(featured image pixabay-chopy)
Sex and sexuality takes a certain craft to portray authentically in the movies without it coming across as gratuitous. Yet because the film industry tends to be dominated by a male-centric view i.e their dominance of almost every level from production design, writing, and directing, whenever it comes time to portray sexuality on screen it’s easy for it to be focused on the eroticism of the moment, rather than the connection of the characters.
This is especially pertinent when it comes to the portrayal of women in sexually-charged scenes, which can appear as means to titillate rather than understand and/or connect. According to film scholar Laura Mulvey, films like Psycho, The Graduate and Apocalypse Now frame their women as “the combined gaze of spectator and all the male protagonists in the film. She is isolated, glamorous, on display, sexualized.” Here are three films that can teach up and coming filmmakers how to effectively portray sex and sexuality without it coming across as pandering to superficial tastes.
Don’t Look Now: Let’s start off with unquestionably the greatest sex scene put to film, simply because of how much it focuses on the reestablishment of the connection between its characters. The sex in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now comes about just as Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie’s characters come to terms with the death of their child. The scene is directed in a way so that the actors are contorting in multiple positions, with the camera paying close to the attention to their faces and postures, focusing on how each character is reacting with each new direction the sex takes. The scene succeeds because of its saturation in pathos, the sex becoming a reflection of how the characters are beginning to overcome a great trauma. This is accentuated with Pino Donaggio’s melancholic score, as well as how the sex is cut together with the couple putting on clothes and make up for a later outing in separate rooms.
Boogie Nights: Now let’s go the complete opposite of “sex as connection” with Paul Thomas Anderson’s humanistic portrayal of the Golden Age of Porn in the 1970s. The scene I’m using in particular is the first on-camera sex scene between Mark Wahlberg’s rookie porn star Dirk Diggler and veteran Julianne Moore’s Amber Waves. The scene is set up where Diggler plays a former marine looking for work with an agency run by Waves, culminating as most pornographic scenes do, in random sex. The scene’s strength lies in how mechanized the sex is made to appear, with time given to showcase how the porn filmmakers set up each piece of direction to the actors, and how the actors go about the sex as though it is no different than filing TPS reports in an office cubicle. There is no music, the lighting is intense and yellowy, and the actor’s faces almost never change with Moore displaying blankness and Whalberg strained intensity. This moment in Boogie Nights highlights just how de-sensitized, and de-humanized sexuality is in the porn industry, and as in Don’t Look Now the emphasis is on how that context affects the characters.