, even back when sex was free, drugs were ballistic, and movies would routinely indulge in unhappy endings, genuine working-class milieus, thematic realism and everyman actors. (Think about it: the ’70s were when Gene Hackman, Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould became stars.) But the grim fact is, it couldn’t happen now. It doesn’t happen now. No one seems to have noticed it, but the price we’ve paid this past decade or so for computer animation, theater-seat cup holders, Cameron Diaz and ticket preordering is the extinction of the Hollywood sex scene.
We have, after all, clear-cut this jungle already, but randy, what-ever-became-of-my-underwear pioneers like Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda, Debra Winger and Sharon Stone seem to have panted out their primes in vain. (It’s one thing to say that Dunaway’s guffawing field frolic with Warren Beatty in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde couldn’t– wouldn’t–happen today, but it’s another to realize how far Hollywood is from the brazenness of Stone’s shenanigans in Basic Instinct, released just a decade ago.) Today, the sex scene is cinema non grata. Sure, a director will sometimes talk the shirt off Charlize Theron or the pants off Kevin Bacon, but for only a brief glimpse and rarely involving sex of any variety. You’d never know from watching its movies that Hollywood is, in fact, a working community of twisted nymphos and compulsive libertines. You’d think Fred Rogers runs Universal.
You can look for evidence anywhere, but you’re most likely to find it in movies that could’ve and should’ve gone squirrelly with sex, like last year’s The Mexican, Blow, Someone Like You, Sweet November, Summer Catch, Say It Isn’t So, Glitter, The Fast and the Furious, Serendipity, Angel Eyes, From Hell, Life as a House, Riding in Cars with Boys, Ocean’s Eleven, etc. Even Moulin Rouge, a pulpy, romantic cleavage-heaver if ever you saw one, was conspicuously carnality-free.
What’s going on? Surely, the absurd growth and power of the youth audience is a factor: movies are no longer made, in large part, for adults, but for pimply, starry-eyed high schoolers still freaked out by their pubic hair. The most profitable demographic in America wouldn’t know an authentic sex scene from an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, and moviemakers rarely dare to shock them with one. The all-important, supercool R rating is usually achieved by a sprinkling of salty language–mostly references to sex acts the films don’t depict. The ballyhooed, advertiser-plague NC-17 rating has turned out to be as useful as a training bra on Pamela Anderson, since most movies thus rated are done so for ludicrous reasons. (The first, Henry & June, was helped over the R brink by a glimpse of a painting of a woman entwined with an octopus.)
Besides, today’s Hollywood films are point-A-to-point-B storytelling machines working within fairly rigid genre rules, affording precious little time out for character development and realism, much less something as time-consuming, messily emotional and narratively incidental as a sex scene.
So, if Hollywood is going all chaste on us nowadays, does that mean a sort of universal conservative sensibility is taking hold? Not on your naughty bits: as American movies have demurred like Lillian Gish in a Puritan blush, the rest of the world has been rutting like snow minks. The movies recently imported from France alone make America look like a gang of Pilgrims still horrified by Powhatan loincloths. While they have always been generally more frank about the whole megillah in general–a traumatizing landmark in this regard has got to be 1986’s Betty Blue, the opening sex sequence of which may be the most gulp-inducing character exposition we’ve ever seen–the French have recently launched into the hardcore ozone. Bruno Dumont’s The Life of Jesus (which is anything but a Christ biopic) and Humanité are both dour, realist essays on provincial anomie, and both involve real actors performing really graphic sex acts, and acting while they do it!
Which is all a trifle compared to Catherine Breillat’s Romance, a bizarre voyage of high-flyin’ hooey that features numerous hardcore sex sequences–star Caroline Ducey, in a role that both auspiciously begins and summarily ends her film career, gets banged six ways to Sunday, roped up and otherwise splayed open for all the world to see. The best actor in the movie is Rocco Siffredi, a real-life Italian porn star, who unlike the rest of us is apparently already versed in handling a little sophisticated dialogue while, well, handling himself. (Breillat’s follow-up, last year’s Fat Girl, wasn’t hardcore but hardly steered clear of unblinkingly exploring its adolescent sisters’ universe of deflowering and rape.) That Romance is a doleful film doesn’t dilute the fact that it’s a film about sex and guess what–there’s sex in it! In fact, there’s too much sex in it.
The most artful use of hardcore sex in a French film so far (at least out of the films imported; God knows what else they’re doing) is in Leos Carax’s Pola X, an updated version of a Herman Melville story modernized out of its mind by a shadowy mid-film sex scene that has to be seen to be, er, appreciated. The kink here is that the participants aren’t first-time actors or porn studs, they’re established European stars Guillaume Depardieu (yes, the son of Gerard) and Yekaterina Golubeva, who’d already been in about two dozen films between them before mauling each other mad in Carax’s lunatic epic. It makes you wonder what auditions are like in the French film industry. Still, an American remake seems irresistible, doesn’t it? Keanu Reeves and Ashley Judd–doing it!
The ante keeps getting raised. Last year’s Baise-Moi (Fuck Me, softened up for American release, believe it or not, to Rape Me) stars porn actors Karen Bach and Raffaela Anderson as a gun-toting Thelma and Louise traveling through France screwing and killing–and sometimes screwing, then killing–everybody in their path. The sex, at least, really happened.
But even newish French movies that aren’t graphic about their sex know how to stoke the engines: Patrice Leconte’s Girl on the Bridge cooked up a fanciful orgasmathon for star Vanessa Paradis while costar Daniel Auteuil throws circus knives at her; Frédéric Fonteyne’s An Affair of Love has Nathalie Baye gabbing her way through several of that year’s steamiest scenes; and Brigitte Rouan’s spectacularly horny Post-Coitum seethed with menopausal hormones.
This French-style demi-porn is gaining momentum: Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy watches coolly as Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox spend most of the movie trying to do each other to death, and Alfonso Cuaron’s new Mexican film Y Tu Mamá También coldcocked audiences at last year’s New York Film Festival with its coming-of-age odyssey of underage coupling, competitive onanism and threesomes–this from the director of A Little Princess. (In both films, if they weren’t actually doing it, they might as well have been.) A Korean indie released in 2000 titled Lies chronicles a sadomasochistic affair in way too much no-imagination-required detail (the coitus was as real as the welts), and even a recent Israeli movie, Kippur, opens with a five-minute, body-painting squish clinch that is about as slippery, passionate and convincing as any sex you haven’t actually had yourself.
Which is a bargeload more than you can say for Hollywood movies. Where have we gone wrong? Emulating the French by having, say, Sandra Bullock take on Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Edward Norton simultaneously isn’t the answer, although the prospect of such a thing might make the stockholders see God. One recent homegrown film has come close to finding a balance: In Monster’s Ball, Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry do it like the dickens; they even sweat. (If only they weren’t pretentiously photographed through pieces of furniture and from distant rooms.) As the French will surely learn, hardcore sex gets boring pretty quickly; we may give it props for actually being sex, but otherwise, it’s subject to the law of diminishing returns like nothing else in the world. The question about sex scenes is not how much to show–it’s how to make whatever it is you do show convincing. It doesn’t matter whether you attain conviction by way of a single exhaled breath (like Gillian Anderson’s in The House of Mirth) or a close-up of partners pistoning away like a Ferrari engine, if you’re honest about the emotional reality of the act, you’re halfway home. A middle ground–one that acknowledges that, yes, sex involves genitals and moisture and impulsive grunting, as well as desire, intimacy and soulfulness–needs to be found. It shouldn’t be difficult–as Freud should’ve said, sex is what happens when we’re not brushing our teeth, and even then sometimes. We’re all walking around with half a sex scene in our heads anyway; all a filmmaker needs to do is fill in the back half and not be a klutz about it. As for reluctant Hollywood actors, one question: What have you got to lose that Marlon Brando didn’t?
Michael Atkinson is the author of Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema, available from Limelight Editions.