The art of on-screen sex

Photo courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

One human experience that still needs more artistic exploration is sex. There is a discomfort associated with sexual activity and talking about sexual experiences that I find curious. This uneasiness seems to cause filmmakers to neglect sex scenes as legitimate tools for storytelling.

We Canadians exist in an interesting semi-open minded era. The proverbial Canadian millennial is a tech-savvy, liberal thinker who embraces diversity and the unorthodox in a way that would have been unthinkable in generations past. Tradition and convention, though, still seem to play a huge role in how people communicate. While freedom of speech is a right, the court of public opinion dictates what can or cannot be said out loud. The threat of social prosecution restricts conversation to topics deemed “appropriate.” This is where art becomes invaluable.

Artists have the ability to separate who they are from what they express as creative entities. This makes them an exception to the social rule of political correctness. Art, with its wide range and diverse meanings, is not being used to its full potential in terms of its capacity to circumvent restriction. There are many aspects of the human experience that are not being explored as much as they should be.

Too often, the sex scene in movies is skimmed over. The viewer understands with a few images that two characters are intimate but does not conceptualize its significance to the film as a whole.

As outmoded as it is now, I have to point to the Twilight saga. A lot of time was spent setting up an epic love story. From the dangers of a human-vampire relationship to Edward’s insecurities about hurting his “soulmate,” there was a buildup to what was meant to be a monumental love scene. I was unimpressed — the art of the scene was simply average. When the image of Edward breaking the bed frame was shown, I could feel the desperation to make the scene “out of this world,” but I learned nothing new or interesting about the characters or their relationship. The scene existed just for the sake of it.

In other cases, the physical act of sex is overemphasized and unnecessary. It feels as though the the plot and characters are forgotten in favour of titillation. Films like these are more suitable under the category of pornography.

The key to a good sex scene on screen is truth; the best ones are honest. Honesty, in this sense, does not necessarily mean realism; what separates an artistic depiction of sex from cheap titillation is the factor of storytelling behind it. In film, sex can add something interesting to the storyline. Does the scene embody the awkwardness and nervousness of having sex for the first time? Is the point of the scene to showcase an unhappy marriage? For the sake of humour and irony, is the scene a parody of sex itself?

In the film The Duchess, the sex scenes were brilliantly used to depict the relationship the protagonist had with her two partners. A cold marriage against a passionate affair. Rather than the exaggerated combination of movements and moans displayed in Fifty Shades of Grey, the sex scenes in The Duchess were not only relevant to the story, but executed in an intriguing way.

Sex involves a wide range of emotions and activities, but this does not mean artists should shy away from the subject. Filmmakers have the rare opportunity in this era to explore sex in a public space, and attempt to understand all its complicated intricacies. They should take complete advantage of it.