Sex alone is just not enough for filmgoers
ON A May evening in 1973, Peter Hall, the director of Britain’s National Theatre, went to see Last Tango In Paris. As he confided in his diaries, the “sad, moving, heavy” film impressed him with its analysis of the “danger and pain of unthinking promiscuity” and the “loneliness of lust”.
A film-maker as well as a theatre director, Hall was awestruck by how Italian auteur Bernardo Bertolucci handled the erotic scenes. “They were elegant and beautifully shot and achieve a new formalism, a stylisation of the sexual act, which involves the audience’s emotions rather than exciting their sexuality.”
Last Tango may have provoked considerable controversy but, more than 40 years on, it still stands as a rare “sex” film which filmgoers were able to take seriously. They were intrigued by Bertolucci’s portrayal of a middle-aged man (Marlon Brando) close to despair, and a young Parisian woman (Maria Schneider) in an intense and destructive relationship.
50 Shades Darker is in no danger of being treated with the same respect. This is the erotic movie as Hollywood high-kitsch escapism. Its intention is to titillate, not to probe. Like its predecessor, the latest EL James adaptation is glossy and banal in the extreme.
There may be nudity but there is never any sense that the film-makers are getting under the skin of their characters or are trying to understand the “loneliness of lust”, as Hall put it. Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), in the 50 Shades films, is supposed to be damaged goods; someone who suffered so much as a young child with his drug addict mother that it warped his sexuality. However, the film-makers aren’t remotely interested in delving too deeply into his dark places. 50 Shades is to Last Tango in Paris what the Chippendales, the male strippers, are to the Bolshoi ballet.
It goes without saying that cinema, from the earliest days of the peep shows, has been fascinated by sex. Even so, sex on screen tends to work better when it is an ingredient of a movie rather than the whole meal. From Hedy Lamarr naked in Ecstasy to Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs in Basic Instinct, careers have been built on the back of one or two voyeuristic moments.
Directors and actors can think they’re making an art house movie – but their producers have different intentions. This was the case with Tinto Brass’s Caligula, which was mooted as a Fellini-esque recreation of ancient Rome at its most decadent. Once Penthouse boss Bob Guccione intervened it became X-rated.
In Hollywood, the Eighties and Nineties were the decades of heavily stylised, low-budget softcore US sex movies and quite a few bigger budget Hollywood movies that seemed to be imitating them.
Back in Europe, whether Liliana Cavani with The Night Porter or Lars Von Trier with his Nymphomanic magnum opus, every self-respecting art house director has had a stab at a film with sex at the centre of it. They tried to make films that deal with sex in a way that is graphic and frank without being pornographic. They’ve rarely succeeded.
Jean-Claude Brisseau, a respected French art house director, ended up being sued by his actresses for “sexual harassment” after auditions for his film, Secret Things. Brisseau was accused of being voyeuristic and predatory. He seemed to have the belief that sex on screen was only authentic if it was done for “real”. The frustration that so many of them have found, especially those who’ve worked with “adult” performers, is that showing the mechanics of sex is all very well but, unless the actors can portray emotion too, the scenes seem perfunctory.
The sex films that do work tend to be those that aren’t about sex at all – or that have a context that puts events in the bedroom into a different perspective. Nagisa Oshima’s In The Realm Of The Senses (1976) is famously graphic, notorious in its time not just for its (apparently unsimulated) sex scenes and its grotesque finale. The film is set in late 1930s Japan, at a time of rising militarism and social conformity. The transgressive sex can be read both as an expression of individuality and as a form of political protest.
In movies, the sex alone is never enough. After the initial illicit thrill is gone, t he spectators soon get bored. They want more than just masturbatory fantasy.
The 50 Shades films show how challenging it is to make films in which the sex is fore g rounded without succumbing to t hat g ri m, drooping, i n ev i t abl e sense of anti-climax. – The Independent