Is it just global warming, or has it gotten a tad steamy in the multiplex lately?
No sooner had viewers taken in the long, graphic lesbian sex scenes in the French coming-of-age drama “Blue Is the Warmest Color” last year than they were treated to “Stranger by the Lake,” a homoerotic thriller (also French) set in a gay cruising site, at which men could be seen pleasuring each other and themselves with unsettling, frankness.
Upon emerging from that well-crafted — if borderline pornographic — tableau, they could go home and watch the on-demand movie “Nymphomaniac,” Lars von Trier’s two-part fictional biopic of a neurotically promiscuous young woman, played as an adult by the epitome of boho chic, Charlotte Gainsbourg. (Volumes II of “Nymphomaniac” is currently on view at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.)
For the past year or two, it seems, movies have become obsessed with sex, continually upping the ante on tone, subject matter and explicitness — and “50 Shades of Grey” hasn’t even come out yet.
Or perhaps “exponentially more obsessed” is the better term. Sex has been a dependably attention-grabbing element of cinematic style virtually since the medium’s inception — or at least since the 1920s, when silent films like “Sunrise” seethed with erotic innuendo underneath the moralistic melodrama. The decades that ensued found Hollywood both exploitatively embracing and phobically avoiding sexuality on screen, alternately pandering to and resisting the dictates of religious leaders, civic censors, hypocritical ratings boards and audiences occupying that singularly American psychic space between Puritan disapproval and prurient voyeurism.
The 1960s had “I Am Curious (Yellow)” (whose hype was helped by being seized by customs agents at the U.S. border); the 1970s had “Last Tango in Paris,” starring Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider and an uncredited stick of butter; the 1980s had “91 / 2 Weeks,” about a sadomasochistic affair between a Wall Street executive and SoHo gallery girl; and the 1990s had Stanley Kubrick’s lugubriously fetishistic domestic drama “Eyes Wide Shut.”
By the 2000s — memorable for Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton’s volatile sex scenes in “Monster’s Ball,” director Michael Winterbottom’s experimentation with non-simulated sex acts in the erotic omnibus “9 Songs,” and actress Chloë Sevigny pleasuring director and co-star Vincent Gallo in “The Brown Bunny,” it seemed as though filmmakers were engaged in an escalating arms race of shocking audiences, offering them sexual material as explicit as pornography, but burnished by art-house credibility.
Of course, since the days of Swedish imports featuring casual nudity and naughty bits, art films have existed in a mutually supportive pas de deux with porn, benefiting from the publicity that attends controversial X and NC-17 ratings while appealing to discerning audiences who wouldn’t be caught dead in an adult theater. (Put simply, in a porn film, sex can be dirty, kinky or super-hot; in an art house film it’s “transgressive.”)
The challenge today is that, rather than being relegated to disreputable theaters or scruffy back sections of video stores, porn is on the home entertainment centers and portable devices of discerning connoisseurs everywhere. How do you shock mainstream audiences who can now have their most florid sexual fantasies acted out 24/7, at the click of a mouse? And how can audiences be anything but bored or faintly amused by efforts that increasingly look like the bids for attention of a petulant arrested adolescent?
Those anxious questions seems to have produced a rash of films predicated not on liberation and expression, but on creeping pessimism and dread, epitomized by a recent boomlet in movies about Internet porn addiction: Starting with Steve McQueen’s 2011 film “Shame,” starring Michael Fassbender, and continuing last year with “Thanks for Sharing” and “Don Jon,” sex has been portrayed not as tantalizingly elusive, naughty or — heaven forfend! — fun, but the stuff of pathology, isolation and fatally distorted values.
Meanwhile, audiences have been treated to what amounts to an onslaught of images — on both big and small screens — that have taken realism to new heights (or, depending on your taste, new lows). While HBO puts out its usual steady stream of envelope-pushing images in shows like “Girls” and “Game of Thrones,” basic cable has tried mightily to get into the act: The image of young teenager Paige walking in on her parents engaging in an acrobatic display of mutual gratification in “The Americans” is one that neither she or millions of fans will ever un-see.
Even Wes Anderson has seen fit to include an image of a man receiving oral sex in his new movie, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” — a moment all the more jarring for being so out of place within the director’s fussy, steadfastly asexual house style.
Granted, it’s the briefest of glimpses. The trick, Anderson knows, is striking the right balance between refreshing honesty and off-putting vulgarity.
“We found out that . . . people will leave the theater if you have full frontal nudity for an extended period of time, [but] if you make it five seconds they’ll laugh and say it was great,” producer Judd Apatow — who helped invent the raunch-com — recently told the Hollywood Reporter. “So basically that’s the ratio of how much penis people can handle in a movie. Five seconds yes, 20 seconds no.”
There’s a whole lot more than 20 seconds of the full Monty in “Stranger by the Lake” and “Nymphomaniac,” each of which portrays sexuality less as a function of desire than pathological impulses. Both films portray fleeting moments of ecstasy, but for the most part sex is depicted as a furtive, joyless endeavor. (By contrast, the opening scene of the new HBO show “Looking,” set in a cruising area in a San Francisco park, is played for fumbling, even innocent laughs.)
For its part, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” wasn’t as groundbreaking for the images it contained as for the length of time the camera spent on them: When the film made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival last year, the buzz immediately centered on an astonishing seven-minute love scene between characters played by Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos. It’s true that the sequence went on much longer than a conventional sex scene, but within the context of a three-hour movie, it was an organic part of the whole, one that only accentuated what felt like a raw, intimately observed chronicle of a pivotal chapter in a young woman’s life.
Regardless of how they deployed sexuality, all three films traded on the curiosity of viewers who, with sex now available on their devices of choice, have fewer and fewer reasons to leave their homes to be provoked, titillated or carnally enlightened. It goes without saying that, despite their most strenuous efforts to go there, few of the most explicit movies could be called sexy: It’s what is withheld, rather than what’s shown, that creates those familiar delicious frissons, whether it’s the sight of Mark Ruffalo feeding Julianne Moore a piece of his tender-hot homemade pie in “The Kids Are All Right” or Diane Lane recalling an afternoon of illicit lust while commuting back home in “Unfaithful.”
In fact, in a newly pornified pop culture, the most shocking depictions of sex may not be the most painfully outlandish S&M scenarios of “Nymphomaniac” or the explicitness of “Stranger by the Lake,” but the portrayal of sex as a part of daily life — and as such, a source of projection, frustration, vulnerability, disappointment and awkward, un-cosmeticized lust.
One of the most genuinely gobsmacking moments I’ve had in the cinema in recent years, sex-wise, was when Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones played a couple seeing a therapist in the 2012 comedy “Hope Springs” — not a masterpiece of a movie, but one that tackled AARP-generation sex with admirable honesty and surprising straightforwardness. In a similar vein, the recent romantic dramedy “Le Week-End” takes sometimes funny, often searing look at the ebb and flow of physical desire as it plays out in a 30-year marriage. (“May I touch you?” Jim Broadbent’s Nick solicitously asks Meg, played by Lindsay Duncan. “What for?” she bites back testily.)
Whether it’s Lena Dunham’s zaftig Hannah uncomfortably adjusting her corset in “Girls,” or Broadbent admitting to Duncan that he’s “become a phobic object for you,” these shows and movies restore sex to something of its rightful place — not as an impossibly aspirational ideal or coarse, nihilistic compulsion, but a vector for expression, playfulness, intimacy, and recognizably human foibles. It turns out that filmmakers can still elicit shocks — whether through outrage, recognition or vicarious desire: They need only explore all those shades of gray, that number far greater than a measly 50.