This article originally appeared in Rise Over Run Magazine.
by Brandon Colvin
Not all sex scenes are created equally. There’s the weird, the funny, the sentimental, the passionate, the terrifying, and the downright hot – the last of which will be the focus of this list. While defining what is and is not a properly “inspirational” sex scene (ifyaknowwhaddimean) is certainly a subjective endeavor (and a revealing one), I’ve tried to choose a handful of scenes that are not only erotic but also worthy of cinematic merit. In other words, you can come for the sex scene and stay for the movie (pun intended).
5. Dirk Diggler’s first time on camera in Boogie Nights (1997)
Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakout feature, a multifaceted tale of finding family and inventing identity in the late 70s/early 80s San Fernando Valley porn industry, is chock full of titillation, debauchery, and more sex than you could shake a stick at (even if it is 13-inches-long). Centering on the well-endowed Eddie Adams a.k.a. Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and his meteoric rise to adult film stardom, Boogie Nights reaches its erotic climax during Dirk’s debut performance on celluloid with the foxy/strangely maternal Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) – girlfriend of blue movie auteur Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds).
A typically cheesy porn set-up (guy-interviews-for-job-and-has-to-whip-his-cock-out-for-sexily-straight-laced-female-interviewer) provides the context for the film-within-a-film, complete with blank-faced porn acting and stilted line delivery. Initially humorous and reasonably light in tone, the scene takes on a more intimate and sensual aura as the two commence with the planned missionary-on-the-desk revelry. Alternating between shallow-focused, handheld shots hovering over the bare, sweaty bodies and the lazily composed footage being recorded by the porn squad’s cameras, introduces a meta-level to the sex scene that detaches it from its seemingly sordid surrounding, imbuing the porn protocol with a sense of pulse-quickening immediacy and genuine tenderness. Directly addressing the voyeuristic position of the audience, the scene inter-cuts reaction shots of the crew – mouths agape, eyes widened – as they look on with awe at the hot, hot lovin’ (Jack Horner included). Self-reflexive to the max, the scene even depicts a dazzling inside-the-camera point-of-view shot of the sexcapades as the soundtrack picks up on every nuance of the couple’s grunts and moans – as well as Amber’s whispered desire for Dirk to cum inside her rather than give her the standard “money shot.” A fascinating sequence on the level of montage and an earnest depiction of how intensely personal sex can still be in a room full of cameras and on-lookers, Boogie Nights’ most interesting sexual sequence is one that demands repeated viewings. That’s right. Over and over and over and over again.
4. Dreamy, dreamy lesbians in Lynch’s surreal Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Most times, movie sex is a fantasy. Sometimes, movie sex is a fantasy inside of a fantasy. And, in at least one instance, movie sex is a fantasy inside of a fantasy inside the mixed-up retro-Hollywood dream of a scorned lover who has recently (and regrettably) put out a hit on her two-timing, heart-breaking ex-ladyfriend; welcome to the wonderful world of David Lynch – abandon all hope ye who enter. The two former/current/imaginary lovers in the film – Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) and Rita/whothehellknows? (Laura Elena Harring) – provide an underlying current of electric sexual tension that erupts in a memorably spontaneous expression of lesbian lust, the powerful impact of which subsequently results in the inevitable undoing of protagonist Betty/Diane’s dream-illusion (a little abstract, I know).
With a mysterious narrative and obscure plot, Mulholland Dr. thrives on mood and texture, resulting in a profoundly sensual and remarkably sexy fetishization of repeated images and colors, all reminiscent of Hollywood glamour a la Billy Wilder’s influential Sunset Blvd. (1950): ruby red lips, glistening perfect skin, sun-drenched cityscapes, breathy secretive mutterings, elegant evening gowns, intriguingly stylized shadows, and the pleasurably voyeuristic act of watching. Palpably stimulating, the film’s idealized sexual undertones are made overt when Betty/Diane invites Rita to share her bed for the night. Identity confusion, blonde wigs, amnesia, impersonation, and performance haunt the boudoir proceedings as the two women attempt to cast away their swirling doubts, sure of only one thing: their mutual passion. Hallucinatory and intense, the scene depicts the two women stripping one another before engaging in some smooching-between-the-sheets, lit with a melancholy blue cast – an indicator of the tragic oncoming end of the lovers’ perfectly romantic bliss, Betty/Diane’s fantasy. They must awaken from their sexual euphoria, and so must the viewer . . . sure is great while it lasts, though.
3. A History of Violence (2005) – Do it ‘til it hurts
Nobody does weird on-screen sex like David Cronenberg. Nobody. From the mind-altering sadomasochistic snuff film perversion of Videodrome (1983) to the drug-induced phantasmagoria of cannibalistic shape-shifting homosexuality in Naked Lunch (1991) to the car-crash fetish for twisted metal and broken bone orgasms in the NC-17-rated Crash (1996), Cronenberg – known in some circles as the “King of Venereal Horror” (one wonders who the rest of that royal family is) – has consistently pushed the envelope regarding cinematic sexuality. Although it is certainly one of Cronenberg’s most accessible acts of transgression, the exceedingly rough sex between A History of Violence’s Tom Stall/Joey (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), is nonetheless effective – to say the least.
Having just discovered that her husband of nearly 20 years is not who she thinks he is – a down-home, gentle Indiana family man (instead, he’s a reformed mob hitman from Boston) – Edie becomes quite reasonably incensed. When confronted with the threat of police interference as a result of her husband’s recent deadly activity, however, Edie stands by her man, displaying a hint of acquiescence amidst her indignation – setting the tone for the emotionally conflicted physical explosion that follows a brief visit from the local sheriff. Puzzled by Edie’s contradictory actions, Tom corners her on the stairs, grabbing her forcefully and receiving a slap to the face for his brutality, which is then intensified as he returns the slap and slams Edie to her back. Their bodies heaving and their hips pinned tightly together, the two quickly shuffle off their clothes and Tom begins thrusting. In control, Tom keeps his hand on Edie’s throat, as she seems to prefer, her submissive response revealing her breathless excitement. The scene ends unhappily, though, as a sexually satisfied and emotionally distraught Edie wiggles back into her panties and storms furiously up the stairs. Brief, rough, and reckless, the stairwell copulation is a spontaneous erotic crescendo of assertion and assent, reinforcing traditional gender roles and patriarchal power structures in a way that is so hot you almost forget about the overarching ideology. Hell, you might even end up approving of it.
2. Soderbergh’s sophisticated cool in Out of Sight (1998)
Editing can make or break a sex scene; and, when it comes to editing, Steven Soderbergh never fails to impress. The indie icon responsible for the controversial breakthrough sex, lies, and videotape (1989), Soderbergh came into his own with Out of Sight, a surprisingly sexy heist film adapted from a novel by pulp author Elmore Leonard. Adopting a retro-sleek aesthetic that harkens back to 1970s genre classics, Out of Sight is a tour-de-force of ingenious editing, tastefully muted visual palettes, and brilliantly ambient mood music (by turns rhythmic and ethereal) – consistently encapsulating just the right blend of cool detachment and smirking flirtation. Oh, and the incredible chemistry between leads George Clooney (as debonair bank robber Jack Foley) and Jennifer Lopez (as curvy US Marshal Karen Sisco) doesn’t hurt when the film’s sly libido rises during a role-playing faux-chance-encounter between the odd couple at a snowy, swanky hotel.
As Soderbergh has admitted, the magnificent scene between Jack and Karen (referring to themselves as “Gary” and “Celeste” and pretending to be strangers) is a direct homage to the #1 sex scene on this list (wait for it, you know that’s half the fun) and Out of Sight’s jaw-droppingly beautiful sex scene is almost as excellent as its classic forebear. Using parallel editing, the filmmakers alternate between Jack and Karen’s foreplay-filled dialogue in the hotel lobby, which comes off as both confident and nervously excited, and their later mutual disrobing before an inevitable romp in the bedroom. Slipping between both temporal/physical locations with ease, the scene, which uses Soderbergh’s now-signature flash-forwards (in this case, flashing forward from verbal foreplay to sex), is held together by David Holmes’ haunting score and the voices of the two lovers as their pre-sex banter plays over wonderfully-lit images of them fulfilling the promises of their words in bed, uniting present and future in way that is both deeply moving and deeply erotic. Incredibly intimate and undeniably hot, the scene is a textbook example of how a well-crafted montage can get your blood flowing to the right places even faster than a big, juicy . . . . uh, nevermind.
1. Don’t Look Now (1972): realer than real sex
I have seen films with actual, hardcore, no camera trick sexual acts in them – 9 Songs (2004), Battle in Heaven (2005), The Brown Bunny (2003), El Topo (1970), not to mention straight-up pornography – but I have never seen on-screen sex as true to life and as unpretentious as in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. An unusual candidate for containing the greatest, hottest, most emotionally resonant, best-lit, best-edited, best-staged, most-shockingly brilliant sex scene ever created (the hyperbole is justified), the film stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as John and Laura Baxter, a married couple visiting Venice for one of John’s architectural restoration projects, while also recovering from the emotionally scarring and eerily supernatural recent death of their young daughter. Winding through the dark alleys and foggy bridges of the “City of Water” (notable because their daughter drowned), the psychologically troubled and romantically estranged couple experiences a variety of metaphysical occurrences which lead them to join up with a pair of strange psychics in an attempt to communicate with their deceased child. One of the few films that genuinely scares me, the fact that Don’t Look Now features the pinnacle of cinematic sex is made all the more poignant by its pervasive sense of dread and tragedy, the gorgeous scene of exuberant sexual energy standing out like an island of vitality amidst the murky opacity of the Venetian waters.
Director Nicolas Roeg has claimed that he added the scene to humanize the relationship between John and Laura Baxter, which is strained throughout the rest of the film; he certainly achieved his desired effect. The inverted predecessor of Soderbergh’s flash-forward to sex in Out of Sight, Don’t Look Now’s sex scene is structured as a flashback in an editing scheme that alternates between two temporalities/spaces (this is the part Soderbergh picked up on, obviously). Beginning with shots of the two getting dressed and primped in the bathroom, the scene cuts backs-and-forth between their mundane getting-ready routine and the playful lovemaking that preceded it, depicting the sex with fresh nostalgia and the warmth of a relived memory.
Even more striking than its impeccable structure is the scene’s surprising levity. Boldly, Don’t Look Now shows a married couple having spontaneous, light, laughter-filled, multi-positioned, loving, tender, intimate, enjoyable, non-über-serious, smiling, open-eyed sex in a room that is well-lit in the middle of the day. To say the least, this is rare. To say the most, this is truer to my experience and to that of those I’ve talked to who have seen the film than any other sex scene in existence. This is the glory of a truly great sexual relationship – there is no over-dramatization, no indulgent over-emphasis, no fetishization of clichéd visual tropes, only the understated regularity of a relationship where good sex is the norm and in which making love is a happy part of daily life. As a result of how immensely and uniquely relatable it is, the scene gains all of the qualities other sex scenes miss, and without even trying too hard: joy, cooperation, communication, a sense of humor, and a feeling of genuine comfort are all present in John and Laura’s respite from the horror surrounding their stay in Venice. If watching this scene doesn’t inspire you to pause the DVD player, grab the special someone next to you, and love them like you never have before, well, you might want to contact your local monastery/convent; I don’t think you’d have a hard time fitting in.