A strange phenomenon reached its climax in 2015. After months of teasing its release, the Fifty Shades of Grey movie came on to our screens.
It was one of the biggest 18-rated films ever, with a perfectly timed Valentine’s Day premiere. The culture surrounding it saw This Morning run an AM feature on BDSM and led to awkward commutes nationwide as middle aged people read erotica on trains like it wasn’t the literary equivalent of me browsing Tumblr in public.
Over the festive season, people in their millions sat down and watched It’s a Wonderful Life. There is a scene in which Gloria Grahame’s Violet walks down the street in a sundress, causing men to stop in their tracks and glare as she passes them by. For the 1940s, this was sexual and exciting – post-war black and white cinema had a celebratory nature to it, and Violet’s beauty was one of the many elements of this in the best Christmas movie there is.
Fast forward to 2015, and Fifty Shades of Grey claims to be a sexually explicit film for the ages. Sundresses are out, and a room filled with whips and chains is in. Except there wasn’t much here that would look out of place on an HBO show. For an 18-rated sexual movie, there was a severe lack of penis on screen. At least we got to see Theon Greyjoy’s cock on Game of Thrones.
So therein lies a disconnect. Without sounding too film-snobbish, perhaps to the casual viewer Fifty Shades ticked all the boxes. Despite its titillating source material and somewhat graphic film adaption, it still felt as cold as ice, too chilly to illicit an arousing response and too emotionally vacant to think “well at least we’ll likely spoon afterwards.” Still, there’s a bit of spanking. But no penis.
Where Fifty Shades aimed to emphasise BDSM in a romantic (I…guess?) context, Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy highlighted the relationship and intimacy in a BDSM arrangement. It was sensual, escapist, erotic – it felt dirtier, and yet warmer too. It also lacked penis, but no prominent characters are men, so it gets a pass. Where Fifty Shades sold itself as an erotic movie, which ended up with a few light bondage scenes, The Duke of Burgundy was marketed as a drama, and happened to involve facesitting and water sports (two things which the UK government banned from porn in 2014). None of the sexual acts are portrayed as shocking – we see the dynamics of Cynthia and Evelyn as Cynthia, the domme who is being fed scripts by the topping-from-the-bottom Evelyn, struggles with maintaining passion for the BDSM part of their lives. It is a strikingly beautiful and delicate film, far more touching, intimate, and exciting than anything else released in a similar vein.
At the more sex-orientated end of the spectrum, the mainland served up quite the dish this year. Gaspar Noé’s Love spans more than two hours, at least half an hour of which is unsimulated sex scenes. It is not a particularly great movie, the story is nothing new, and emotionally devoid characters exist in all genres of cinema. Its selling point is the sex. There is so much of it. For some reason, it is even in 3D, and if you are thinking “hey, surely that is just to get a 3D cumshot in there?” you are entirely right.
But what does this say for where cinema is going and how we as viewers approach sex on the big screen? Will we see a shift towards asking actors to actually do the deed even in mainstream films, or is this just a case of Noé being incredibly visually graphic for the sake of it? We could be approaching a crossover between serious narrative and sexual stimulation. There is no reason why the two cannot be good bedfellows, but the idea of sharing a cinema with 300 others getting warm between the legs leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
It is not a new thing to feature sex in film, or push the boundaries of how we see sex. Secretary, from the early 2000s, was a fun film exploring a dom/sub relationship in the work place, but without the mainstream fanfare. We do, however, see a pushing of the extremes elsewhere. The mid 2000s saw violence ramped up in horror movies. Superhero movies see the stakes rising with each successive villain. So too do our sexual desires need to be met in the film industry. A sundress won’t do (though a bit more penis wouldn’t hurt).
Oscar-buzz-darling Carol contains one of the most intimate sex scenes in recent memory. It is important to the plot; necessary for the characters. But it isn’t there for arousal. It is hard to imagine Noé’s Love was not meant for arousal. Likewise with Fifty Shades. We thankfully left the torture porn genre in the previous decade, but could we be on the cusp of a mainstream wave of sexually explicit films? It seems we are edging closer.
[Scott Wilson – @Heart of Fire]