Whatever Happened to Movie Sex?

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But all this is, essentially, kid stuff, somewhere between adolescent and infantile in its voyeuristic avidity. It codifies the randy talk in a boys' tree house: boasts and jokes and threats that mask the fear of (ugh! gross!) growing up.

Contrast today with the early '70s, when movies like "Straw Dogs," "The Devils," "Last Tango in Paris" and Nichols' own "Carnal Knowledge" promised a future of truly adult depictions of sex. At the same time, the first wave of porno chic lured the curious to the burgeoning genre of hardcore. It seemed as if these two types of films might meet — that cinema might learn to depict the ordinary, universal and melodramatic collision of two bodies, two souls, in bed.

Alas, those days, and those hopes, are deader than disco. Scorsese, Spielberg and Lucas, the young auteurs who would come to define the last 30 years of movies, were less interested in filming grown-ups with complex sexual urges than in reliving their boyhoods on the streets or at the Saturday matinee. The occasional "indie" movie of today might have a warmly erotic scene (as when Laura Linney and Topher Grace go at it in "P.S.") or portray adults seduced and baffled by sexual posssibilities (Linney again, this time with Liam Neeson, in "Kinsey"). But mature audacity is in pretty short supply.

"I would argue that sex has very rarely been portrayed in the movies," Owen told TIME's Desa Philadelphia. "It's always there as titillation, and it's often not about anything. But if you look at our lives, it's an interesting world that we inhabit when we're relating in a sexual way. And movies rarely go there."

The few contemporary films that do plumb the raunchy world of pornography usually have nostalgia in mind. A documentary and two Hollywood features ("Boogie Nights" and "Wonderland") have iconized the late porn star John C. Holmes. Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment is sponsoring a documentary, "Inside Deep Throat," on the 1972 movie that made porn famous. These retro entertainments — coy in comparison to the films that inspired them — speak to our convulsive confusion of the brazen and the modest. Consider that in the '50s, the models in Playboy were nude; Hugh Hefner understood that American culture, like boys on the cusp of puberty, loves big titillations. Today, Maxim and FHM display come-hither women who hide their nipples. On page and screen, we are more prurient, and more prudish.


Somewhere, there must be talented filmmakers who get revved up by presenting sex onscreen. Yes, and most of them are in Europe, where people have been grownup for ages. Since the mid-'90s, French directors have been spicing their minimalist dramas with quasi-pornographic elements (Bruno Dumont's "L'Humanit" and "Twentynine Palms," Leos Carax's "Pola X," Gaspar No's "I Stand Alone" and "Irreversible") and sometimes not so quasi (the notorious porno-splatter film "Baise-Moi," directed by Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi). Across the Channel, Michael Winterbottom ("Jude," "Welcome to Sarajevo") tries to span the chasm separating serious cinema from hardcore with his new "9 Songs." Here the sex is explicit but tender, less a porn-film workout than an upclose view of two people trying, for a while, to become one. "9 Songs" was the just second English film by a noted director to show graphic sex; the first, Patrice Chreau's "Intimacy," was made by a Frenchman.

Catherine Breillat is the standard bearer for sexually confessional movies. She currently has two films, "Anatomy of Hell" and "Sex Is Comedy," in big-city art houses and another, "Fat Girl," just out on Criterion DVD. "Watch me where I'm unwatchable," says the woman in "Anatomy of Hell." She is referring to her pubic area. But Breillat surely means to challenge the viewer-voyeurs in her audience. She takes a most watchable subject — handsome people sporting in bed — and bends exhibition into confrontation by showing characters, usually women, stripped to the bleeding soul. Watch what you think is unwatchable.

Breillat, 56, has been the enfant terrible of French films and literature since she was 17, when she published her semiautobiographical first novel — which was banned to those under 18. She and her actress sister Marie-Hlne had roles in the scandalous "Last Tango." Her first film as writer-director, "A Real Young Girl," in 1976, showing a zaftig 14-year-old's lurid erotic fantasies, was denied release for 24 years. The 1999 "Romance" earned cheers and scowls (scowls from me, I have to say) for its near hard-core depiction of a schoolteacher's hurtful trysts and for casting porn star Rocco Siffredi as one of the lovers. When Breillat gets too didactic, as in "Romance," her work can be as stiff as a placard held by a naked protester. But in her last three films, she has learned to smartly dramatize her rage or leaven it with beguiling wit.

The 2001 "Fat Girl" focuses on gorgeous teen Elena (Roxane Mesquida) and her tubby sister (Anas Reboux), 12, who shares the bedroom where Elena is having her first awkward affair. (I'm guessing that Breillat was working out some teen anxieties she had with the pretty Marie-Hlne, who's a year older.) The film ends darkly, but it is mainly an acute, engaging picture of the volcanic negotiations between boy and girl, sister and sister. The followup, "Sex Is Comedy" (2002), is a fictionalized making-of feature of the famous 20-min. seduction scene from "Fat Girl." The director (acutely incarnated by Anne Parillaud) cajoles her actors into the mood — not to have sex but to feign it persuasively. This knowing, funny movie demystifies film eroticism while keeping it hot and human.

"Anatomy of Hell" is already notorious for the objects — a rake, a lipstick case, a tampon — used as sexual implements. The images are indeed explicit, but the impact is metaphorical. The woman (Amira Casar), saved from suicide by a gay man (Siffredi again), hires him to attend to her eccentric whims for four nights. Breillat's subdued color scheme paints its emotional conflict in the contrast of the man's tan, surging body and the woman's pale, pliant one. The film couches its bodily probings in religious and artistic iconography. The crucifix pinned conspicuously to the bedroom wall is answered by the rake in the heroine's ass, which instantly evokes Satan's pronged tail (or pitchfork); and the vaginal closeups suggest the supine woman in Marcel Duchamp's magnificent last work, "tant Donns...." Both incendiary and subdued, "Anatomy" is a chic, very pensive act of cinematic aggression.

In a DVD "extra" on the shooting of "Fat Girl," we see the director burying her face in her scarf before each scene is shot. Is France's femme terrible really afraid to look at what she has created? No matter. She makes movies that, in their ornery exploration of sexual impulses, are eerily watchable, hard to forget.


All right, we shan't wish for the impossible. Jude and Julia are not going to shag on screen. But movie sex doesn't have to be Show; it can be Tell. It can reveal startling erotic truths about the characters, about us, without so much as a spangled breast. It can talk about sex; and, in "Closer," it talks eloquently. What's surprising is that some of the finest movie sex-talk has been in films by Nichols. This is, after all, a man known for his deft comic touch, first in the funny, painful sketches he created and performed with Elaine May — those chats of intimacy and deception aren't that far from "Closer" — then as a director of plays on Broadway by Neil Simon (five), Jules Feiffer and Tom Stoppard (though he directed serious plays and revivals, and the work he has lately helmed for TV, including "Wit" and "Angels in America," can have a dark majesty).

In the age of instant auteurs, Nichols' is an old-fashioned gift: energizing each moment in a good script, bringing clarity, subtlety and potency to the characters. He's no Preston Sturges, a writer-director who created his own cockeyed caravan, He's more like George Cukor, a director of sublime taste and grace, who inhabited the writer's words and world and made them shine. The very least you think of a Nichols film is: This is as good as this project could be.

His first movie, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in 1966, a scrupulous transposition of Edward Albee's Tony-winning play about a rancorous married couple (played on screen by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor), raised temperatures, eyebrows and hackles throughout the film world. The singeing dialogue, which introduced the phrase "monkey nipples" to the moviegoers' lexicon, wouldn't surprise any cable viewer today, but some was too foul to be heard in public. As Nichols recalls, "We weren't allowed to say 'screw you' in Virginia Woolf. We had to take it out."

His next film, "The Graduate" in 1967, detailed the passive, loveless affair between young Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) and the avaricious mother (Anne Bancroft) of his one-time girlfriend Elaine (Katharine Ross). More daringly, it undercut the plot's rah-rah climax with a "No Exit" coda. Remember that "The Graduate" broke a basic rule of romantic comedy and let Benjamin win Elaine just after, not during, her marriage to the blond lunk. But after this boy-steals-girl-from-another-guy triumph, they hop on a bus and, in the last shot, we see the excitement quickly drain from their faces. Ben seems to realize that his real search was for a great quest, not for the Grail, and that he and Elaine are now condemned to become their parents. Ben is headed for a life of drab old adult compromise with a pretty girl he may not have much in common with. So what did he win? And what is he going to do with it?

As you might guess, the message that '60s audiences took home with them from this immensely popular film was the winning, not the post-climax depression. And the image that lingered in some minds was the naughty one of cross-generational sex. In the '90s "The Graduate" was adapted into a long-running stage play, in which the main attraction was a series of medium-wattage stars (Kathleen Turner, Jerry Hall, Linda Evans) glimpsed briefly, in shadows, in the nude. "I didn't see the stage production," Nichols says, "but it interested me that people would throng to see a 50-year-old naked woman, when most of them had a perfectly good one at home. What was the urgent desire to see another one, even briefly? It points to a big, interesting and still unexplored difference about what's public and private."

His boldest film was the 1971 "Carnal Knowledge," which traced 30 years in the sexual lives of two perpetually immature men (Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel). The excoriating chatter in Jules Feiffer's screenplay would be familiar to anyone who's attended a college-dorm tell-all, or sat at a bar while the guy three stools down pours out his little black heart, but it was new for mainstream movies. Its echo can be heard in "Closer."

Nichols has made many kinds of movies (I wouldn't try to squeeze "Day of the Dolphin" "Silkwood" or "Regarding Henry" into my thesis), but a high proportion are what might be called sex comedies. In "Heartburn," Meryl Streep has to cope with husband Jack Nicholson's rampant adultery; she's especially annoyed that he put one of his hotel assignations on a credit card and asks (as I recall), "Why can't you pay cash like an ordinary philanderer?" In "The Birdcage," from an Elaine May script, a gay middle-aged couple must play straight for visiting conservative in-laws; it's a movie about covering sexual eccentiricities, as is another Nichols-May collaboration, "Primary Colors." In "What Planet Are You From," Garry Shandling, as an alien from an all-male planet, comes to Earth to have sex with women (who are distracted by his humming penis). Even the sort-of horror movie "Wolf" trumpets the rejuvenative pleasures of a man (Nicholson) who, under the full moon, becomes an animal. He's a monster, and it's hell on his family but, in his elemental element, he feels younger, sexier — great.


The scheme of "Closer" is simple: two people become a couple, break up, pair off with someone new. Dan and Alice become a couple, then Dan and Anna, then Anna and Larry and Alice. We are shown only the beginnings and ends of each affair, when hopes are surging, or betrayal sours the air. The piece is a series of cardiograms: hearts open and shut down. "Have you ever seen a human heart?" says Larry, a doctor. "It looks like a fist, soaked in blood."

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