The following article was published in N-SPHERE August 2011 issue.


There is a common mistake to be made when approaching sexuality in a film, that of showing without suggesting anything. There are dozens of films containing wild sex scenes, shoving the viewer’s nose in them, but few really are bold ore inspired enough to be committed to their  own material. In most of the cases, we have movies that serve the viewer’s basic needs with no real insight. Copies. Because it is not the act itself, it is a raw and passionless image. It is very easy to show two people kissing, but it is rather difficult to make this simple act be felt on a nearly organic scale. How many kissing scenes have you seen and how many made you feel like you are the one being kissed? And the examples could go on…

It is a difficult task to accomplish because then your whole film is no longer focused on a particular topic, or not even on some particular characters, but the intimate interaction in between them which means that somehow the whole films must take their course, otherwise the material might pull itself apart, since whatever is around or in between is only a mere distraction.

In Henry and June, this task is accomplished: one cold care less about the story itself (or about some other historical or fictional context) once he is drawn into the film’s sensuality. Like Bernardo Bertolocci’s Last tango in Paris, this film works with contrasts (something that is raw and dirty and something that is frail and “clean” being one example). Of course, in this particular case, expressionism cannot be taken out of the list, which may seem a rather obvious aspect, but largely misunderstood by others. Because you can say that a porn film is expressionist in its own right, but the expressions depicted there, the image, is cheap and common, mostly because the directors choose to be practical in all the wrong ways. They rely on immediate (yet if – in considerable cases -) pleasures into something the viewer may like, not it to something that viewer may feel.

In fact, expressions and gestures are, in some sense, gateways and they also can cover more obvious aspects because depicting something erotic is mostly like depicting something horrific: sometimes you are best advised to show less and suggest more. Many of today’s films show everything and suggest nothing, so, what we are left with, at best, is a series of mechanical gestures strictly linked with a plain biological process. Not much pleasure in that, is it?

Amusingly, in one of Henry and June‘s scenes we are shown an excerpt from Carl Theodore Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc and I say “amusingly” because as in Dreyer’s film Joan, the saint,  is mirrored in the suffering of Joan, the human, the inner communication (and meaning) between partners, may be very well mirrored in the organic »course of events«.

If Henry and June or Last tango in Paris use a simple artifice of contrasts and movements to unveil an emotional world, Peter Greenaway’s Pillow Book takes a more “abstract” approach. Here we have the link between the sexual act and the process of body calligraphy. It is apparently a more distant approach because most of the characters’ insights are not shown because they are of no interest. There is no process of “discovery” (the mere act of two people undressing one another can be called a process of discovery), here, in this aspect, everything is shown (the two people ARE already naked), but this time one has a blank form he has to fill (the calligraphy theme). Where one discovers, the other summons and, in the end, partially offers a translation (Julio Medem’s Lucia Y Lo Sexo works pretty much in the same manner, less the summoning part, more the translation part).

Another interesting approach is presented in two of David Croneneberg‘s films: Naked Lunch and Crash. The first choice seems very peculiar, I know and in some respects it may be. But strange as it may be, here we have the same act translated in mutations. It is not unveiled here, but described (remember the Mujahedeen typewriter scene) and then fleshed out. Not even the Interzone boys or are “unveiled”. It is again the use of expressionism that does the trick: Kiki, for example. His face and voice are doing everything so we do not need any additional descriptions. The same can be said about Yves Cloquet’s character.

Naked Lunch is a movie about alienation taken literally. The character alienates himself, but so is the movie, fortunately not a in an unfavorable manner, mainly because the film’s outlandishness does nothing to undermine anything, quite on the contrary, some of its aspects would not work otherwise, not even the sexual framework (remove the outlandishness and none of this would sustain itself).

In Crash there is an even more organic approach, more in the vein of cult favorites such as Tetsuo. Here, there is an interesting linkage between the intensity and violence of a car crash and the raw intensity of a sexual act. After all, leaving the physical aspects behind, the sound of broken bones may be seductive in its own right as it may be the idea of symbiosis between metal and flesh, but this is an already visited topic.

Of course the list can continue with films such as In the Realm of Senses, 9 1/2 weeks or even Eyes Wide Shut, each of them having their own patterns and ideas, but I leave you, dear reader(s), to discover them… with your own eyes.

photo | Screenshots. Henry and June

by Shade

Full article here.