Some might argue that film offers viewers a grossly unrealistic portrayal of sex, and to some extent I’d be inclined to agree. Sex scenes in film are frequently difficult to relate to, whether this is because of the characters’ apparently instant or ‘easy to achieve’ orgasms, or the seamlessness with which characters seem able to enter realms of wild, carnal abandon at the drop of a hat. A prime example of such silliness is the scene in 40 Days and 40 Nights where Matt manages to set Erica’s loins on fire by brandishing a flower around her crotch for a few moments: it’s just plain ridiculous.
Color of Night attempts a treatment of sex as an escapist solution to mental trauma, which sounds great in theory, but sadly it doesn’t deliver. We’re simply subjected to seeing Bruce Willis and Jane March in an elongated scene featuring relentless nudity and constant coitus: in the swimming pool; on the table; in the shower; in bed… anywhere at all really. The effect of this insane montage suggests that they just ‘keep going’, and the cheesy, so obviously non-diegetic ‘mood music’ played on top of all of this just makes the whole thing feel like a low-budget porno.
So what makes a good sex scene? Personally, I think that decent acting and a solid script are vital components in achieving the desired build-up of tension and a sex scene that fits nicely within the narrative and which doesn’t feel forced or deliberately pornographic. The examples I have selected fall into this category.
“D, your pants are on fire.”
“You have no idea.”
David (Woody Harrelson) and Diana (Demi Moore) make a sweet couple as a pair of teenage sweethearts who eloped and proved that marrying young doesn’t necessarily result in a lifetime of regret; they are genuine, determined and deeply in love with one another. The scene where Diana furiously berates David for his messy habits leads to a brief scuffle and a giggling fit, followed by kisses and then sex on the kitchen floor. They visibly cannot keep their hands off one another and are comfortable enough during sex to crack a joke (see above), and are completely absorbed in and attentive to each other’s bodies. The scene is playful, spontaneous and totally feasible, with a natural feel and admirable onscreen chemistry. Unfortunately, this is what makes the film even more heartbreakingly sad later on when their relationship begins to deteriorate.
Leaving Las Vegas
This one doesn’t feature full sex, but is erotic enough to create a small fantasy in the minds of its audience and once again features that much-needed onscreen chemistry. Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue are superbly convincing in their roles as the somewhat ‘damaged’ Ben and Sera, a suicidal alcoholic and a tough but quietly vulnerable prostitute. They take a trip away from the city to a motel for some downtime, and the image of Elisabeth Shue straddling Cage and pouring bourbon over her bare chest stays with you for some time after watching the scene. Their relationship is complicated at best, but there’s a clear attraction and it shines through here (of course, this could just be the reflective qualities of Sera’s liquor-soaked breasts).
Frankly, if the backdrop of the Wyoming mountains isn’t romantic enough for you, the unquestionable beauty of the relationship between Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar ought to be. Ledger and Gyllenhaal delivered flawless performances throughout, and their first sexual experience together in their tent is as intense and passionate as it is raw and rough. A spot of internet browsing will tell you that not every viewer was satisfied with the realistic qualities of the scene, but for me the most important aspect of this scene is the clear release of an unrealised or repressed desire. Their relationship truly epitomises the sentiment that ‘a true love story never ends’, and it’s addictive to watch. Interestingly, there isn’t half as much genuine, deep-seated passion in any of the sex scenes between the men and their wives, although I do feel sorry for Alma when she accidentally witnesses her husband hungrily kissing his male lover.
Perhaps not a surprising addition to the list, Basic Instinct is known for its sensuousness and almost constant erotic tension, but it has such a reputation for good reason. The first time that lustful loose cannon Nick (Michael Douglas) and mysterious, seductive author Catherine (Sharon Stone) have sex, the context of their backgrounds, previous relationships and sexual preferences finally comes together and the results are explosive. It’s impressive to see Nick giving Catherine what appears to be very good and lasting oral sex, rather than going straight in for the kill and expecting an instant orgasm from her (he’s a good deal more attentive to Catherine than to poor Beth, his long-suffering psychologist). The scene, although lengthy and graphic in content, manages not to incite a lot of eye-rolling and mutters of ‘yeah, right’, but works because of the build-up. We know they’re attracted to one another, we know they’re both complex, sexually aggressive characters and the scene in the nightclub confirms this, their dancing hinting at what is to come. It isn’t random or cringeworthy, but rather the apt result of a lot of tension and building desire. My only complaint with the scene is that it culminates with Nick belittling Roxy, but given his arrogance and poor attitude to anything but his own needs, this isn’t surprising.
Finally, whilst these further examples may not stand out as much as the rest, they do deserve a special mention.
Lethal Weapon 2
The brief relationship between Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Rika (Patsy Kensit) may not lead to anything due to her untimely death, but nevertheless it’s almost emotional to watch. There are lots of developing feelings behind their playful encounter, and they look like they’re having genuine fun together rolling around messily on that caravan bed.
The Thomas Crown Affair
The 1999 remake of the original features Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo as high fliers Thomas Crown and Catherine Banning, who after a spot of erotic dancing with Russo wearing a dress made from what looks like a pair of sheer black stockings, get it on all over Crown’s mansion. Having sex on a marble staircase admittedly looks a touch painful, but their laughing and playing is the best part. As Crown lifts Catherine over his shoulder and she reaches down and spanks him whilst shrieking with laughter, it’s difficult not to envy them for just how much fun they seem to have.
Boys Don’t Cry
A tragic film based on a tragic true story, you get the feeling right from the beginning that this one isn’t going to end well. Despite this, Hilary Swank and Chloe Sevigny make a great onscreen couple, and the best part about the first time their characters have sex is how wonderfully attentive Brandon is to Lana’s body. Given the scumbag guys that Lana is used to spending time with, the gentle, sensual sex she has with Brandon is made even more special and pleasurable both for her and for the viewer to watch.
So, it’s not all about long, sweaty climactic ‘romps’, porno screams and illicit affairs; there’s a lot to be said for the context of the sex itself and what it means for the couple onscreen. There are many more examples of good sex scenes in film (even in the odd James Bond movie where sex is usually treated as an innuendo and mostly just features women swathed in bed sheets) but the above scenes stand out as having an extra element of brilliance. Although I must say, Sharon Stone’s orgasms in Basic Instinct do always feel a bit jarring, as though she’s going to violently head-butt her lover or simply smash her face into the wall behind her. Either way, at least there’s an element of effort gone into them, I’d sooner watch that than something that asks us to accept that wafting a few petals around a lady’s pelvic area is enough to send her spiralling into realms of pleasure previously unknown to womankind.