A former newspaper editor whom I worked with many years ago went to see Oshima Nagisa’s notorious In the Realm of the Senses (1976) in London. As he walked out of the cinema after the film had ended, he exclaimed, “What art?! It’s porn!”
I know many, and I mean many, would find that arguable. Oshima’s film is an extreme borderline case. Bear in mind the film was made in the 70s. By today’s standards, it is still very much shocking. And that says a lot about the film’s explicit sex scenes.
Is it really necessary to show a close-up of a fellatio, penetration and a certain vaginal trick using a hardboiled egg?
I’m not writing this to discuss the merits of In the Realm as a piece of art. I aim to show why, in my humblest opinion, explicit sex is not necessary in film.
Back in 2007, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution made headlines for its rather explicit sex scenes, even though you get only glimpses of genitalia. It’s mostly just acrobatic sex. But it was almost unheard of that mainstream Chinese film stars (Hong Kong Category III stars not withstanding) engage in graphic sex on film, so much so Tang Wei got herself into trouble with the Chinese authorities for showing off her physical flexibility.
But then Ang himself cut a PG version without all the wild, furious copulation for countries that have strict censorship and ratings. And we can safely presume that Ang himself agreed that the sex wasn’t necessary. How else to perceive this?
Here are three more reasons why I think explicit sex is unnecessary in film, three films that exemplify how to get whatever point across without real sex or nudity.
North by Northwest (1959)
Yes, Alfred Hitchcock’s famous thriller is extremely sexy without the gorgeous Eva Marie Saint ever taking off her clothes or having any sex with her leading man Cary Grant. There is a scene early in the film, when Grant’s character meets Saint’s mysterious femme fatale. The two hit it off immediately, with a dialogue that is very steamy and erotic just by mere suggestion. Their dialogue throughout is sprinkled with double entendres and naughty suggestions.
Take this, for example:
Eve Kendall: I’m a big girl.
Roger Thornhill: Yeah, and in all the right places, too.
Roger Thornhill: Now, what can a man do with his clothes off for twenty minutes? Couldn’t he have taken an hour?
Eve Kendall: You could always take a cold shower.
Saint herself said in an interview with SFGate in 2009, for the 50th anniversary of the film:
It was all so suggestive, all the sexual scenes, and no one took anything off, except shoes (laughs).
Those decades in Hollywood, when you couldn’t even show a toilet on screen, sure did help filmmakers and scriptwriters get really creative.
Ju Dou (1990)
Part of Zhang Yimou’s Red Trilogy, along with Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern, which all featured Gong Li as a young woman married off to some weirdo old man, Ju Dou was banned in China for a couple of years, due, one suspects, to it being too hot to handle. This, despite it having almost no nudity except for a very brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, long-shot of a breast.
Gong Li plays, what else, a young woman sold into marriage to an aging cloth dyer, who is very rough with her in a lot of ways. It’s suggested that he may be impotent and is taking out his frustrations by beating her. His nephew is smitten with her, and peeps at her bathing. When the old man is away on business, the nephew and her begin a sexual relationship.
Now, here’s the thing. Zhang expertly builds up the mood leading to the couple’s forbidden trysts. When the two have a go at doing the naughty for the first time, there is zero skin shown, nor is there any humping. What is shown is Gong Li on her back, from the shoulders up, in the throes of passion. The clincher is when the cloths above start to fall on her as she is gripped by ecstasy. This is one of the the greatest, most beautiful, most erotic scenes in cinema. Go see it if you don’t believe me.
Again, because of the strict censorship laws in China, Zhang had to get creative with the erotic scenes, and boy, did he pull it off magnificently.
And here is the greatest sex scene never filmed. Ingmar Bergman’s psychological and philosophical masterpiece is probably the most subliminal of all films ever made. The film even starts with a flurry of very disturbing images, including that of a penis.
Persona is a very quiet film, a very downbeat, very minimalist, and very understated “horror” film, if you like. I once tried to see it at 2am, and couldn’t finish it. The mood is just so dour.
But there is a central scene that is most talked about, and is made extremely effective perhaps because of Bergman’s strong theatre background. The film is about an actress, Elisabeth (Liv Ullman), who suddenly stops speaking, and her psychiatrist sends a nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), to care for her in remote house. It is during their quiet time together that Alma opens up about herself just to break the silence.
One scene involves Alma delivering a long monologue about a group-sex encounter she had at the seaside. She and a friend, Katarina, were sunbathing naked when two boys approached them.
I noticed they were very young. The boldest one approached us … and squatted down next to Katarina. He pretended to be busy picking his toes. I felt very strange. Suddenly Katarina said to him, “Hey, you, why don’t you come over here?”
Then she took his hand and helped him take off his jeans and shirt. Suddenly he was on top of her. She guided him in and held his butt. The other boy just sat and watched.
The rest of the monologue is rather too graphic for this “family-friendly” blog of mine, but Alma continues to describe in detail how she and Katarina have their turn with each boy.
Although this is just a monologue, most people who saw Persona remember seeing that sex-on-the-beach scene very clearly in their heads even though it was never filmed. Even if I post the entire monologue here, reading it wouldn’t the same as hearing Andersson say it within the mood of the scene.
This is the real power of cinema. I suspect it would not be as memorable if the orgy was actually shown.
It’s common knowledge that the power of suggestion is far more powerful than anything else. These three examples strengthen my belief that explicit sex scenes are really not needed in film, unless you’re making porn, whether softcore or hardcore. Of course, people will argue with me on this, but as a late filmmaker friend of mine once said, “It’s easy to shock or provoke. Just walk around with your dick hanging out. But it’s far more difficult to be subtle.”
And I truly believe in that.