Actual Sex in Mainstream Cinema

Original Sin - Sex in cinema

Bryn Tilly writes on the world’s hottest current sex in cinema trends …

Sex in cinema has been around for donkey’s years.

In fact, ever since moving pictures first started being produced and distributed early in the 20th century there were blue movies (also known as stag films, skin flicks, etc). But sex in the cinema maintained two separate paths. There was the soft core and the hard core. The soft core (nudity and simulated sex) has been focused in the mainstream, while the hard core has remained underground. Well, that is until the early 70s.

In 1972 a film called Deep Throat (arguably the most profitable film ever made – it cost $24,000 and by mid-73 it had made $5 million) became the first hard core movie to play successfully to mainstream audiences in respectable cinemas. In fact it was around this time that the term “porn chic” was coined, referring to all the hip and trendy couples that were seeing the film in droves.

This release spawned a short and intense period where independent adult movies were being distributed and screened theatrically, and making profit. Other titles included Behind The Green Door (72), The Devil In Miss Jones (73), Resurrection Of Eve (73), and High Rise (73).

It wasn’t long though before producers realised they could make more money by releasing two versions of the same film; an R-rated version and an X-rated. Flesh Gordon (74) and Alice In Wonderland (76) were two such examples.

These two films were in fact two of the most expensive adult productions of the time, until Caligula was released in 1981.

It was the explosion of the home video market in the late 70s that quickly killed the theatrical adult movie. But it made perfect sense. Audiences could now safely indulge, privately or with guests, in whatever aroused their fancy, and not have to squirm in the narrow seats of a darkened cinema in close proximity to total strangers.

Cinematic sex however remained as potent as ever. And it was during the mid-70s that hard core sexuality crossed over into the mainstream.

Nagisa Oshima’s In The Realm Of The Senses (1976 – pictured), a Japanese period piece about an S&M relationship between a servant girl and her master, broke new ground with its depiction of intense physical love.

Outside of the adult movies mentioned earlier, this was the first time wide audiences had witnessed fellatio, cunnilingus and intercourse in such graphic detail (although the Swedish films Thriller (74) and Breaking Point (75) had splashed sleazy graphic sex prior to this).

In The Realm Of The Senses was, however, an art film and its international distribution was limited. But because of the director’s passionate conviction, the strong production values, and the powerful, emotive acting, the film received high praise from the critics – and to this day remains a cult classic. Even Madonna has been quoted as calling it the most erotic film she’s ever seen.

When Penthouse magazine produced Caligula (pictured) the bar was raised. But it came at a difficult period. Ronald Reagan was US president and conservatism was being forced upon America. The film was released in two versions; R and X-rated. Neither of which made much money.

Despite sporting lavish production values, cavorting Penthouse Pets, distinguished stage actors (albeit some of them unaware they were acting in a hardcore movie), and based on a fascinating, yet controversial historical figure, Caligula’s on-screen decadence returned a flaccid response from the public.

Through the 1980s and 1990s the porn underground thrived, while mainstream sex ducked and swerved, most of it ending up on the cutting room floor. It was the Europeans that continued pushing the boundaries. Still, it was peeks and flashes.

Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (later to go on to a more successful, but ultimately tamer, Hollywood career) had made several films where the portrayal of sex on screen had been adventurous and provocative, films such as Turkish Delight (73), The Fourth Man (83) and even Flesh + Blood (85).

Hardcore reared its head in several Euro productions; fellatio in Verhoeven’s Spetters (1981 – pictured), and Italian productions Devil In The Flesh (86), and The Man-Eater (99). Klaus Kinski thrusted convincingly in the French-Japanese bordello delve Fruits Of Passion (81). While Italian stylist Tinto Brass (who shot Caligula) caressed and fondled his own form of soft-going-on-hard titles such as All Ladies Do It (92) and The Voyeur (94).

It wasn’t until the late 1990s and into the 21st century that hard core sex in cinema started to become recognised as legitimately artistic, and with a wider appeal than ever before.

The French came out with guns blazing. Gaspar Noe’s I Stand Alone (97) and later Irreversible (2002 – pictured) had a dark sexuality burning fiercely and uncompromisingly.

Catherine Breillat’s misanthropic attacks; Romance (99), For My Sister! (01), and Anatomy Of Hell (04) all depict various levels of graphic sexuality; everything from bland oral sex to perverse penetrative sex. There was Life Of Jesus (97) with its bleak adolescent carnality. And then there was Patrice Chereau’s un-erotic Intimacy (01) with New Zealand actress Kerry Fox briefly putting a penis in her mouth.

In the Spanish/French romantic drama Sex And Lucia (01) the passionate, lusty behaviour of Lucia and her lover Lorenzo is refreshingly candid and imaginatively arousing. Although there is no actual sex, there’s a Polaroid or two peeked at which shows real penetration, and there’s something intensely erotic about this discreet explicit display.

Despite some films’ sexual content remaining intact, there have been many films which the censors, either here or overseas, have decided pushed the boundaries too far.

There was Baise-moi (Rape Me/Fuck Me) (2000 – pictured) which was banned in Australia due to its violent, exploitative violations. As was the Japanese prostitution degradation flick Tokyo Decadence (92) and, most famously, Pasolini’s notorious Salo Or 120 Days Of Sodom (76). Larry Clark’s Ken Park (02) with its dark auto-eroticism and ejaculation was also banned, and Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots (98) had a shot of penetrative sex cut from its Australasian release. No doubt director Gaspar Noe will eventually run into censorship problems at the level he keeps pushing!

But where is the line drawn? Who should decide whether one film is considered offensive, while another is considered of high artistic merit? And what are the criteria? Where does the line between pornography and art become successfully blurred?

Reality TV has a lot to answer for. With the demand for realism and fly-on-the-wall observation escalating, the craving for arousal and confrontation will creep higher and higher. And the ante can only be upped in two directions; sex and violence. Imagine a future where the two biggest shows on television are PornTV and SnuffTV. It may sound far-fetched, but versions of this kind of perversion are not far off.

But there is intelligence and imagination at work. With current maverick directors such as Michael Winterbottom (9 Songs – pictured), Vincent Gallo (The Brown Bunny), Lukas Moodysson (A Hole In My Heart), Jane Campion (In The Cut) and Penny Woolcock (The Principles Of Lust), the portrayal of graphic sexuality in mainstream cinema is continuing to be pushed. The content may be arguable, the intent questionable, but there is no doubt graphic sexuality has a place in mainstream cinema.

Michael Winterbottom argues that if you have a film about an athlete, he’s gonna have to do some running from time to time, so if a film is about a sexual relationship then graphic sex is demanded.

But, and herein lies The Rub, will the A-list actors ever allow actual sex to be a clause added into their contracts? Or is real sex on screen always going to be considered taboo for them, breaking the invisible rule between what is fiction and what is documentary?

This will only leave the brave indie actors, ex-porn stars, or exhibitionistic models to fulfill the adventurous screenwriters and directors attempting to add an authentic spice of life to cinematic sexuality.

That’s not quite true. There have been famous actors who have gone the extra mile, so to speak. In his early career Gerard Depardieu took his clothes off at the drop of a hat, and in some cases rose to the occasion; Going Places (74, known in France as The Testicles), and The Last Woman (76) directed by Marco Ferreri, who put sex and food on the same plate with carnal gusto in La Grande Bouffe (73).

Legend has it Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie’s improvised love-making was on a very closed set in Don’t Look Now (1973 – pictured), apparently Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange were doing a lot more than knocking plates off the kitchen table in The Postman Always Rings Twice (81), Jean-Hugues Anglade and Beatrice Dalle were supposedly adding a lot more heat than just the film lights at the beginning of Betty Blue (86), and Mickey Rourke and (ex-wife) Carre Otis’s sweaty encounters in Wild Orchid (90) were, rumour has it, genuinely slippery.

Ultimately context and conviction is what will sing the truest in the morality battle of real sex in cinema. Mainstream films that incorporate actual sex into the narrative, that isn’t being portrayed purely for gratuitous effect, will continue to be recognized and applauded. Ideally the theatrical films depicting actual sex will be designed for intensely erotic and graphically sensual purposes (both light and dark in tone), leaving the underground adult industry to continue to produce videos for purely pornographic gratification ie for getting your rocks off in the privacy of your own home.

So turn off the lights, and long live the new flesh!

Film reviewer Bryn Tilly is also a very active Sydney DJ, scriptwriter and composer – and writes the blogs Horrorphile and Bruno Dante’s Cult Projections.To see reviews of what Bryn Tilly regards as the best movies of 2009 click here. To have a laugh and enjoy Bruno Dante’s article on the best ever sex scenes in mainstream cinema and independent movies click here. This article ACTUAL sex performed in mainstream (as in non-porn) cinema / movies gets over 100,000 viewers per month – there’s a lot of dirty bastards out there.

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