Intimate scenes on screen have been a hot topic of conversation for years, pulling in audience complaints across the board: that there’s too many of them, or too few, or they’re too graphic, or too boring. After seemingly falling out of fashion for a while, it looks like sex scenes are making a comeback in one arena: prestige indie films. So what’s really going on here, and what does it mean for films (and audiences?) Here’s our Take!
The Modern Sex Scene Conundrum
For many modern moviegoers, it’s extremely hard to imagine watching a sex scene without feeling uncomfortable, especially in a movie theater. And for good reason - in the past decade these controversial scenes have pretty much disappeared from major blockbuster filmmaking (we’ll touch on why more in a minute.) While buzz surrounding Christopher Nolan’s first sex scene in ‘Oppenheimer’ was high leading up to the film’s release, the actual scene itself was more tame than raunchy. And after nearly ten years of family friendly films devoid of sexuality, ‘Eternals’ controversial first installment into the MCU sex scene canon was snooze worthy, to say the least.
But beneath the surface of Hollywood blockbusters, a unique counterculture has begun to bubble within independent film. Yorgos Lanthimos’ newest film ‘Poor Things’ is being heralded for its raunchy sex scenes akin to those of the 1970’s, Paul Mescal and Andrew Scott are receiving laurels for their commitment to tender love scenes in the upcoming film ‘All of Us Strangers’, and indie flick ‘Passages’ has made waves for its NC-17 rating. Where most franchise films have avoided sex completely, indie films have picked up the slack in the sexually devoid Hollywood landscape. And so while the tumultuous history of sex in Hollywood filmmaking has led us to the sexless modern blockbuster, it seems that franchise fatigue has prompted a new sexual renaissance in prestige independent film. So let’s unpack what led up to this moment in cinema, and what it all says about the real stories audiences are looking for.
KEEP IT UNDER WRAPS: THE DECLINE OF THE SEX SCENE IN MAINSTREAM FILM
The history of sex in American filmmaking has never been straightforward. While always being slightly taboo, its popularity as a plot device has ebbed and flowed throughout time. Thanks to the many, many restrictions that came about thanks to the Hays Code being enacted in 1934, people often think of early films as entirely sexless, but the opposite was actually true for pre-code films. Sex and sensuality were frequently major themes within these films, and women in particular were often given sexual agency. But after the Hays Code went into effect, banning everything from “any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette” to “excessive or lustful kissing”, films became much more chaste. It wasn’t until the restrictive Hays Code was replaced by our modern film rating system in 1968, that the late 60s and 1970s ushered in a new era of rampant on-screen sexual expression. Films like ‘Valley of the Dolls’, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and ‘Don’t Look Now’ depicted sex and sexuality in a range of ways. In the 70s, sex could push boundaries and be funny, raunchy, and human, adding realism to the act, which was later slowly stripped away by the glossy blockbuster scenes of the 80s.
But the new system has its own downsides, too. As ratings became main drivers of audience appeal in the 90s and into the 2000s, the difference between an ‘R’ rating and a ‘PG-13’ rating meant a significant difference in box office turnout. Films like ‘Titanic’ and ‘Dirty Dancing’ show us that depictions of sex were still prevalent in mainstream movie-making at this time, but the emergence of franchise films in this era began a major change in depictions of sexuality on screen. As the Modern Pictures Association began to rate films with little explanation as to why the ratings were being established, filmmakers grew frustrated with the suggested censorship of their work. Most times, these suggestions meant changing films completely to fit a generalized audience rating. In 2020, James Gunn spoke out about the MPAA’s involvement in the final product of ‘Scooby-Doo’, which underwent significant changes to fit a family friendly rating. In the eyes of the rating system, a ‘family friendly’ concept like Scooby Doo could not bear to have any even slightly suggestive content that could potentially alienate younger audiences, though some jokes got past. This all pushed forward the idea that any kind of even marginally adult or sexual content was to be solely reserved for independent or lower scale productions.
The #MeToo movement kicked off in 2016 and sparked many conversations around safety and consent in Hollywood, including with the filming of sex scenes. This led to a number of important changes in thinking around and the filming of intimate scenes, but these scenes continued to be a contentious topic. Add on swirling Gen-Z discourse about whether we even need sex scenes in TV and film at all, and the mainstream lack of these moments on the big screen in recent years makes sense. Between the historic lack of consent on movie sets and the fact that displays of intimacy limit the number of bodies in seats, the sex scene began fading into an obscure thing of the past. But there is one arena in which the intimate scene hasn’t yet been snuffed out.
SMALL BUT MIGHTY: WHY INDEPENDENT FILM HAS EMBRACED THE SEX SCENE
While sex has largely disappeared from mainstream American films outside of a few notable exceptions, it has continued to flourish in the world of prestige independent filmmaking. Not needing to cater to a wide-spread audience of all ages, independent films possess the wiggle room and artistic freedom that many modern blockbusters lack. Celebrated prestige films like ‘Blue Valentine’, ‘Carol’, and ‘Moonlight’ take an unflinching look at love - centering sex in a way that depicts it as a human and natural act, rather than something to be shoved in a corner and never spoken about. In ‘Call Me By Your Name’, the relationship between Elio and Oliver is elevated by Luca Guadagino’s tender approach to the subject matter, using lingering camera shots that create a deep sense of intimacy and connection between the two men. While the sex in the film isn’t shown on screen, Guadagnino approaches the concept of sexuality with a desire to convey the raw and innate humanness of love itself, and how multifaceted cinematic depictions of sex can be.
This nuance is what has allowed sex in prestige indie films to thrive. Whether in long, explicit sex scenes, like those in Ira Sachs’ ‘Passages’, or through the wild, subversive depictions of love and lust in Yorgos Lanthimos’ ‘Poor Things’, these filmmakers are unafraid to depict sex in an honest way. Yes, sex has historically always been more welcomed in prestige indie films, but it is also the rise of intimacy coordinators in the wake of the #MeToo movement that has allowed these scenes to be presented in more authentic, and sexy, ways. As actors begin to feel more comfortable taking on these intimate scenes on set, it makes sense that independent films unafraid to cater to smaller audiences are willing to take big swings and actually depict intimate moments on screen.
FRANCHISE FATIGUE AND DECENTERING THE MALE GAZE
So, why is this new tide change happening now? For starters, audiences are experiencing major franchise fatigue. Although Marvel films continue to rake in box office success, the once dominant MCU has faced growing criticism for its unclear plotlines, lazy editing, and lack of spark that once made its films so special. Blockbusters will always exist, and are still valid forms of filmmaking, but it is the oversaturation of unremarkable franchise films that seems to be tiring out moviegoers who are now pining for real, relatable stories on screen. The actors in the MCU are some of the hottest people working in Hollywood. So why are their on-screen counterparts absolutely devoid of sexuality? Sex certainly isn’t a requirement for romance or love, but it has come to feel like no character in a major franchise is allowed to engage in any sort of intimate or sexual expression. (Which is a stark contrast to even early MCU films themselves) Filmmakers are fatigued too, growing increasingly frustrated at the difficulty of trying to create and fund original, human stories in the current blockbuster landscape. However, it’s the burning passion to tell against-the-grain stories that continues to foster independent filmmaking. So while mainstream films may continue to avoid sex scenes, the more independent films embrace them.
As polarized as the conversation about intimate scenes has become, in the end it seems that it really comes down to whether they feel like genuine explorations of the human experience or exploitative scenes thrown in for nothing but titillation. If there’s one thing Sam Levinson and The Weeknd’s ‘The Idol’ showed us, it’s that audiences are tired of unnecessary, fetishized sex scenes dictated by the male gaze. This discourse doesn’t just apply to TV shows though – a large reason the sex scene has fallen out of favor in film is due to this very same principle. But, the implementation of intimacy coordinators combined with the increased perspectives of diverse filmmakers in independent films have allowed for an honest and authentic depiction of sex in films that actors are comfortable with. Films like ‘Portrait of A Lady On Fire’, ‘Carol’ and ‘The Handmaiden’, for example, decenter the male gaze and honor female pleasure in an erotic, but non-objectified manner, creating a breath of fresh air amongst a history of overly sexualized depictions of queer romance on-screen.
There will never be one ‘right’, universally agreed upon answer to the question of the existence of sex scenes, but now that the conversation has finally been dragged out into the light to really be hashed out, we have begun finding new ways forward. Important offshoots of the discussion, like the desire to see more platonic relationships on screen, are changing the way we think about what kinds of love are shown and valued on screen. And indie and prestige films are continuing to make progress in finding engaging ways to explore sex and sexuality and show deep human intimacy. And this time around, a focus on consent and honest depictions of intimacy are what makes these moments genuinely sexy.
Veltman, Chloe. “Looking for ‘Nomance’: Study Finds Teens Want Less Sex in Their TV and Movies.” NPR, NPR, 1 Nov. 2023, www.npr.org/2023/11/01/1210011529/looking-for-nomance-study-finds-teens-want-less-sex-in-their-tv-and-movies#:~:text=According%20to%20a%20new%20UCLA,its%20Romance%20or%20Nomance%20study.