How Sex Is Changing In Cinema

This past year/year and half, directors like Abdellatif Kechiche (“Blue is the Warmest Color“), and Lars Von Trier (“Nymphomaniac“) have been major contributing factors in changing sex in movies. Both independent films have gained significant amounts of praise and publicity. The narrative drives the inclusion of sex within their movies, which is uncommon compared to movies that incorporate sex for no relative thematic purpose (“300,” “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” any teenage “Not Another Teen Movie” sort of movie, “Cabin Fever,” “Cabin in the Woods” [although I absolute love that movie] and the list goes on). The shift from sex and sexuality represented in these movies in comparison to past years (besides narrative purpose, which is a huge one) is that sex is now becoming a part of character development. Rather than paying attention to the fact that two people are going at each other in the movie, you’re actually focused on how this adds to the emotion, how it will progress the story, narrative, plot, and other creative aspects of film. This change in sexuality begs the question of why directors are retracting from traditional Hollywood, glorified representations of sex and sexuality? And will this shift become the new norm within sexually driven movies?

Before we dive in, I want to say that this is not an article about women’s bodies represented in films. Nor is it an article about how we need to normalize what women look like during sex in films (i.e. body types, positions, sounds, all things that have been influenced by p*rnography and male dominated society). Many women, and some men, are already pushing to redefine these norms. This is an article about sex between women and men, women and women, and there are indeed recent movies out there about men and men (Weekend directed by Andrew Haigh). This is an article about sex at its rawest moment, without Hollywood glamour, portrayed as something beautiful and as something that affects who we are.

“Blue is the Warmest Color,” rated NC-17, is simply about a girl finding herself as she is introduced to love. The sex within this movie is indeed, totally and completely, raw. The first time I saw it, I was absolutely shocked. The moment the two women finally get together is seven minutes long, and sound only comes through in their breathing and moans. However, I wasn’t shocked because I felt like I was watching p*rn. It was because it was so realistic that I felt I was intruding. The uncomfortable-ness felt during these scenes was not a negative in the slightest. Their intimate moments were a vital part to the story. The relationship of the two main characters is very much defined on their passion for one another. And it’s also their sexual drive that pulls them apart. The difference between this couple and other romantic movies is that we are watching their relationship both progress and decline; the way they express their desire in the beginning and then at the end. We are watching the progression of a very realistic, twenty-something relationship. We as viewers are able to detect where they are emotionally by the intimacy they portray for one another. The difference between sex here and sex seen in other movies is that we can relate. Hopefully this realism can positively influence our expectations when we’re experiencing these vulnerable moments. (Side note, I am aware that there has been controversy between the actors and director, but I chose not to dive into that and to simply stick to the narrative and thematic aspects.)

The sex utilized in “Nymphomaniac” is in no way glamorous, glorified, or desirable. The movie centers on the life of a female nymphomaniac as she tells her story to a virgin man that equates her sex-capades to biblical references, fishhooks, and paintings. Lars Von Trier uses sex in his movie because the movie is about sex and it would be difficult to tell the story of a nymphomaniac without including her sexual history. But what sets this apart from a romanticized, glamorous, unattainable Hollywood production is that sex is not a positive. When we see her venture from one man to the next, we’re not paying attention to either of their genitals, we’re paying attention to her narration, emotional setting, and how she is progressing as a character. Indeed the woman is naked 90% of the time, but it is never erotic, nor spruced up with dim lighting and sensual music. For example, when Joe is finally able to be with Shia Labouf’s character, we are anticipating her realization that love exists and is a vital part to sexual experiences. Although we are in fact watching two people have vaginal sex, it is completely overshadowed by our connection to Joe’s emotional reaction towards finally being with someone she believes she feels for. But after treating all of her sexual encounters as disposable entities in her attaining an orgasm, she understands that she no longer is able to feel anything for anyone. And that moment takes away from the shock value that sex scenes potentially hold within film. The sex drives the narrative, it actually holds a purpose. It’s a story about a woman who refuses to call herself a sex addict because the word nymphomaniac holds much more power and she enjoys being empowered through controlling her sexual experiences. It makes the viewer question our use of the word c*nt, as well as whore. Because c*nt involves the entire female genitalia, unlike vagina that only speaks to specific parts. And whore because despite her amount of sexual partners, that is never a word that a viewer would choose to define her. Essentially, this movie would not exist if it didn’t include sex, and it wouldn’t have such a high recommendation if her experiences were overshadowed by Hollywood standards.

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Of course there are other movies out that involve realistic sexual encounters (such as Steve McQueen’s “Shame“), but few drive the narrative and add to character development. Like the slow shift of the female body in media, I hope to see more realistic sex when it is necessary and holds significance to the film. Too many movies incorporate sex and women’s bodies without explaining the purpose of it. If these two movies can teach us anything, it is that both female and male anatomy can be used without shocking audiences and actually have the ability to push the film narrative further.

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