In 2001, the film Intimacy was screened in London as the first “real sex” film set in Britain. With a French director and international leads (the British Mark Rylance and New Zealander Kerry Fox), the film was controversial even before screening. The media conversation focussed especially on the actual sexual participation of mainstream (rather than pornographic) actors. Was “real sex” artistically necessary? Or was it simply market driven? Why was this not a form of prostitution for voyeurs? Was the well-known broadsheet film-reviewer who described Intimacy as sordid, badly acted, poorly scripted, ineptly translated, narratively muddled, with unpityingly harsh camera and wordless, nameless and violent sexuality right in his rejection of Intimacy? What is a “real sex” film historically, socially, culturally, and formally? What role does Intimacy play on- and off-screen?
Intimacy has been taken more seriously in academic (and some film-reviewing) circles, however. The strong feminist-psychoanalytical strand of film studies has explored Intimacy in the context of a broader argument that real sex film plays between the genres of pornography and art cinema in confronting risk events of our time. French cinema studies sees Intimacy as part of a particular French culture embedded in governmental tax and grant funding policy, French film schools promoting the feminization of French cinema, and the “conversational” status of film criticism across mainstream and emergent media. Cultural Studies approaches have combined textualist and social audience studies in exploring the “visceral, affective and emotional” appeal of “feel bad” films by “bringing the more difficult aspects of personal response into the open.”
Meanwhile, the sociology of risk, while not focussing on cinema, has re-thought the social context of contemporary films, which real sex films draw on and extend. Considered alongside the publication of Anthony Giddens’s The Transformation of Intimacy (1992), the film and sociological text work through similar social-historical shifts from romantic to confluent love and intimacy. In the book, Giddens coins the terms “confluent love” and “plastic sexuality” to describe sex freed from the needs of reproduction and negotiated on equal terms. Here, mutual sexual satisfaction, rather than the constant emotional closeness of an idealised romantic relationship, is key to a lasting union. And for Giddens, this kind of relationship has utopian potential, prefiguring a world beyond the traditional historical restraints of romantic love and the domestic subjugation of women.
Meanwhile, the sociology of risk, while not focussing on cinema, has re-thought the social context of contemporary films, which real sex films draw on and extend.
The film Intimacy is an especially revealing example of how an interdisciplinary approach can take this conversation qualitatively further by combining risk sociology, feminist geography of the body, French film studies (and broader film concepts of authorship, narrative, genre, mise-en-scène, spectatorship and audience), and feminist-psychoanalytical notions of desire and intimacy in exploring real sex cinema on- and off-screen.
Films showing graphic and high impact sex are not new nor are they confined to low-budget markets or European art house cinemas: think Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris (1972) or Peter O’Toole and Helen Mirren in Caligula (1979). The surge in real sex films such as Romance (2000), The Piano Teacher (2001), Irréversible (2002), 9 Songs (2005), Nymph()maniac (2013), and Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) points to an historically new generation of on-screen couples that negotiate sexual identities and pursue sexual intimacy for its own sake. We see this in the feverish weekly couplings between Jay and Claire in Intimacy, in the cataclysmic affair between Adèle and Emma in the Palme d’Or Award-winning Blue is the Warmest Colour and in the covert sexual seductions between Sook-hee and Lady Hideko in the South Korean erotic thriller The Handmaiden (2016).
Both Blue is the Warmest Colour and The Handmaiden reveal the negotiation of sexual identities and the transgression of heteronormative boundaries against a local/global backdrop. In Blue is the Warmest Colour, the sexual journey of nursery teacher Adèle is mapped and embodied in her face through extreme close ups of her eating. At a family dinner, Adèle slurps, sucks, and forks spaghetti bolognese leaving traces of sauce across her mouth—an intimate orifice we see again in close up during her lovemaking with Emma. But at Emma’s family dinner the young lesbian couple is served stylish oysters and the carnalities and pleasures of food are replaced by polite conversation. In these contrasting scenes food acts as a metaphor for flesh and a signifier of class positioning, denoting power and difference.
In The Handmaiden, sexual identities are negotiated spatially in private and public settings and in the mapping of intimate and global narratives. The clandestine affair between handmaiden Sook-hee and heiress Lady Hideko develops in a private, domestic setting through everyday acts turned sensuous such as Sook-hee bathing, dressing, and reading to her mistress. But Lady Hideko hides a dark secret. At night she is summoned by her book-dealing uncle to read pornographic literature to a male audience. On a local level, these scenes contrast the negotiation of socio-sexual identities in private and public spheres—the lesbian trysts between Hideko and Sook-hee undermining the commercial space of men in an aesthetic rendering of the private is political. On a global scale, these socio-sexual relationships represent a directorial offer of a social-psychology of the relationship between Japan and Korea in the 1930s. So not only does the lesbian sex between Sook-hee and Lady Hideko challenge the public space of male sexual commerce but, as a global narrative, the “comfort girl” imperialist hetero-normative views about sexuality that were prevalent in colonial era Korea.
Depicted in these cinematic scenes are the historically located opportunities for sexual negotiation that Giddens describes in The Transformation of Intimacy, via the shift from romantic love to confluent love and plastic sexuality. Real sex films such as Intimacy, Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Piano Teacher and more recently The Handmaiden, revealing actual, graphic, and high impact sex not only give us insight into the transformation of intimacy on our cinema screens—but also the transformation of intimacy both in our own bedrooms and the global context.