Sex scenes aren’t my thing. To generalize why: in dramas, thrillers and action films, sex is treated as nothing more than a bridge between two scenes. The scenes are often uninteresting in their coyness, or laughable in their intended salaciousness. And, most importantly, sex in these kinds of films tends to say nothing about the characters involved, and rarely has anything whatsoever to do with the film’s overall plot. In romance films (particularly romantic comedies), sex between people for the first time often implies that those two people are now in love, which is rarely the case outside of PG-13 romcom fantasyland.
Basically, I think sex in film is lazy storytelling. When a sex scene begins during a film, I’m almost always wondering when we’re actually going to get back to the story. However, as always, there are exceptions to my school of thought, like the 10 scenes I have listed below. These sex scenes are essential to their respective films – they actually say something about their characters, and prove to be a necessary element to the overall film.
The sex scene in Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence is unique because it says nothing about the people engaged in the sex, but rather everything about the person observing them.
One afternoon, the bitter and resentful Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) roams the war torn streets of a fictional European city. She stumbles into a theater and casually watches the show. Moments later, she notices a couple near her passionately making love. She stares for a few moments longer than she should, captivated by the couple’s ignorance (or indifference) of Anna watching them. When her captivation turns to shock, Anna quickly exits the theater. Anna’s curious-turned-cold observance is a great character touch that helps shed light on Anna’s personality. But moreover, the scene is effective because it sets in motion (emotionally or otherwise) much of what Anna does throughout the duration of the film.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Not a traditional sex scene by any estimation (does Stanley Kubrick even do traditional sex scenes?), but the final shot of A Clockwork Orange is one of the most ingeniously revealing shots of Kubrick’s career. Watching Alex watch himself roll around with a blonde haired maiden proves to be the most devious trick of the film. Yep, he was cured, all right.
Last Tango in Paris (1972)
Jeanne (Maria Schneider) is house hunting alone when she stumbles into a seemingly vacant apartment, only to find Paul (Marlon Brando) sitting in the dark. The two say little, and just as Paul is deciding to leave, he confronts Jeanne and the two engage in effortless, anonymous sex. The scene takes place 14 minutes into the film, and gives you all possible insight for the 122 minutes that are to follow.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
A few years ago, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw referred to the infamous sex scene in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now as “perhaps the best, tenderest, if not precisely the most real sex scene in cinema history.” When you look past the infamy of the scene (rumors still swirl as to whether or not Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie were having actual sex during the scene) and put it into context with the rest of the film, it’s easy to see where Bradshaw is coming from. This is the first time these characters have been remotely intimate since the death of their daughter. And the intense carnal manner in which they get it on proves to be the best and rarest means of character development.
Boogie Nights (1997)
I’m not sure if there has been a more unusually romantic sex scene than Dirk Diggler’s first porn scene with Amber Waves. The scene is salacious, but never gratuitous. Sexy, but never erotic. Tender, not banal. It’s a long, oddly unique sequence that conveys the innocence of Dirk’s character, and the physical and emotional love Amber feels for him. In just one scene, Amber is lover, mother, teacher and caretaker. Basically, no one but Paul Thomas Anderson could’ve pulled this off.
Monster’s Ball (2001)
We’ve all seen and read about this scene plenty, so I’ll only add that the extended living room romp between Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry is executed in a way that makes the audience feel like it had to happen. And that’s really the best way I can put it: these two characters had no choice but to get drunk and screw each others’ brains out.
21 Grams (2003)
Really, what kind of woman would have sex with a man who she recently discovered actually has her dead husband’s heart inside of him? A woman in an Alejandro González Iñárritu film, that’s who. This scene is as carnal and vital as love scenes get.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Any of Heath Ledger and Jake Jake Gyllenhaal’s love scenes deserve to be on this list, but the most telling sex scene in Brokeback Mountain is the first time we see Ledger and Michelle Williams going at it. In any other movie, a husband flipping his wife over for some playtime would seem pretty normal, but Ledger hastily turning Williams around tells the audience everything we need to know about where his head’s at.
A History of Violence (2005)
For my money, the most necessary sex scene in all of film is the brutal stairway sequence in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. After learning who her husband really is, Edie (Marie Bello) storms out of her living room and is met at the base of the stairs by her angry husband, Tom (Viggo Mortensen). He’s initially a little too rough in his confrontation, and she responds with physical violence. Things get out of hand, he backs off, but she then welcomes him to continue. The subtext of the scene is obvious, but no less startling. Tom thinks he is rekindling his marriage, and Edie simply wants to fuck. I was stunned and appalled the first time I saw this scene, but after I let its worth sink in, I realized how uniquely essential it truly is.
Steve McQueen’s Shame is memorable for many reasons, a prime example being that he made (consensual) sex appear as a routine act of emotional violence. There is no joy to be found in the sex in this film, a notion Michael Fassbender portrays hauntingly. The film’s most infamous grand reveal of its sexual attitudes is an extended, sound-free threesome between Fassbender and two women. The women in the scene are paid to express excitement, so the state of their emotionally complexity really isn’t of concern. It’s Fassbender’s duty to convey, in graphic, unflinching detail, the horror of his character’s own mind. The final shot of this scene, in which we watch Fassbender’s skeletal face contort in agony, is one of the most gruesome things I’ve ever seen.