Carnal Knowledge

If this month’s Movieline articles seem raunchier than usual, it’s because the magazine traditionally devoted it’s February issue to the topic of “Sex”.  Not that the subject of sex was ever very far from the minds of the magazine’s writers and editors.  I think Movieline made a point of publishing an annual “Sex” issue to underline the point that they were sexier than other movie magazines on the shelves.  In this article from the February 1993 issue, ten film directors with some experience on the subject talk about what makes sex scenes work.

When Philip Kaufman’s Henry & June received the first NC-17 rating in 1990, some of us hoped it might be the beginning of a sexy new wave. But that proved to be a pipe dream. Before long the NC-17 became just as verboten as the old X rating. Blockbuster, the nation’s biggest video rental chain, refused to carry NC-17 movies, and so nervous studios forced filmmakers to trim their sex scenes (as Paul Verhoeven did with Basic Instinct) to qualify for an R. “It wasn’t the victory it was supposed to be,” Philip Kaufman says of his battle to create a new rating category. “The new rating was meant to allow for adult sexuality, but that didn’t happen.”

But now a few intrepid souls are once again defying the canons of good taste. Not surprisingly, most of the ground-breaking work comes from European filmmakers. Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Lover was slapped with an NC-17 rating for its steamy love scenes between a teenage girl and an older Chinese man in French Indochina. Annaud, however, appealed the rating and managed to have it changed to an R without making any cuts. Other movies are also pushing the envelope. Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game is a startling love story that harks back to Performance in its gender-bending subversiveness. Louis Malle’s Damage is a graphic study of sexual obsession, with feverish scenes between Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche that test the limits of the R category. Roman Polanski is seeking a distributor for Bitter Moon, another chronicle of sexual obsession, this time with sadomasochistic overtones, starring Polanski’s 26-year-old wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, and Peter Coyote. “It will cause controversy,” Polanski said during filming last year. “Especially in the United States.” And in January, Madonna’s Body of Evidence will go out with an NC-17 rating, at least if the saucy star (who seems on a kick to loosen American mores) has her way. The fact that so many major filmmakers seem determined to flout the moralists suggests that pungent adult sex may not be quite down for the count.

Still, it remains a touchy subject. In asking prominent filmmakers about their favorite sex scenes in movies, I found that quite a few were skittish. Neil Jordan’s first response was, “I haven’t dealt with sex in any of my movies.” Then he was reminded of Mona Lisa, which focused on a high-priced prostitute, and of a scene of oral sex in The Crying Game, and he conceded that he might have something to say on the subject. Spike Lee, who first came to our attention with an impudent sexy movie, She’s Gotta Have It, has lately moved on to weightier political subjects and didn’t have time to pontificate on something as frivolous as sex. Alan Parker, who ran up against the rating board with one scene in Angel Heart, and Lawrence Kasdan, who once raised temperatures with Body Heat, seemed to want to forget this part of their past and declined to comment on the subject. Even David Lynch, who may be trying to clean up his act after a couple of commercial disasters, refused to participate in a sex symposium.

But I found 10 directors willing to talk about the sex scenes that inspired, challenged or simply titillated them, and about their own adventures in the skin trade. The diversity of their responses proved what Nicolas Roeg articulated most eloquently: Sex is a very private matter, and it is notoriously difficult to connect one’s own erotic fantasies with the longings of a mass audience. “Our carnal desires are fantastically strange,” Roeg says. “The greatest lover’s question is, ‘What are you thinking, darling?”It’s such a private affair. To hit that private area is wonderful and often can’t be discussed afterwards.”

Nevertheless, these 10 directors plunged gamely into the discussion and shed a bit of light on the dreams conjured up in a darkened theater.

Louis Malle has been one of the pioneers of sex in cinema. His 1958 succes de scandale, The Lovers, helped to abolish censorship in America when the Supreme Court ruled it was not obscene. In Murmur of the Heart Malle looked at incest without hysteria, and in Pretty Baby he scrutinized child prostitution. Even in a less controversial movie, Atlantic City, Malle managed to film a sexual encounter between an old man (Burt Lancaster) and a younger woman (Susan Sarandon) without the usual coy snickers. “I remember the light was very sensual when we filmed that scene,” Malle reports. “It’s as if time was suspended. It was a moment of grace when these two people were getting close to each other. I thought it was a positive statement about the human heart, not a scene about a dirty old man. I always try to be non-judgmental.”

The sex scenes in Malle’s new film, Damage, are not unlike the anonymous encounters in Last Tango in Paris; they are startling, brutal bouts between two people who know very little about each other when they meet for torrid trysts in her apartment. “I haven’t done sex scenes for a while,” Malle observes. “You don’t want to make them too choreographed. At some point you have to trust the actors. Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche were great. I shot with two cameras to give them as much freedom as possible. I let them improvise. All in all, I’d much rather see people making love than cutting throats. It’s a more civilized way to communicate.”

Philip Kaufman remembers Malle’s The Lovers as one of the films that impressed him when he was first falling in love with movies. “I immediately start scanning European films when I think about sex in movies,” Kaufman says. “American films are pretty empty when it comes to great sexual moments. I remember in Smiles of a Summer Night the scene when Harriet Andersson ran into the water nude. At the time it was astonishing to me. The eating scene in Tom Jones was interesting and funny. Just the way Albert Finney looked at Joyce Redman was very sexy. A glance can be highly erotic, though I’m not totally of the school that says less is more. Sometimes more is more.”

In the sex scenes in his own movies, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry & June, Kaufman tried to pay as much attention to psychological reactions as to physical sensations. “For me eroticism and intelligence are linked,” he says. “In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in the scene where the two women are photographing each other nude, the shot that made it really sexy was the close up of their faces. In Henry & June, the scene where the two women are making love in the brothel was played off the faces of Anais Nin and her husband watching. Without that added element, it wouldn’t have had the same eroticism.” Kaufman has just finished shooting Rising Sun, based on Michael Crichton’s thriller about Japanese influence on American business. “I added one very sexy scene that was not in the book,” Kaufman says.

Martha Coolidge is one of the few female directors who has ever been permitted to explore sexuality on-screen. Early in her career she made a gritty feature film based on her own date rape, Not a Pretty Picture, and in 1991 Rambling Rose won kudos for the delicate but candid bedroom scene between Laura Dern and 13-year-old Lukas Haas. “That scene kept the film from being made for years.” Coolidge says, “but it was so honest. I talked to Lukas and his parents about it so that everyone would be clear about the scene. And I didn’t overshoot it. I wanted it to be about their feelings. He gains empathy for her as a result of that encounter.”

When asked to disclose her favorite sexual scenes, Coolidge replies, “There are a lot of them. I love sex in the movies, particularly when it reveals something about the characters. There’s a scene in Bergman’s The Touch when Bibi Andersson, who has this perfect husband and family, goes to this pig Elliott Gould. He almost rapes her while she’s apologizing for every part of her body. I remember that scene vividly. It said so much about how you can connect to someone’s neurosis through sex. Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs I found fascinating even though I completely disagree with his view of rape. But that movie helped me to understand certain men. I suppose the most wonderful love scenes were created before they could show sex on-screen, because the actors understood how to convey desire. We have to work harder to convey that now that we can show more.”

In recalling memorable films about sex, Annaud cites Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, a drama about an obsessive love affair that features hardcore sex scenes and ends with the woman murdering and castrating her lover. “That was a very honest approach,” Annaud says, “though for my tastes it goes too far. Yet it was very daring. I was fascinated by it.” In deciding how to film his own sex scenes. Annaud was haunted by Oshima’s graphic approach. “The explicitness was a step too much for me,” he notes. “I wanted to imagine more and see less. At the same time I didn’t believe you could take the approach of so many films that pan to a window or to the ocean during a love scene.

“If you shoot through the gauze of mosquito nets, you turn the audience into voyeurs. In every other scene you put the camera where the audience can see the best, and I believe you have to do the same thing in love scenes. You must make it clear that you are not afraid of what you are showing. But you have to allow some room for imagination. When we make love, we close our eyes and turn off the lights, not because the church tells us to, but because we want to use our imaginations.”

Ron Shelton’s most vividly remembered erotic scene is 180 degrees from the hard-core explicitness of In the Realm of the Senses. “There’s a scene in The Lady Eve.” Shelton says, “where Henry Fonda is trying to fit Barbara Stanwyck’s shoe on. It goes on for about four minutes. He’s on his knees, and she’s in complete command. That is one of the sexiest scenes I’ve ever seen. It’s presumably about something else, and yet all of the undertone is sex.”

Shelton’s playful sex scenes in Bull Durham, Blaze and While Men Can’t Jump have won praise for their free-wheeling lustiness. In working with his actors, Shelton says, “We try to get comfortable and have a good time. I schedule those scenes for late in the shooting. The sex scenes were the last three days of Bull Durham, the last week of BlazePaul Newman was nervous because he had never done a sex scene. I told him we’re going to have fun, and we came up with the scene where she is eating the watermelon while she’s on top of him. My view is that sex is fun and absurd.  I don’t have fake orgasms–no agonized, wrinkled brows. I hate that. You can be taken out of the movie by a moment that’s too graphic. There’s nothing less interesting than a closeup of penetration.”

Gregg Araki works in a different arena from these mainstream filmmakers. He’s an openly gay director who makes his movies on a shoestring. But Araki’s The Living End, which cost $23,000 to produce, had by the end of September grossed almost $700,000–a pretty impressive return on a tiny investment. It has been far more profitable than other gay-themed movies of the last year, and it isn’t hard to understand why. Araki’s variation on Thelma & Louise, about two HIV-positive guys on the lam, highlights a number of sexy interludes, including a nude shower scene. “My films are becoming increasingly preoccupied with sex and violence,” Araki concedes.

His own favorites begin with Law of Desire, which he calls “Almodovar’s best movie. All the love scenes with Antonio Banderas are great. He is one hot potato. I also was amazed when I saw Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour. That was incredibly sexy and graphic for the time it was made.”

Araki’s next film, which he has already shot and is now editing, is about gay and lesbian teenagers. “They do all the teenage things–sex and drugs,” Araki says with a laugh. “Hollywood films have an incredibly juvenile attitude toward sex. They use it as a metaphor for evil things. But my movies don’t always please gay audiences either. Some people felt the treatment of AIDS in The Living End was politically incorrect. Sometimes hipper straight audiences like my movies better than conservative gay audiences.”

Roman Polanski has not, despite his scandalous reputation, been a major trailblazer in cinematic sex. But a few striking moments in his films suggest that he does have an understanding of erotic secrets. The scene in Repulsion in which Catherine Deneuve listens to the sounds of lovemaking coming from her sister’s room next door was a milestone in its time, and Polanski was among the first directors to include nudity in an American film when he bared the breasts of Mia Farrow (or her body double) in Rosemary’s Baby. But with his new movie, Bitter Moon, a graphic study of a kinky romance. Polanski’s on-screen depictions may catch up with his offscreen notoriety. Nevertheless, Polanski insists. “I don’t enjoy watching sex on-screen beyond a certain point. Humping can be very funny in a comedy, but I don’t know how you present it in a serious vein. The problem with sex on-screen is you never believe they are really doing it. Even if they are doing it for real in a porno film, you don’t believe they are really having fun.”

In terms of his own favorite moments, Polanski cites the early scene in Barry Lyndon, which begins with Barry’s (Ryan O’Neal) cousin standing before him; he removes a ribbon she has hidden to the front of her dress, and then she begins to kiss him. “They were both fully clothed in the scene,” Polanski observes, ”and yet that kiss was as arousing–maybe even more arousing–than the crudest scene from Last Tango.”

His motivation in doing Bitter Moon, he says, was to explore the nature of an all-consuming passion. “Often in relationships,” Polanski observes, “sexual attraction wanes with time but love amplifies. That’s the paradox I wanted to explore. It was difficult directing my wife. I actually directed her less than the other actors. She’d go to her dressing room, work on the scenes with her coach or by herself, and when she was ready, we’d shoot. It’s easier working on sex scenes with someone you don’t know.”

Neil Jordan was less concerned with clinical details than with creating an atmosphere of sensuality when he filmed the sexual encounters between an Irishman and a black woman in The Crying Game. “I wanted to make the whole fabric erotic,” Jordan says. “That meant choosing the right clothing and hairstyle, even the drapes around the bed in her flat.” Jordan says he would like one day to make an all-out erotic movie. “But I don’t see how you can do that without showing an erect penis.” Jordan declares. “I wish there were a genre of sex movies along with other genres like Westerns and gangster films. There should be a whole tradition similar to what the nude represents in painting.”

Jordan’s own favorite scenes are suggestive rather than explicit: “The scene in The Last Emperor where the two women are under the sheets is visually beautiful and erotic. And then the dress that Marilyn Monroe wore in Some Like It Hot is one of the most erotic things I’ve ever seen.”

Paul Schrader considers the sex scenes in Basic Instinct to be a perfect blend of explicitness and indirection. “I thought Verhoeven and Eszterhas got it just right,” Schrader says. “There was just enough sex to grab attention, but actually the big scene in that movie is 99 percent tease, and I think that’s the way it should be. People don’t really want to see sex. They want to almost see it.”

Like many of these other directors, Schrader suggests that one of the challenges in filming sexual interludes is making the actors feel comfortable. “It’s very hard to have nude actors acting,” he says. “When I have a sex scene, I always discuss it beforehand. I’ll do a rough storyboard and tell the actors we’re going to have seven different setups, so they’ll know exactly what to expect. Some actors are more comfortable than others. Willem Dafoe has acted nude at the Wooster Group, and it’s a lot harder to do that in front of 50 people on folding chairs at an off-Broadway theater than in front of a camera crew. I’ve never really had a problem with an actor, but in Cat People Nastassia Kinski had second thoughts after we shot the sex scenes and went to Ned Tanen at Universal and tried to get him to cut them out. But he decided they were necessary to the movie.”

To Schrader, sexuality in cinema is never an end in itself. “I used the sex scene in Light Sleeper as a dramatic bookmark, to end a certain part of the story,” Schrader says. “After that scene, the plot really kicks in. In American Gigolo I had to show some sex because that was the subject, and I didn’t want the audience to think I was being unduly coy. But I don’t think sex scenes really strike at the core of why people go to movies.”

Nicolas Roeg has been embroiled in controversy throughout his career. His very first movie as a director, Performance (which he co-directed with Donald Cammell), earned one of the first X ratings from the MPAA. Don’t Look Now had to be trimmed to get an R rating, and Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession also went out with an X rating before being edited and re-released. Roeg remembers battling with the censors over Don’t Look Now. “The censor said, ‘We have an absolute rule. No pubic hair.'” Roeg recalls. “I said, ‘There isn’t any.’ He had seen something in the film that wasn’t there.” The sex scene in that movie–the intercutting of Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland making love with images of the two of them getting dressed afterwards–is one of the most memorable of all erotic sequences, capturing both the transcience of sexual ecstasy and the way in which the memory of sex can transfigure the most mundane activities.

Belle de Jour was one of the most sensual films I’ve ever seen,” Roeg muses. “I remember seeing it in London when it first opened. Couples went into the cinema hand in hand, but gradually as the movie went on, a hand was slipped out of another hand. The scene when Catherine Deneuve comes back after a day at the brothel and throws her panties into the fire caught something about the secret game of sex. Now everyone tries to say there’s a right way to perform sex, but that’s hopeless. Sex is a secret game between two or three people or only one. The most erotic scenes to me are the most truthful. In the original Cape Fear there’s a scene where Robert Mitchum is on the boat with Polly Bergen. He’s a beast, and yet there’s a glimmer of attraction that she feels. She hates him and hates herself because she recognizes that attraction.”

Roeg is bemused by the attempts to regulate and modulate sexuality, both on and off the screen. “I was reading an article about a clinic in Arizona for sex addiction,” Roeg says. “I suppose I should be in one of those clinics, but I have no intention of being cured. I hope I remain sex-mad into my dotage.”

Stephen Father is Movieline’s film critic.


Posted on February 21, 2018, in Movieline Articles, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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