has cinema finally got real about sex?
Forget 'Dirty Dancing' perfection, these movies are showing that unspectacular sex is actually normal.
I was 12 when I first saw Titanic and thereafter proclaimed it my favourite ever movie. Unlike Rose’s indifference to the hulking vessel about to embark on its maiden voyage, I was spellbound by the film’s scale and always as much of a wreck as the ship itself come the credits.
Equally memorable was being enraptured by Leonardo DiCaprio (be still my beating prepubescent heart) and Kate Winslet’s sex scene. The longing with which they looked at each other’s perspiring faces, the swelling James Horner-composed score, the iconic hand smacking the steamy window of the car-turned-boudoir. It was a backseat shag so good Rose rebukes her fiancé to start anew with penniless Jack; a moment of transcendental passion that becomes cinema’s greatest tragic romance.
Dirty Dancing was another over-watched entry in my adolescent canon, undeniably formative to my cognition of coition. Baby (Jennifer Grey) arrives at Johnny’s (Patrick Swayze) private cabin to admit the intensity of her feelings -- a declaration of intent and consent very much necessary considering she’s about 17 and he’s definitely not. As if by magic, the record player switches over to the ardent vocals of soul’s Solomon Burke, and Johnny, inexplicably shirtless, stands alluringly with his hands in his pockets as if daring Baby to come and get him.
Rewatching this as a hardened sexpert I almost splutter with disbelief. Who has ever slow-danced before their first time? I know Swayze is playing a professional dancer, but first times are hurried and bruising, like a bar fight. There’s bumping and wobbling and knocking things over, not pre-sex swaying and caressing and calm bottom-grazing. No wonder the reality mired the expectation. I was lead down a path that elevated theatrics over realism, wherein some gentle jean-on-jean action transpired to looking at each other intensely by the glow of a Chinese lantern.
Cut to a decade later, and the experience of watching Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird was considerably cathartic for the U-turn it offered on this myth. Sex, and one’s first dalliance with it, is largely not special. The virginity-demolishing scene between Saoirse Ronan’s titular character and glass-half-empty highschooler Kyle (Timothée Chalamet) is frenetic and awkward. Sensuous love-making this isn’t. It’s kids fooling around. As Kyle declares, attempting to assuage the thwarted hopes that this might be Lady Bird’s own Great Romance: “you’re going to have so much un-special sex in your life”. Depressing perhaps. But in challenging the accepted wisdom that first times are mind-blowing, Lady Bird and its indie cinema peers are creating visibility around bad and amateurish sex, which isn’t a source of shame but a fact of life.
Contemporary cinema has become much more cognisant when it comes to inaugural sexual experiences. Take, for instance, The Spectacular Now. Sutter (Miles Teller) and his girlfriend Aimee (Shailene Woodley) are sitting cross-legged on her bed, giggling and goading each other to undress. It’s whispery and nervous, with under the cover wriggling to get pants off, and what follows is, well, ordinary. Most spectacularly, when they decide they’re really ‘doing this’ Aimee pauses, reaches for a condom and hands it to Sutter. It feels revolutionary not just to see sex with pauses in it, but to see a head-on confrontation with contraception. Protection is so often bypassed that you could come to believe sex is effortless and interruption-free. But it’s not. It’s a conversation, replete with pauses and questions and sub-clauses, and one of those questions should always be ‘are we prepared for this?’
This trend for films to offer a space where sex can be unspectacular: sigh rather than scream inducing, is not a reduction of what sex can be or an invitation to settle for the subpar, but a corrective to what’s come before. If you can bear it, think of The Notebook: a cornerstone of the romantic genre and chief culprit in dressing up the act of undressing. In an abandoned, decrepit house, young lovers Noah (Ryan Gosling) and Allie (Rachel McAdams) stand on opposite sides of a blanket, removing clothes until they’re underwear clad (Ryan Gosling is at this point, visibly not aroused -- just saying) and then completely naked. What strikes me as strange about this rendezvous is the silent and formal nature of it, followed by a near nervous-breakdown from Allie that requires placation in the form of a declaration of love; equating the two as if a woman can’t want the former without the latter.
Years later, when they’re reunited on a lake suffused with white geese, and a thunderstorm spawns a deluge of emotion, the sex is no less rhapsodic. Noah carries Allie across the threshold, whereupon walls and wardrobes receive a beating on their way to the bedroom and there is yet more standing-and-carrying (nothing like a woman being lifted all the way up a flight of stairs to howl ‘unrealistic’). It’s a moment of passion treated with the intensity the genre beckons and deserves and I won’t deny it’s fun to indulge in, but bedroom antics and gymnastics of this level only serve to create delusions of grandeur.
Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl is much more visceral and grounded in its sexual illustrations; prettified blanket sex this isn’t. 15-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley), after doing the dirty with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), marks an ‘X’ on his thigh with her blood. What’s more, the sex here isn’t about love. Monroe is an unsuitable candidate for such affection and distinctly not up the task of reciprocation. It’s about infatuation, lust and the vulgarity of the female sexual imagination. It doesn’t shy away, or in cinematic terms, cut away from the messiness of it all and most astoundingly it affirms that young women think about sex as much as young men. “I like sex. I wanna get laid right now,” Minnie’s voice-over states, her rapacious eyes glancing around a comic book store. Now there’s a relatable heroine.
"We’re not born with the natural ability to give or experience life-affirming orgasms, despite being fed stories otherwise."
Like Titanic, the initial sex scene between Star (Sasha Lane) and Jake (Shia LaBeouf) in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey takes place in a car. Unlike Titanic, a timid fondle doesn’t automatically vault to a sweat-soaked frenzy. Instead, Arnold lets the moment unfold naturally. The camera remains intent on looking at Star looking at Jake, confirming this is as much her desire as his. Although the sun-dappled lighting rather plays up the magic in their impoverished maelstrom, Arnold coalesces romanticism with realism. As the moment of underwear removal takes place, faces are squashed against headrests and the whole tussle — captured in startlingly proximate fashion — is shown to be tricksy. As Geoffrey MacNab of The Independent writes, “the sex scenes are resolutely unglamorous”. As they well should be. What’s glamorous about a man announcing the arrival of his climax before doing just that? The brilliance of the scene lies in its attention to detail, its lingering on Star’s tattooed, tan-lined and faintly stretch-marked legs, the messy incoherence of limbs, the squeaking of leather seats. It feels rushed and raucous and wonderfully real.
Similarly, Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post sees two friends enjoy a backseat romp on prom night, shimmying up their dresses to confirm an intimacy until now only intimated. Once again, the camera stays incredibly tight on the actor’s faces. This isn’t about women’s bodies and their objectification , but about the learning to play the instrument that is the female sex organ. Like a language, sex is something we learn. We’re not born with the natural ability to give or experience life-affirming orgasms, despite being fed stories otherwise. As noted in Vanity Fair, “Akhavan manages to give her heroine a healthily populated but notably unremarkable sex life... Sex here is not a payoff but a process, a study of people still exploring themselves — learning what feels good, discovering what they want. There’s no voyeurism, no exploitation.”
A common thread among this new wave of filmmaking and its undermining of the overblown ‘bed-rocking’ that is a bedrock of sex on screen, is, unsurprisingly, a woman at the helm. Lower on budgets and ego, they trace a move from male-authored female pleasure — in which one can’t help but imagine the director as co-conspirator in the myth of male potency — to a refreshingly candid and subjective perspective. If the films of my adolescence saw sexual gestures writ large, the films of my adulthood are reassuringly subdued. Titanic’s sex scene might be the aspiration (though honestly, sex in a car is oversold), but it’s not the expectation. Thanks to the verisimilitude served up by Lady Bird et al., that lies somewhere comfortably between the two.