Let’s Talk About Sex (In Film), Baby

Did you know, dear and darling readers, that one half of the No But Listen team writes – hold on to your hats – boner fiction?

That would be me, actually! In case you’re not aware, my other writing life involves writing romance and erotica fiction, which I honestly and truly love almost as much as I do dunking on Eli Roth.

Recently, I wrote an article over on my personal blog about romance writing in TV and movies, and, since then, I’ve been thinking about the other side to that coin – and that’s to the appalling awfulness of most erotic cinema.

Because, let’s be real, some of the worst movies ever made set out to be landed in the “erotic” genre – Killing Me Softly, The Blue Lagoon, Basic Instinct 2, so many more that defy belief with how painfully rubbish and stupidly un-sexy they happen to be. In fact, erotic movies have become a sort of byword for low-effort flesh theatre, notoriously dreadful apart from a few notable (and, for what it’s worth, rarely English-language) exceptions.

It’s because of dreadful horny cash-ins like the ones I listed above that there’s this idea that movies about sex are inherently not very good. There’s the odd breakthrough the disproves this – Lust, Caution, for example, or the more recent The Handmaiden – but they have to drape the eroticism in something a little more awards-baity to sell them as the prestige they are.

But sex and sexuality are such a huge part of the human experience for so many people, and I wish that movies were better at acknowledging this. I wish that there was more space for erotica in cinema to be taken seriously, because, when it’s done right, it can be so meaningful and so powerful. But clearly, cinema is struggling to tell these stories in a way that actually works – so how the hell do you go about making a film about sex that isn’t just softcore horn theatre?

Firstly, and most foremostly, I wish that creators understood that chemistry does not just come from two or more relatively attractive people doing things to each other (see also: Fifty Shades of Goddamn Fucking Awful). Sex requires chemistry, requires connection, or, if not, requires the lack of it to be a central point of the encounter; if you’re just getting two good-looking actors to hump at each other for a while without bothering to explain to us why this matters, why they’re attracted to each other, and what this might mean to both of them.

A movie like Crash (the sexy one, not the racist one) consistently remembers this across all of it’s sex scenes – there’s never a time when the connection between the people sharing it isn’t made clear. The shifting affections of the central cast, the intensity of the growing power of their obsession, is all reflected in who they’re with and why they’re with them.

And, let’s be honest – sex isn’t always this great, lusty, streamlined affair that cinema makes it out to be. When creators take away the rough edges of sexuality and sexual contact, they turn whatever attempts at exploring real meaning behind it into softcore porn that’s there to please visually rather than say something worthwhile. Movies like If Beale Street Could Talk are a reminder of just how vital it is to let sex be awkward, unsure, exciting, nerve-wracking, slow and sensual, rushed and clumsy, if the people creating them intend them to mean anything. Taking away the reality of it takes away the meaning, and, if you’re a creator worth their salt, putting anything in your film which has no meaning to it is utterly pointless and a waste of the audience’s precious time.

Which brings me to my final point: most sex scenes in movies don’t need to exist. The vast majority of these sequences are put in because filmmakers have been led to believe, by the sheer overwhelming enormity of sex scenes in cinema, that people cannot imagine a couple being physically intimate unless they see it on camera. The truth is, if the audience you’re aiming at is old enough to watch a reasonably explicit sex scene, they’re old enough to understand the implication of it, too. Taking time out of your story to shoot a bunch of writhing flesh in cheesecloth lighting is meaningless and genuinely pointless unless you are saying something sincere about the characters, the plot, or the themes that hasn’t already been conveyed elsewhere in the film.

Unless you’re Martin Scorcese making Silence, movies have a limited amount of time to tell us what they want to tell us, and sex scenes are, more often than not, and within the constricts of bad filmmaking that I outlined above which apply to so many sex scenes attempts in cinema, a waste of that time. I’m far from prudish about sex in film or in general – hell, yes, I write it as my job – but when I sit down to watch a movie, I want to know that the person behind it is using my time the smartest they can. And that, often, means either taking sex seriously beyond softcore vaseline-lensed masturbatory fantasy – or cutting it out altogether.

If you enjoyed this article and want to see more stuff like it,  please consider supporting us on Ko-Fi. You can check out more of my work on my personal blog, The Cutprice Guignol!

By Louise MacGregor

(header image via IMDB)

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