The Skin Storm | Sex In Film

Actors James Spader and Holly Hunter in director David Cronenberg’s 1996 film “Crash”.

 | Their Bated Breath

Has any film in the last 49 years, since the dissipation of the Production Code, truly taken on the singular topic of sex and made it transcendent? Is there a film that manages to encompass the erotic, the rich tapestry of sexual thought, the outward complexity and introspective nature of it all? There’s been an endless number of films, old and new, that appear to come close. Some films may get sexuality right, but may not necessarily be thought of as a sexual film, because the sex is tangential to the main plot. Clearly, we’re in a brave new world when it comes to cinema and its boundaries. Audiences are the beneficiaries of filmmakers being able to take risks, some good and some disastrous, to discover a way to depict sexuality as the awing and reverential Gordian Knot that it is. But that doesn’t necessarily mean films have reached the core of sexuality just yet, whether it’s a movie made in 1968 or 2012. But perhaps we’re on the verge.

In the generally well-received Steve McQueen film, “Shame” (2012), Michael Fassbinder plays Brandon Sullivan, a sex addict and a chronic porn-watcher, a living and breathing Dali’s “The Great Masturbator”, hellbent on increasing his titillation in the isolation of his apartment. He’s impotent in reality (i.e., in relationship sex), and has a manic suicidal sister named Sissy who tries to cuddle with him when he’s fast asleep in bed. For Sullivan dysfunction is everywhere. Brandon can only get it up when sex is combined with an act he believes is a kind of deviance — so he pays for prostitutes, participates in live online-sex chats, snatches a girl from his best friend and shamefully hides a mountainous pile of sex mags. It’s an intriguing look at the suffering of a sex-addict, whose life is spiraling, as those around him inch closer to discovering his personal obsession.

Julia Leigh’s “Sleeping Beauty” (2011) is a story about a girl who answers a newspaper ad and takes on a job where she willfully ingests a drug that renders her unconscious, so wealthy men can do what they will with her (except penetration) for money. It’s a trifle of a film, that once or twice touches on something interesting, before falling away into soporific pretentiousness. It’s a sexual film that wants to mean more than it does. Other well-known films too have tried to touch on sexuality and its mystification through the subversive, from David Cronenberg’s truly auto-erotic “Crash” (1996) to Larry Clark’s devastating “Kids” (1995) and Michael Winterbottom’s “9 Songs” (2004). The latter is interesting in that the actors are having real sex, and the director refrains from turning it into stylized pornography, but it’s wholly unsatisfying. Famed film critic Roger Ebert hit on one engaging aspect of the film in his 2005 review: “What Winterbottom is charting is the progress of sex in the absence of fascination; if two people are not excited by who they are outside of sex, there’s a law of diminishing returns in bed. Yes, they try to inspire themselves with blindfolds and bondage, but the more you’re playing games, the less you’re playing with each other.” For the most part, the film becomes draining. “9 Songs” makes you wonder why art-house filmmakers think eroticism debases art. It also shows just how difficult it can be to walk that line between thoughtful sexual art and run-of-the-mill pornography.

In Luis Buñuel’s “Belle de Jour” (1967), Catherine Deneuve is Séverine Serizy, a haughty, Yves Saint Laurent-wearing, respectable wife of Pierre. She dreams of fetishistic pleasures like having mud thrown at her body while she’s tied up, being stripped and whipped in the woods by a pair of her husband’s servants, who drive their carriage in her 14th-century mental wonderland of so-called perversion. One lash. Two lashes. Oh, yes! But oh no, it’s not enough for her. To make her real life more like her sadomasochistic dream-life, she begins working at a bordello, at one point servicing a large but jolly Asian john, who carries a case concealing a sexual accessory, hidden from the eyesight of the film viewer. It serves as Bunuel’s Hitchcockian ‘MacGuffin’ for the unbridled limits of the sexual imagination. It’s genuinely a remarkable piece of cinema, but one can’t help but think there’s something missing from this visionary work of psycho-sexual female emancipation (or bondage depending upon the way you look at it). What’s missing is Buñuel coming out from behind the camera briefly as a potential john, perhaps acting as some heteronym of himself, a Buñuel-as-non-Buñuel in the vein of a Wellesian “F Is For Fake” fun-house-mirror, declaring the director of “Belle de Jour” the grandest masochist of them all.

As good as some of these films are, over the years since film ratings kicked in and artistic freedom flourished, it still feels like cinema hasn’t come up with that definitive film about sex. Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny”, a film that featured real and tightly-cropped oral-sex between him and actress Chloë Sevigny, was largely panned by critics, most famously and accurately (despite his eventual backtracking) by Ebert. Sadly, it took Gallo over 90 minutes to get to what was actually a uniquely fascinating story about sex, namely the rape of the main character’s (Bud Clay) childhood love, Daisy (Sevigny), by a bunch of drunken, adolescent thugs at a college party. It’s about Bud’s honest but extremely selfish teetering between his own personal hurt and Daisy’s very real pain. But again, it takes an interminable 9/10ths of the film before the audience gets to the pearl of the story.

Director Stanley Kubrick’s dazzling “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999), has moments of real transcendence too, like the opening scene where Dr. William “Bill” Harford (Tom Cruise) discreetly examines a beautiful and naked overdose victim at a surreal, swanked-out soiree. Sexuality in doctor-patient relationships is a film subject only a brave director would take on, even if it’s a minor point in the plot. Kubrick recognizes an oddity exists in a person suggesting he or she is divorced from eroticism in a profession where one is generally asking a patient to disrobe. There is something seemingly irregular in the human interaction of it. One grants a complete stranger (i.e., doctor) the intimate task of examining you in a way no other person would normally be allowed, regardless of the reasoning. This topic also arises, in regard to gynecology, in Catherine Breillat’s 1999 French film, “Romance”. It’s a female-directed film, focusing on a girl named Marie and her inner monologues told via voice-over. We meet the often teary-eyed Marie in mid-relationship with Paul, a sexually disinterested boyfriend of a few months. She wants bullshit-free sex — and lots of it — and he simply wishes he could go back to bachelorhood and having enough free time to read Charles Bukowski books. Like Deneuve’s Séverine, Marie goes out looking for Mr. Goodbar, or rather in her own words, she’s out looking for a guy with enough girth to “fill the void” left by her sexless boyfriend. The first night she meets a man who wants a blow job. So much for male tact, right? Marie’s next fling is with her boss (a teacher), a middle-aged bondage S&M enthusiast who teaches her about unleashing her own sadomasochistic needs. Eventually, by near-immaculate conception, Marie gets pregnant by Paul and her tie-me-up but don’t tie-me-down partner drives her to a hospital, where acne-heavy medical interns (again the doctors, like in “Eyes Wide Shut”) poke and prod their fingers into regions she suspects Paul has always found detestable. As Marie sees it, deep down most men find female genitalia and all its functions obscene. Like Séverine, Marie makes up fantasies too, but her reveries arise while splayed on a doctor’s table. She dreams of laying on her back, her upper half in one room, her lower half naked and spread-eagle in another, while a range of buffed-out porno studs roger her good. Breillat was never one to wince from that borderline of female imagination meeting a kind of creepy male wish fulfillment. I’ve always found that both intriguing and strange in the cinema of an ultra-talented female director.

Breillat’s is not cinematic fare for the meek, or those who might still find Pre-Code Barbara Stanwyck in “Baby Face” (1933) a bit too risque. This isn’t Thomas Edison’s “The May Irwin Kiss”. Like Nagisa Oshima’s 1976 Franco-Japanese film “In the Realm of the Senses” and Gallo’s “Brown Bunny” — “Romance” contains real fellatio, which is an extremely bold thing for actress Caroline Ducey to agree to do. Breillat’s film is brilliant with all of its neo-feminist, philosophical aphorisms. Marie says men and women can never truly love each other because “to fuck” someone is to also hate them. Marie comes to the realization that for most men, sex is triumph. It’s the dance, the seduction, the turning of the screw which inevitably leads to the hinges falling off. She comes to believe that a kiss is more intimate than a lay. And that sex and seduction are frustratingly about so many ciphers, play-acting, pre-transcribed modes and hyper-internal thoughts about unspoken prohibitions. Marie disassociates during sex. While making out in a car with a guy during her first tryst (Ducey gives a beautiful bit of ocular acting that makes her seem 1,000 mental-miles away), we get this revealing slice of voice-over: “The first moves are what I like best. It’s delicious. I can never stop myself from yielding. It surprises me each time. I watch myself giving in as if it wasn’t me.” I believe Breillat wants the audience to think of this scene as some kind of sexual distancing, but it feels wholly masculine to me. That’s the difficulty in interpreting the scene.

There’s also a marvelous visual juxtaposition where we see an explosion of ejaculate hit Marie’s stomach, then a flash-cut to a squirt of ultra-sound jelly hitting her annular belly. It’s a stunning visual way to link the act of sex with the creation of life. Breillat’s film begs the larger question, if we accept the premise that a woman is more prone to absolutes like honesty, loyalty and real love, then how can a man ever deserve a woman’s fidelity? These are all fascinating questions and wormholes Breillat tosses out like sparks. But her film also suffers from its strengths. It’s tough to discern how much of the film is a Camille Paglia-styled neo-feminist intellectualization (i.e., women love sex too and debasement is the right of both sexes) and how much of it is really male-idealization manifesting itself as quasi female-liberation. Breillat’s passionate and unrelenting microscope, bent on continually conjuring the mystery of eroticism, can be as cold and calculated as a scalpel. Marie says in voice-over, “I am a hole — I disappear in proportion to the cock taking me.” Well now. That sounds a lot like a line a male screenwriter might write. Am I meant to defend the female character from a female director? After a rough dalliance with a stranger on a staircase, Marie takes this sexual nihilism further, eerily concluding she’d like to have la petite mort by the same method Louise Brooks’ Lulu got in “Pandora’s Box” (1929), at the caressing hands of Jack The Ripper. (On a side note: On the DVD with English dubs, the American voices censor out those last lines, not even reading them. Can’t see why not. The standard of translation is pretty poor to begin with, butchered into a strained American vernacular. Phrases like “stop it” in French become “cut it out” in English.)

Of course, there are subtler films that are explicit, but don’t make sex the main vehicle or theme. Alfonso Cuarón’s “Y Tu Mamá También” (2001) is more a beautiful coming-of-age film than a piece of eroticism. The same could be said for Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” (2003). It’s more a story about youthful rebellion, politics and relational entanglement in New Wave France, than it is the taboo-breaking and frolicking 1962 Francois Truffaut film “Jules Et Jim”, with hinted-at brother-sister incestuousness. “Y Tu Mamá También” is a lusty Mexican road-trip taken by two male teens who are battling like children for the attention and sexual conquest of 30-something Luisa Cortés, who joins them on their road adventure. We can feel the pain of the boys competing and the betrayal felt by the boy who sees the other ‘get there’ first. But Luisa sleeps with them both — and all three go to bed together by the end of the film, their bodies melding together in blurred pleasure, shedding the previous notions of ownership, double-dealing and sensual boundaries and reservations. And that’s when Cuarón pulls a beautiful fast one. The threesome depart, go back to their lives and we emerge one year later. The two boys are in college now, meeting for the first time since their road-trip, for a perfunctory cup of coffee. One boy tells the other that Luisa died of cancer a month after their trip and that she knew she was ill the whole time. It’s gut-wrenching. Cuarón pivots away from the sexual and ends on the bittersweet notes of youth and carpe diem. But the film also suggests that sex comes with a heavy price — the end of innocence, the beginning of adulthood, the weight of a bond unmeasured by words, with death in its wake. The final destination for the threesome in “Y Tu Mamá También” is a complex one, far away from the shores of la Boca del Cielo.

Death is also at the heart of sex in “Eyes Wide Shut”, with Dr. Harford seeking out the comfort of a prostitute and narrowly escaping getting HIV, thanks to dumb luck. His wife calls his cellphone before he was about to give in to a night of paid-for pleasure. Kubrick’s casting of then-married Cruise and Nicole Kidman was a masterstroke that added a sense of voyeurism, which is the natural state of a celluloid medium first built on the back of peep shows. Despite the genius of the film and its overt treatment of sexuality, “Eyes Wide Shut” still doesn’t feel like the terminal film about sensuality. There’s something about film in-and-of-itself that makes it difficult to zero-in on truth in sexuality. Maybe it’s just too elaborate, too majestically labyrinthine. How does a filmmaker encompass everything that sex is?: The multitude of thoughts, the Freudian nature of its foundation, the influence of societal roles, the gender-battle of wills, the internal balancing of commonplace and perversion, the need for the rough and the soft, the inclusion of fetishism, the spring and winter of a more simplified romance, the hardcore pursuit of pure desire, rape fantasies as fallacious male misprision, the intent and sex of the directors themselves — the whole stream-of-consciousness of it all — and ultimately the portrayal of the physicality of sex itself onscreen?

The famous butter scene in “Last Tango In Paris” (1972) is a poignant part of the plot of the film, but it has also become a hard topic for viewers because of a very real story told years later by actress Maria Schneider. An interview surfaced, backing up her story, that director Bernardo Bertolucci and actor Marlon Brando had come up with the idea to use the butter in the scripted rape scene, but did not tell Schneider what was going on, because they wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. They wanted her to feel humiliated. It worked. She was in reality humiliated, angry and said as much. Without the knowledge of what we know now, the film is a glimpse into a squalid relationship lived in a bubble — nameless, messy, surprising, hurtful and quixotic. It’s beautiful and yet it’s also so misogynistic, enlightening and darkly morbid. The dance ends badly for Paul and Jeanne. And in the end, it wasn’t a good memory for Schneider either, no matter the intentions of Brando and Bertolucci. Ultimately, it leaves the viewer disgusted. Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “The Lover” (1992) mirrors “Last Tango In Paris” in some ways, with its illicit love affair, another cloistered relationship that tries to leave all things unrelated to the bedroom outside the bedroom. However, the film suffers from a whiff of masculine neurosis, despite being based on the semi-autobiographical narrative of brilliant writer Marguerite Duras’ 1984 novel of the same name. The marvelous “Blue Valentine” (2010), though marketed on the back of a controversy over its initial NC-17 rating, was more about the torturous disintegration of a marriage than it was about the fought-over scene of male-on-female cunnilingus. A film like David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” is more mystery and camp than it is a true representation of sexuality. Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) writhes and wriggles, like a cat in heat, for the pallid and deadpan Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan). She’s more artifice than real woman. An audience is asked to accept that the nightclub singer finds her inner masochist, after a drug-huffing oxygen-mask wearing Dennis Hopper has kidnapped her husband and child. It’s as twisted as Charlotte Rampling’s Lucia dreaming of singing a Marlene Dietrich song, topless and in fetishist Nazi SS uniform, to concentration camp guards for the Salome-like reward of the head of a bullying prisoner in Liliana Cavani’s 1974 film “The Night Porter”. Though I believe ethics and moral standards should never be used as a barometer in determining good art, there are some storylines that seem to exist purely as sensationalism, with barely a hint at any real philosophical and psychological pondering about sexuality. “Night Porter” obviously uses a controversial subject to get at the psychology of willful subjugation. But using the holocaust as subtext feels more than distasteful.

“The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (1988) seems to get sexuality right. Of course, director Philip Kaufman is known for taking uncompromising and adult looks at eroticism, including his film “Henry & June” (1990), about the lives of novelist Henry Miller, his wife June and writer Anais Nin. Kauffman, with help from screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (who also worked on five Buñuel films and one with Oshima) re-works Milan Kundera’s novel about sensuality, politics and the philosophy of life into a character study about what people are willing to give to have love and sexual well-being. The plot begins with a Czech brain surgeon, Tomáš (Daniel-Day Lewis), before the Russian invasion of 1968. He is a slick womanizer, with a lover named Sabina (Lena Olin), who is full of joie de vivre. Tomas also falls in love with Tereza, played by Juliette Binoche. When the invasion hits, the characters are upended and are forced to decide whether to leave the country for Switzerland or to stay. Tomas and Tereza leave. Tereza finds the Swiss inhospitable and moves back, which leaves Tomáš with a dilemma. He chooses to go back to a country that considers him a dissident and will deny him the ability to continue to work in his previous profession. He becomes a window-washer for love. He makes the decision to take on the weight of the world by giving into love and all of its consequences. He’s chosen to give up his Lothario ways of carefree sexual distancing. For Kaufman and Kundera, sex without devotion can be a type of lightness of being, living for momentary beauty and acquiescing to life’s unpredictable meaninglessness. But Tomas turns his back to that. His philosophy toward sex and love becomes pretty and idyllic. He opens himself up to the possibilities of real emotion and attachment. Once he understands the density of real love as integral to sexuality, he finds a kind of weightlessness in being part of the world and part of someone else’s too.

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4 thoughts on “The Skin Storm | Sex In Film

  1. Pingback: Recommended reading / viewing / listening « stillness of heart

    • Thanks, man! Yeah, pretty much an entertainment junkie — books, film, music — and truth be told — I feel my strength is in the former two moreso than the latter. But I try. 🙂 Hope your 2017 is going well!

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