Image: Sky Editorial Asset Centre
Image: Sky Editorial Asset Centre

Sex scenes and their narrative importance

Sex scenes are almost never necessary for the advancement of a narrative, but then which scenes are? Is the emotionally stirring defiant singing of ‘La Marseillaise’ vital to the story of Rick and Ilsa’s relationship in Casablanca? Not really. We already understand that the patrons of Rick’s bar detest the Nazis, so why bother to press the point further? Is Judy Garland’s iconic performance of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ vital to the storyline of The Wizard of Oz? Again, the answer is not really. Cut that out and we could get to Oz much sooner. Do we really need the crop-duster scene in North by Northwest? From a purely narrative point of view, it takes up a lot of time without advancing any particularly relevant plot points. A shorter sequence of Cary Grant narrowly avoiding thugs attempting to pull off a drive-by shooting would be a much more efficient use of time.

The point is that these hallmarks of cinema, these beloved, instantly recognisable scenes are so well-regarded because they aren’t pure exposition. They’re examples of the art of film using all of the tools at its disposal to take that step into the legendary, elevating the audience’s experience beyond the fundamental elements of storytelling into the domain of palpable atmosphere and the liberty of unbound catharsis, whether it be joy, longing or suspense. Films are made great by those perfect moments that add texture, flavour and richness, and the depiction of sex is no exception.

Of course, it all depends on how this is done. Network is a beloved, brilliantly written 1970s film that showcases searing, poetic speeches about anger, hopelessness and power alongside incisive political commentary. Unfortunately, this is all diluted and made less effective by the presence of a completely unnecessary sexual relationship crammed into the film’s already above-average running time. This is a depiction of sex that isn’t uncomfortable but just flat out boring and unnecessary.

For me, the worst sex scenes are the ones that aren’t simply irrelevant but actively worsen the experience of watching a film

There are countless other examples of films that use sex completely without merit, painfully damaging the film itself in the process. An egregious example is the bizarre intercutting of a sex scene with imagery of the historical murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Steven Spielberg’s film Munich. This and the unnecessary sexualised murder of a sex worker earlier in the film really detract from what is otherwise a deeply contemplative, fascinating film about politics, revenge and patriotism. For me, the worst sex scenes are the ones that aren’t simply irrelevant but actively worsen the experience of watching a film. Thankfully, there is a right way to depict sex. A way which perfectly complements and enhances the spirit and flavour of a film.

Mulholland Drive has one of the most powerful sex scenes that I’ve ever seen. It works incredibly well because we have an immense sympathy for the film’s lead characters: Betty and Rita. They are kind, decent people who have formed a warm and tender relationship, but one with a clear underlying tension. Rita can’t remember who she is. Even her name is borrowed. As the two leads explore the mystery behind Rita’s identity, they grow closer and closer until they decide to share a bed. The sedate yet explosive slowness with which they connect, the incredible intimacy of their shared passion and the underlying unbearable romantic tension and desire between them make for one of the sweetest, most human, overwhelmingly powerful expressions of sexuality in all media.

This isn’t gratuitous sex for cheap titillation, it’s an unforgettable expression of shared bliss and irresistible longing. This scene could be cut. We could just have Betty and Rita kiss and hold hands. We’d still understand that they were in a relationship and that they cared very much for each other, but what a loss it would be. Mulholland Drive’s sex scene is ultimately expendable from a narrative viewpoint but integral to the spirit, drive and passion of David Lynch’s beautiful film.

We aren’t just watching sex; we’re watching characters discover their identity

Not every filmmaker is as gifted as Lynch and not every sex scene is a brilliantly intimate and unforgettable as Betty and Rita’s, but their moment of perfect happiness stands as a clear example of both the power of cinema and the great potential inherent in the depiction of sex. Think of the ground-breaking films that depict the sexuality of LGBT+ characters. Mulholland Drive, Moonlight and Brokeback Mountain all have their sex scenes and all of them are crucial. We aren’t just watching sex; we’re watching characters discover their identity.

It’s an immensely positive achievement that we live in a time when film can freely and frankly depict sexual relationships that aren’t heterosexual. To see the intimacy and love that the leads of these modern LGBT+ classics share is a clear encouraging symbol of the recent advancement of our society and a positive forward leap in representation. Brokeback Mountain without the sex scenes would be a lesser film. Sex and love are its core. Cutting the sex out may well give us narrative expediency but it would also give us a much lesser film.

To end on a more serious note, the crucial matter of importance concerning this topic is the safety of the actors and their willingness and consent to perform in sexual scenes. Salma Hayek shared a story during the early days of the #MeToo campaign concerning a sex scene in the film Frida. She had been coerced into performing the scene (which didn’t appear in the film’s script) by Harvey Weinstein.

With this horrible story in mind, it is vital that the safety and consent of actors is respected above all else. Sex scenes can be moving, intimate, fantastic expressions of power and passion but they are only ever acceptable if the performers are free, willing and uncoerced. The examples of Mulholland Drive and Brokeback Mountain make it abundantly clear that sex and cinema can be a perfect match.

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