Passion in Film: Should Cinematic Displays of Affection be Toned Down?

When it comes to movies, sex is perhaps the touchiest subject that any filmmaker can explore, and it is certainly the element that can most easily garner a film a harsh rating. Violence, profanity, and drug use are all equally intense when shown in a realistic fashion, but there is just something about the physical act of love that makes for a very awkward movie-going experience. Imagine for a moment that you are sitting next to your girlfriend, buddy, or one of your parents and you’re watching a movie together. Which would make you feel the most uneasy: a character suddenly being shot in the head, a character going off on tirade laced with cuss-words, or a character sharing an affectionate moment with their lover? The answers will differ, but the general consensus will probably lean towards the affectionate moment.

These tender scenes that I’m referring to have become more and more graphic as filmmakers have become bolder and more adamant about presenting their views on human sexuality. There was a time when a movie would be called risqué if it had a single moment of passionate kissing. Nowadays, such scenes can be found in a PG rated flick. Why? Because sexuality has become more of an open subject in our society, not just in film, but in literature, music, TV, and even in general advertising. But the purpose of this article isn’t to explore the pros and cons of the rise of eroticism in films. Instead, I’m looking to see how the stylistic choices that filmmakers make when they are presenting erotic moments in their pictures serve to illuminate the subject of human intimacy.

It is very easy to slip into a juvenile state of mind when it comes to sex in movies, and it’s even easier to disregard such moments on the grounds that they serve no purpose to the overall narrative. I remember that back in my senior year of high school, Darren Aronofsky’s film Black Swan came out, and a lot of my buddies were talking about how hot the lesbian sex scene with Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis was. For them, it was all about the physicality of the moment, and nothing more. While I must shamefully confess that I too felt a surge of lust when watching the scene, I was also aware that there was a deeper meaning that went beyond eroticism and sex. Mila was the representation of all the desires that Natalie kept hidden deep within herself, so to make love to Mila was to give herself over to her darker passions and allow them to be a part of her. There were probably others that saw a poetic meaning underlining that moment, but for a lot of people, it was nothing more than fan service, and in a way, it’s hard to argue with that interpretation. The scene does last a solid minute or so; if all Aronofsky wanted to do was show Natalie’s character give herself over to the dark side, why not just show a briefer sex scene? Or why have a sex scene at all? I would argue that it’s because making love to someone is perhaps the most intimate act that two people can partake in, but for others that may just be an excuse to show two lovely actresses getting down. This is just one of many sex scenes that is scrutinized for being graphic and dismissed as being pornographic.

Léa Seydoux and Adéle Exarchopoulous star as the two lovers in Blue is the Warmest Color.
Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulous star as the two lovers in Blue is the Warmest Color.

Another, more recent, example can be found in Abdellatif Kechiche’s picture Blue is the Warmest Color which has a number of scenes that show teenagers having sex. One scene in particular became a bit infamous for showing the two leads (Léa Seydoux and Adéle Exarchopoulos) making love in an explicit 7 minute sex scene. Again, there was quite the stir in the cinematic world as people expressed how offended they were that a director would show two girls having sex for such a prolonged period of time. Moreover, the actresses themselves expressed a measure of discomfort and embarrassment at having to film the scene. Though the scene was simulated (the actresses wore prosthetic vaginas), many were still put off by the director’s choice to show such a realistic display of sexuality in a film.

What’s curious, however, is that while many people may scorn a romantic film like Blue is the Warmest Color, they’ll be more than happy to watch a film like James Cameron’s romantic epic Titanic without feeling a single shred of the awkwardness that they felt towards the former picture. Why? They are both epic films, they both involve young characters who fall deeply in love, and aside from the obvious differences – Blue is more intense and involves a lesbian couple while Titanic is much more sentimental and centers on a hetero couple – they are both stories about love. If I had to guess, it’d be because when Jack and Rose finally consummated their relationship, it was done in a very subtle, almost private manner. All we see is a car window covered in the characters’ perspiration before we cut into the car and see Jack resting on Rose’s breasts. That’s it. Blue is anything but subtle; when Léa and Adéle consummate their relationship, they consummate their relationship. There is no privacy, no discretion. It is all right there on the screen for us to watch.

In that sense, it’s easy to understand why people were offended by the explicit nature of Blue is the Warmest Color. One of the intrinsic elements of cinema is voyeurism; we, in essence, step into the lives of others for a few hours and see how they navigate through their daily conflicts. When it comes to voyeurism, watching people having sex is about as extreme as it gets. And when it comes to movies, it’s okay. We realize that it isn’t real, that we’re watching a story with fictional characters, and that what we watch in the theater stays in the theater. But when it becomes real, when it starts to feel real, we start to feel like we are invading someone else’s life and that we are intruding in a moment that ought to be private and reserved. In essence, while there probably were people who were dismissive of Blue is the Warmest Color on purely prudish grounds, I’d like to think that the majority of people were dismissive of it because there was no sense of privacy to the passion in the film. The characters seemed to be putting on a show, not displaying earnest love for one another. It’s not because people think sex is disgusting; if anything, it’s precisely because sex is so beautiful that it should be shown in a respectful, quiet manner.

Robb and Talisa cultivate a very honest, decent romance in HBO's Game of Thrones.
Robb and Talisa cultivate a very honest, decent romance in HBO’s Game of Thrones.

I’m reminded of all the controversy surrounding Game of Thrones and all of the sex scenes in it. Many jokes have been made about how the abundance of nudity and sexuality is nothing more than a cheap ploy to hook in the horny College kid demographic. But take a closer look, and you’ll see that there is a clear division between what could be referred to as raunchy sex and romantic sex. With the former, the sex is shown suddenly and without a hint of intimacy; there is no build up, we don’t get to know the characters, we just watch them have sex. Think of any of the scenes that take place in Baelish’s whorehouse and you’ve got a general idea of what a raunchy sex scene is like.

Romantic sex scenes, however, are much more subtle in nature, and serve to show eroticism in a very decent light. When Robb makes love to Talisa, or when Jon makes love to Ygritte, there is a sense of privacy to the scene. Sure, the actors may be nude, but we don’t really see the sex itself. This clear distinction shows that when two characters fall in love, their expressions of love ought to be shown with respect and dignity, and moreover, it is not our place to invade their privacy. But when two random characters have sex, well, that’s just cracker jack candy. It doesn’t mean anything to them, so why should it mean anything to us? It is that kind of sex scene that we want to disregard and label as pornographic.

Passion in film is hard to get right, not because we don’t like it, but because it is so important and valuable that if we show it in a sophomoric manner, then it begins to degrade its value. Returning to Game of Thrones for a moment, there is a scene when Jon describes to Sam about what it’s like to make love to a woman. He says that, “There’s this whole other person. And you’re wrapped up in them, and they’re wrapped up in you. And for a moment, you’re more than just you.” That’s about as nice an explanation of having sex that I’ve ever heard. Ultimately, if we are to honor that act, the act of giving yourself completely to another person, then we ought to show it in its best form: when it’s honest, when it’s passionate, and when it’s private.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Ji Cushman

    People have been focusing on the “sex sells” concept too much recently. I’m not much of a fan of it, it just gets overdone and rather tiring.

    • I agree, but if it serves some kind of narrative purpose then I’m usually okay with it. Even with something as graphic and pervasive as The Wolf of Wall Street is alright because it serves to show the hedonistic nature of the main characters. But when it’s just sex in and of itself, I think mostly of a show like Spartacus, then it seems unnecessary. Thanks for your comment.

    • Completely agree. I was shooting a modern adaptation of the story of Gideon from the book of judges and the director wanted the angel to be played by a girl (there are no other female speaking roles). When the writer argued that according to the lutheran interpretation of the bible, all angels are men; the director simply replied “Sex sells.” and proceeded to use a skimpier-than-average robe as the costume.

      • Yea, you see, that’s a really silly reason to include a woman in that kind of role. I mean, I think it’d be neat to put a woman in the role if the idea was to show a different interpretation of the angel, but if it’s just for eye candy then that’s about as juvenile as it gets.

  2. Louie Donovan

    I don’t watch much else other than History, Discovery, and Travel Channels so I’m sort of exempt from the sex/nudity in media.

  3. I honestly think movies could use more male nudity, gender equality and whatnot.

  4. But American TV/film is waaaay less graphic than European TV/Film when it comes to nudity/sex. On the other hand, we are waaay more graphic when it comes to violence.

    • I’ve heard that before. A couple of buddies of mine who went to Europe once said that they basically put on porn over there. They said nothing about the violence though, so that’s pretty interesting. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Amanda Dominguez-Chio

    I agree with your discussion on “Black Swan” and the sex scene between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. The scene did gain notoriety but for all the wrong reasons. People wanted to see a steamy scene between two female leads, which led others to wonder whether the scene remained relevant to the plot. I think it’s important for films to stick to the principle that everything in their film remains relevant to the plot, without splitting the opinions of the audience.

    • Exactly. The point when a sex scene becomes nothing more than eye candy is when it serves no narrative purpose. That doesn’t mean that every sex scene has to be pretty (though I didn’t mention it in the article, I think that sometimes raunchy sex scenes do have a place in a movie/TV show), but it does mean that there has to be a point behind it. Thanks for your comment.

  6. I’m finding that all the TV shows/movies that don’t need to have sex have way too much of it, and all the TV shows that should have sex don’t have it. I truly do not understand the phenomenon.

    • It’s weird, I’ve never really gotten that. It seems to me that the shows and movies that have sex in it more often than not have it for some kind of purpose, but the only ones that I roll my eyes at are those that have absolutely no business being in the movie. On the whole, I’d say I’m more inclined to say that a movie didn’t need a sex scene than to say that a movie needed one. Thanks for the comment.

  7. I remember what TV and film was like in the 70s/early 80s…and there was a lot more nudity back then than there is now. Before PG-13, there were boobs all over the place in PG films.

    We’re just getting more and more prudish

    • I suppose, but at the same time I think that being considerate is a nice thing. Not putting words in your mouth or nothing, but although boobs were common place in older films, does that mean that they should always be like that? It’s kind of nice that there’s a measure of decency in movies. Now if the flick is targeted at adults then there’s something different to consider, one would expect adults to be able to handle nudity. But if its a family picture, then maybe it’s worth holding back a bit. I don’t know though, I honestly don’t know a whole lot about 70s and 80s programming. If you’d like to share some examples, I’d be happy to look them over 🙂

  8. Michael Krebs

    Interesting article and I think you make some great points. I am only familiar with your Titanic example but I think that when it comes to sex on TV and Movies age has a lot to do with how comfortable people are with sex. For example, I remember seeing Titanic while my mother was in the room and felt incredible uncomfortable during the sex scene at such a young age. Comparing that experience with similar moments during my adult years, the uncomfortable feeling has almost vanished. I think that, like with violence, people become desensitized to the sex scenes on screen. However, I do agree with you regarding sex on TV and movies, as you say, it should be portrayed as “honest, passionate, and private”. Nicely put.

    • That’s true. As we get older, things that once shocked us either stop shocking us or we come to see them in a better light. I suppose the point I was making was that if someone were to walk in on you watching a flick, a sex scene may be more awkward than a violent scene or a scene with bad language in it. Thanks for your comment Michael 🙂

  9. Chan Broughton

    This is a progression of what society can handle in entertainment media. Remember, some years ago, Alfred Hitchcock shocked the film world when he – in his own suspenseful way – showed a woman getting stabbed to death in the shower. At the time, this was most unheard of and unbelievable that he would do such a thing, especially when you consider he hadn’t told Janet Leigh what would happen when the scene started and got a very natural and realistic reaction.

    Suffice to say, what was shocking then is more normal now, and films have tried to push the envelope quite far. There isn’t too much until the world says to cut back, that we can’t handle so much of it at this time.

  10. Monique

    I’m going to counter-argue: if a film is rated R (or NC-17), then nudity or sex should be included as the writer/director see fit. Not every story has to be appropriate for every audience, and sex (and sexual taboos) are a huge part of the human experience. You seem to be advocating the inclusion of “making love” over, well, let’s say other verbs, and I believe that is too limiting to the media and to story-telling.

    The real issue here (imho) is the antiquated, subjective, and corporate-driven ratings system run by the MPAA. Instead of an arbitrary “R”, which means… nothing, really, or NC-17, which means no advertising (and therefore no audience), we should switch to something more like the ratings used for TV. A description “L for Language” or “S for Sexual situations or nudity” is a much better indicator to the audience than an “R”.

    Challenging and interesting article, though. No disrespect meant. 🙂

    • Nothing disrespectful at all Monique, in fact I do appreciate your point of view. Perhaps its the romantic in me but I always find myself inclined to, for lack of a better word enjoy a romantic sex scene rather than one that concentrates only on what you referred to as the other verb 😉 But you are right, I don’t think that films ought to be sentimental and friendly if it isn’t what the filmmakers intend. The ratings are there for a reason and if a film is given a rating that entails an adult audience then that’s obviously the intended audience. I hope I didn’t give the impression that I want filmmakers to sanitize their work because I don’t; I just want them to be able to create a clear division between something that’s sweet and sentimental and something that doesn’t really matter.

      Moreover, though I didn’t mention it in the article, I think that sometimes raunchy sex scenes can have a purpose. One of the examples I used in a comment above was The Wolf of Wall Street which has tons of sex and nudity. But as graphic as it was, it did have a purpose; it showed how hedonistic and crazy all those guys were and how they only cared thought of sex as a toy.

      Really, the only sex scenes that I’ll roll my eyes at are ones that serves absolutely NO narrative purpose and just come and go without meaning anything, whether it’s good or bad. But for the most part such scenes are few and far between.

      I really appreciate your comment Monique, in fact I think it’d be kind of cool if you wrote a full on counter article. Just an idea 🙂

  11. I agree with you completely. I think it’s rather difficult for many people like myself to be able to immerse themselves completely when a graphically obvious sex-scene occurs in a movie. It makes me feel shameful for watching. I wouldn’t watch two people in reality having sex like that; that sort of practice is shunned by society. So why is it acceptable in the movies? Furthermore, I find it takes away from the magic of the film because it becomes difficult to appreciate the movie and accept it as a story. The fourth wall is broken for me the moment that I begin to feel discomfort for having watched a sex scene, and I cannot enjoy the rest of the movie.
    As a counter-point, I find that private, romantic sex-scenes, like the one you described in “Titanic,” do a much better job of conveying the beauty and romance behind the act of sexual intercourse by making it merely a subtle gesture. Knowing that a couple has had sex in a private, romantic manner is much more satisfactory to an audience that watching the entire act themselves. The private sex-scene gives the audience the impression that the romance is about the characters on screen, while a more graphic one makes the act all about the viewer.

  12. I think it all depends on what the sex scene is trying to portray. In some instances, it is meant to disturb us (i.e. in Blue Velvet) and horrify us (i.e. in the French movie “Irreversible”: the scene where she is raped in the tunnel.) I understand that you are talking about sex, and not rape, but I still think it should be at the discretion of the director, provided that the actors consent to it and will not ultimately be scarred by their own performance (I’m thinking here of Last Tango in Paris, where Schneider and Brando both ended up feeling disgusted by agreeing to do the anal sex scene for Bertolucci.)

    • That’s an important thing to take into account too. If the actors are fine with it and feel secure doing it, then by all means. But I still think there’s a difference between your two examples Kate. The rape scene in Blue Velvet was truly horrifying because it was so surreal and was committed by Frank Booth, who in a manner of minutes became one of the most psychotic characters in film history. Irreversible on the other hand I thought went overboard. Rape is always hard to stomach when shown on film and Irreversible is no exception, but the fact that it just goes on and on and on made me feel too uneasy, like perhaps the director thought it was okay to leer at such a crime. Many other scenes have been able to show that crime in a subtler more subdued manner. But again, I’ve always been in favor of the “less is more” idea so that’s just personal taste, and I know that Gaspar Noe wasn’t trying to be a creep in Irreversible, I just didn’t like the way that scene was filmed is all. Thanks for your comment Kate 🙂

  13. Edward Haynes

    interesting stuff.
    While I don’t necessarily think that what is shown in film should be ‘toned down’ (people have genitalia, there’s not really much point to hiding it), I do agree that sex is the most intimate act one can partake in – you physically merge with someone else – and should be shown in a respectful manner.

  14. Many times in movies, I do find many sex scenes indulgent because, yes, voyeurism entertainment. But when well done, they are not pointless and might allow us to invest in the characters’ emotional joy. Much like in Titanic, my preference does lean toward the more reserved illustration of sex on screen. Titanic uses the visual cue rather than the sexual act, so as indicated in your article, it gives more breathing space to absorb the intimacy than the physical act. Though in some films, the director needs to conscious about portraying a sexual act as over-explicit, depraved, or even repellent to convey certain moods as appropriate to the story.

    When conducting a sex scene, the director must consider: How does one choreograph it in a way that gives the character psychological and emotional weight? How far does s/he need to go to perfect his desired mood?. How would the director minimize the exploitative accusations of the scene if s/he must go far?

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment Ava, and you’re right about the questions that ought to be asked before filming an intimate scene. Not only should a director take the narrative quality of such scenes into account, but they should also care about the actors themselves. For some, it must be very taxing to act nude in a movie that is going to be viewed by thousands of people, so it stands to reason that a director should take some time to ensure that their actors modesty isn’t damaged in any way.

  15. I think the reason (without a comment as to the morality of specific acts) why there is less of a worry as to violence and narcotics/alcohol use is because it is, in principle, more relatable from a younger age and beyond. This is to say, young people, for example, are volitionally able to commit violence and are able to comprehend it in a way that they cannot with sex.

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