The comedian Doug Stanhope has an excellent bit about sex scenes in film on his album, “Burning the Bridge to Nowhere.” He tells a brief story about watching a movie covering Genghis Khan’s life and enjoying it, only to be completely blindsided by an unnecessary sex scene. He asks why there’s a sex scene in the middle of the bank robbery movie he has to sit through and jokes, “I don’t put bank robberies in your porn!”
Stanhope touches on a very real problem in cinema: films that feature sexuality can be very difficult to get right. However, when a film includes mature themes in the right way it can make an average film stand out. Here are 10 of the boldest movies about sexuality.
10. Young and Beautiful (2013)
Young and Beautiful is a great François Ozon film about a teenaged girl named Isabelle who decides to become a sex worker. She doesn’t do it to make money, or even because she’s interested in sex. Instead, she seems to be doing it almost out of boredom.
Young and Beautiful is being included on this list due to how bold its treatment of sexuality is. The idea of prostitution in cinema is obviously nothing new, however, what Young and Beautiful does really well is illustrate the idea of sexuality as experimentation. Isabelle is a young woman still discovering herself, and one of the ways she does so is by figuring out her sexuality, and her limits.
Isabelle is a fascinating character because she remains mysterious throughout the duration of the film: we never get an “aha!” moment explaining why she makes the choices she does. Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky called this a “rubber-ducky” reduction, as in: “Someone once took his rubber ducky away from him, and that’s why he’s a deranged killer.” There is none of that in Ozon’s film, and Isabelle is a complex character as a result. She feels like a realistic person with inexplicable flaws, naturally making mistakes as she attempts to grow up.
9. Some Velvet Morning (2013)
Some Velvet Morning is one of my favourite films of the past five years. I think it’s a fiercely underrated film that has never gotten the audience it deserves. It has mixed reviews with very little middle ground; most people either really like it or really hate it. It’s tough to sell to people: it’s about a man who visits his mistress one day with the news he has left his wife. It also takes place entirely in one location, and it’s heavily dialogue driven.
What makes Some Velvet Morning stand out is its jarring ending. Neil LaBute has always been a writer that does not shy away from bold characters and choices, and this film is no different. It has two shocking endings: one occurs right after the other.
The film’s “twist ending” feel can be written off as a cheap gimmick that loses its sting on repeat viewings, but it’s still a very bold way to end a movie. The performances are also strong enough to carry a film that depends largely on its surprising conclusion.
8. Chloe (2009)
Atom Egoyan’s remake of a 2003 French film (titled differently: Nathalie) is about a woman who thinks her husband is having an affair, and decides to hire an escort to seduce him.
Like Young and Beautiful, Chloe is another film on this list that features prostitution as a focal point. What Chloe does differently is really capture the idea that sexuality can be a meaningless transactional experience. Although it does feature the similar concept of sexuality as experimentation, it’s a bold depiction of how sex can be viewed as a job like any other.
In the beginning of the film Chloe (played by Amanda Seyfried) tells us, “I try to find something to love in everybody. Even if it’s a small thing. Something about the way someone smiles. There’s always something, there has to be.” The way she tells us this so matter-of-factly gives us the sense that her way of life is normal to her.
Chloe’s blasé description of her job is refreshing when compared to the stereotypical way in which prostitution has been depicted in films like Pretty Woman over the years of film history. Chloe is obviously a film that does not shy away from using prostitution to its advantage thematically, but other films that do so fail to capture Egoyan’s blunt, mature portrayal.
7. Crash (1996)
Crash is a great film that explores an uncommon kink: the affinity for danger as it relates to sex, specifically car crashes. Crash is a just over two decade old film, but Cronenberg’s work has stood the test of time so far because it’s still a very unique look at sexuality.
It’s fascinating because it’s not a “BDSM” film, it just happens to explore another similar type of underworld of sexuality: danger is an attraction for a lot of people in real life and is rarely explored in film in such a unique way. As a side note: this film stars James Spader, who happens to be in Secretary (another great film that would belong on this list).
6. Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)
This is one of the most talked about films of the last five years, but it’s being included because when we talk about films that feature bold depictions of sexuality this is the perfect example. The film’s running time is three hours, and it audaciously tells a story that spans several years about two young women falling in love.
Blue is the Warmest Color has developed a reputation for its frank sex scenes between the two main characters; filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche lets the scenes unfold with lengthy takes that seem to go on interminably.
The film has been criticized due to being directed by a male filmmaker (is it appropriate to tell a story featuring lesbians from a male perspective?), as well as having a controversial production (according the the film’s stars). Overlooking all of the film’s controversy, the film is undeniably bold. It’s one of the most memorable dramas in recent film history for a reason.