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.
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.
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.