At the Cannes film festival last month, the scandal arrived with metronomic predictability: Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood” might have been the week’s hottest ticket and Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho might have taken the cherished Palme d’Or. But it was Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo” that set tongues wagging, literally and figuratively. The nearly four-hour film caused a ruckus, not just because of its derriere-numbing running time (most of it spent observing nubile teenage girls twerking to a pounding soundtrack of club music), but because of a 15-minute scene of cunnilingus, filmed so realistically that questions immediately arose as to whether it was unsimulated.
Graphic sex is a longtime staple at Cannes, where in 2003 director Vincent Gallo outraged audiences with a scene of him receiving oral sex from Chloë Sevigny in “The Brown Bunny,” and where 10 years later viewers were confronted with the sight of several male members in various degrees of tumescence in “Stranger by the Lake,” followed by a 17-minute sex scene in Kechiche’s lesbian coming-of-age story “Blue Is the Warmest Color.”
The actresses in “Blue Is the Warmest Color” intimated that they felt poorly treated by Kechiche on the set of that film. This year, he faced accusations that he plied his young “Intermezzo” actors with alcohol until they engaged in real-life sex acts for the camera. Meanwhile, as that controversy played out on the Riviera, U.S. audiences were flocking to see “John Wick 3,” in between making “Avengers: Endgame” and “Aladdin” huge hits. One of them a dark, fetishistically violent thriller, one a live-action comic book, one a Disney fairy tale, all resolutely sex-free.
Thus does a familiar pattern repeat itself: The summer begins with a new crop of sexually explicit, mostly European movies set off from Cannes to the festival circuit and eventually to brief art-house runs, while Hollywood churns out its chief export of gun-happy escapism and wholesome kid stuff. Between those two channels the classic sex scene — once a staple of high-gloss, adult-oriented, mainstream movies — has been largely forgotten and ignored, recommitted to very esoteric margins it sprang from generations ago.
Sex has always been a part of American cinema: Ninety years ago, Louise Brooks scandalized audiences with her brazen, exhilaratingly unabashed eroticism in the silent classic “Pandora’s Box.” In the late 1920s and early 1930s, before the enforcement of the censorious Hays Code, film studios competed over whose movies could be the most daring, and delighted in sneaking naughty material past local decency boards.
Although the Golden Age of Hollywood — during which the industry censored itself by way of the Production Code — produced some deliciously provocative innuendo and ingenious workarounds, it wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s, when American audiences were able to see new, explicit films from postwar Europe, that sex became not just titillating but downright respectable: Such films as “And God Created Woman” and “Belle de Jour” introduced a new formal convention to discerning cineastes who could couch their more prurient instincts in terms of liberated expression, highbrow sensuality and uncompromising realism. Of course, even the artiest imports were canny enough to have it both ways: 1972’s “The Last Tango in Paris” was just one example of what could be gained from cultural importance conferred by critics while enjoying the free publicity garnered by its most scandalous content — in this case, a scene of Marlon Brando sodomizing co-star Maria Schneider with a stick of butter.
But those films proved germinal for a generation of filmmakers whose cinematic ideals were shaped during that era, and who then took its most outré sensibilities to Hollywood, where they softened their most transgressive edges. The 1980s and early 1990s were a heyday of sex scenes that might have been hot and heavy but stayed within the parameters of bourgeois good taste: Movies such as “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Body Heat,” “9½ Weeks,” “Fatal Attraction” and “Basic Instinct” were must-see films, not just because of their twisty plots but because of sex scenes that were frank, artfully staged and, sometimes, arousing in their own right.
Arguably, seduction and suggestion are almost always sexier in movies than the act itself — witness Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman’s prolonged kiss in “Notorious” or Kevin Costner painting Susan Sarandon’s toenails in “Bull Durham.” But when a sex scene works — when it exists for more authentic reasons than shock value or sophomoric giggles and manages to involve viewers more deeply than mere voyeurism — it exemplifies one of those rare things that movies do best. Well-conceived sex scenes are capable of producing a spontaneous physical frisson just as cathartic — and gratifying — as a sudden belly-laugh or a good cry. As the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has noted, movie sex “is the ultimate special effect.”
And now, it’s pretty much gone.
We know why. With the onset of Internet porn, viewers looking for vicarious thrills had instant access to a cheap, private universe of polymorphous gratification. While Hollywood embraced a business model centered around wholesome baby-boomer nostalgia and PG-13 franchises, cable television and streaming services found their own niche, engaging in “Game of Thrones”-like one-up-manship in violence, profanity — and sex. Movies such as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Milk,” which broke ground in representing gay protagonists, shied away from depicting the most intimate mechanics of men having sex, to the consternation of viewers who wanted to see their sexuality represented and normalized. But that form of re-closeting was of a piece with an era in which, when sexual activity was portrayed at all, it was seen as a matter of compulsion and anxiety (as in Steve McQueen’s “Shame”) or played for adolescent laughs (as in the Apatovian deflowerment comedies).
Today, whether it’s in “Long Shot” or “Rocketman,” the sex scene has been reduced to a shorthand, an instantly recognizable grammar that begins with some jokey or flirtatious foreplay, cuts to some flesh (tasteful enough to honor the actors’ no-nudity clauses), then discreetly cuts away when things get real. You know what happens next , the camera seems to tell us. Do you really want me to spell it out for you?
Well, yes. When you deprive audiences of a really good sex scene, you’re depriving us of what was once one of the greatest enjoyments of going to the movies, a part of classic cinematic grammar that, when choreographed with sensuality and sensitivity, can be memorable as genuine entertainment — maybe even great art — and not just a lascivious clip on Pornhub.
What’s more, you’re pretending to build a world grounded in realism that is completely devoid of one of the core elements — and joys — of the human experience. It’s as if Hollywood — fixated on families, teenagers and global markets — has given up on American adults as anything more than arrested adolescents interested only in revisiting the distractions of their youth.
In many ways, the skittishness reflects a culture that has found its own good reasons to turn away from sex in movies, or at least look at it askance. Thirty years ago, the AIDS epidemic made heated, heedless sex in movies not just irresponsible but unrealistic; in the wake of the #MeToo movement, what viewers once reflexively accepted as sexy is being reappraised within the context of a “male gaze” in cinema, in which women are portrayed as objects, stripped of agency and reduced to mere vessels for men’s wish fulfillment.
What’s more, audiences are now far more attuned to how life and art can’t be separated: Stories of Maria Schneider feeling manipulated and misused on the set of “Last Tango,” or Kechiche’s actresses expressing similar misgivings about how they were treated in “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” force the discomfiting realization that, all too often, our visual pleasure has been generated by means of an exploitative and dehumanizing production process. (Writing about Kechiche’s leering camera in “Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo,” as well as the possibilities that the performances were coerced, the critic Caroline Tsai called the movie “a human rights violation.”)
That leaves an entire cohort of filmgoers sorting out how our tastes have been formed and deformed by movies that presented desire from an overwhelmingly male, heteronormative point of view, and how we reconcile that problematic lens with images we still find . . . kind of hot. If the lustful, aggressive, emotionally complex staircase scene in “A History of Violence” is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
To be sure, there’s precious little to mourn in the death of the kind of ogling soft-core wish-fulfillment fantasies that male directors foisted on viewers for nearly a century. But is abstinence really our only option? With young filmmakers being co-opted by the Disney-Marvel complex, and with millennials and Generation Z reportedly having less sex than their predecessors, the new chastity on screen feels like a prudent but not entirely welcome new normal.
And it’s not like artists are incapable of getting sex right: Productions are now hiring “intimacy coordinators” to make sure sex scenes are being choreographed and staged with appropriate respect for physical boundaries and psychological well-being. Movies here and there have managed to suggest a way forward: Witness Alfonso Cuarón’s tenderly seductive love triangle in “Y Tu Mamá También” and Angela Robinson’s warm, deeply humanistic portrayal of polyamorous sex play in “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” or Meg Ryan’s satisfaction at the hands (and other things) of Mark Ruffalo in Jane Campion’s feminist urban thriller “In the Cut.” Even “Fifty Shades of Grey” offered a potentially fruitful new grammar making consent a stimulating part of foreplay rather than an instant buzzkill.
With luck, a new generation of writers, directors and actors — steeped in a non-binary, anti-shaming sexual culture — is poised to reclaim sex as a crucial element of mainstream style. Meanwhile, as studios who employ them try to figure out how to compete with peak TV and ever-multiplying streaming outlets, they might want to remember their own history: Spectacles and jump scares get people into theaters, but so does a good old-fashioned snog. It’s not that we’re turned off from going to the movies. It’s that the movies have stopped turning us on.