Evening Standard by Neil Norman
Once the province of porn and arthouse cinema, sex is now finding its way into the
mainstream cinema. And not just as an adjunct to the main story: it is the main story.
New films like Wayne Wang's The Centre of the World, the Australian
movie Better Than Sex, the forthcoming Intimacy and
Me Softly all take the sexual relationship between the main characters as the
main theme. Thus we can see Joseph Fiennes and Heather Graham or Kerry Fox and Mark
Rylance stripping off and getting down to business to the manner porn. The newly liberated
BBFC has finally buckled to public pressure and gone soft on hard sex in movies.
Not that there was much pressure. The fact is that the members of the BBFC simply
realised (following the results of a survey) that the majority of mainstream audiences
were no longer offended by sex on screen. It is not that they want more; they simply don't
care where, how and with what frequency it is depicted. Now that sex is no longer
shocking, film-makers are attempting to push the frontiers of depiction in order to regain
some of the impact lost in our anything-goes age. And therein lies a potential problem.
Actors and actresses whose career CVs include respectable and lauded work in film, on
stage and television are now to be found scrutinising their contracts more keenly than
ever. Whereas a few years ago it was the "no nudity" clause that was important,
now it is the "no penetration" clause that may prove a stumbling block.
Fellatio? Spanish? Greek? Anal? Mutual masturbation? All these (and more) sexual
activities may now fall within the boundaries of acceptable demands of actors if the
latest batch of movies is anything to go by.
Is real sex any more authentic than acted sex? In the sense that sex is often regarded
as "performance", the question is moot. There are those, I gather, for whom sex
and acting are inextricably linked. Faked orgasms are often as convincing as the real
thing - check out Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. Better still, ask your partner how
many times she (or he) has simulated her orgasms and the truthful answer may not be the
one you really want. If it is impossible to tell the difference in real life why should it
matter when watching it on screen?
That, I suppose, depends on the purpose of the sequence in question. We have already
seen actual penetration in recent non-porn movies like The Idiots, La Vie de Jesus
and Romance in which legitimate actors engage in real sex up to (if not
including) the point of orgasm. The frontier between "acting" and
"being" is consequently blurred. But to what purpose?
Any good actor can convince an audience of the reality of his actions; that is the
whole point of acting. The verisimilitude of the sex scenes in Betty Blue, Don't Look Now
or Last Tango in Paris is such that it is still asked of the actors and the directors as
to whether the participants did indeed go all the way. Not only is this a compliment to
the performers but it also maintains an element of sexual mystery that has been eroded
over the decades.
Once you actually witness the event in its messy, slurpy, all-over-the place glory, the
mystery has gone. In some cases, this may be entirely appropriate; but it is not, in fact,
erotic. To see Kerry Fox take Mark Rylance's erect penis between her lips in Intimacy is
to know everything. And yet it is still a performance. They are still playing people other
than themselves; they are still acting. Therefore, it is no more "real" than if
they had somehow faked it. This being the case, what's the point?
Real sex between identifiable actors contributes not a jot to our understanding of
their characters or the film in general. This is more to do with perception than
prurience. Even nudity is a distraction. It is human nature to adjust your perception when
an actor or actress removes their clothes; for a fleeting moment the viewer is disengaged
from the illusion created and repositioned into the subtly different aspect of voyeur.
If it has never been necessary actually to kill an actor on screen to portray an
authentic death, why should it be necessary to have actors performing real sex to convince
us that they are having "real" sex?
The real-sex thing - while not as insidious as the snuff movie - none the less invites
a similar response. If candour and eroticism go hand-in-hand then all may be well if the
actors and director are inventive enough to create an entire story around the act; In the
Realm of the Senses is a case in point. Sex here is what the film is about. So, too, is
Intimacy. But it is not perforce erotic.
On the other hand, "acted" sex scenes can be profoundly erotic - like the
scene between Rachel Weisz and Jude Law in the otherwise unremarkable Enemy at the Gates;
or the thwarted sex scene (virtually fully clothed) between Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin
in The Big Easy which has an incredible erotic charge. This has nothing to do with reality
and everything to do with honesty of portrayal.
The best sex is that which employs both physical activity and imagination, body and
mind. This applies to both life and cinema. Take away the need for imagination and you
render the performance a little less effective.
It's not what you do, it's the way that you fake it. That's what gets results.