If films are to be believed, then it appears that most of us have basically gone celibate these days. Take a look at the BBFC’s classifications for the last few years and you’ll find a swift decline in the number of films being awarded 18 ratings based on their sexual content. Of course, in reality, sex is still the hot-button topic that it has always been throughout human history. So why is it that movies have become so prudent about the steamy stuff, adopting a surprisingly conservative stance in what is normally such a liberal industry?

It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that this cinematic sexual sea change has occurred in tandem with the rise of the Me Too movement, which has profoundly shaped Hollywood—and wider society—for the better in myriad ways. It has amplified the voices of survivors of sexual abuse all around the world, and drawn a vital focus onto the dangers of sexual assault and the importance of consent. Perhaps this made many filmmakers antsy about how to depict sex with sensitivity and respect—with some preferring to ditch it all together.

There are notable exceptions, the most recent being the hit series Normal People, which paved a path for sex scenes post-Me Too with the presence of an intimacy coordinator on set to ensure the actors’ safety. But back in the film world, have we hit a brick wall in the bedroom?

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The staggering explosion of the internet porn industry suggests the audience isn’t lacking. Last year 6.83 million new videos were uploaded to PornHub; it equates to 169 years worth of content. That is a hell of a lot of porn—and this colossal increase in on-demand bonking can’t help but have an impact on both the way we consume media and our attitudes to sex.

Parents are also increasingly raising fears about the impact of pornography on their children; a BBFC consultation in 2018 reported that “parents are concerned by the borrowing of visual and verbal tropes from pornography,” which may have further fuelled reluctance within the industry around how to approach sexual content with sensitivity and respect. 

With rising uncertainty over how future filmmakers will be able to appropriately depict sex scenes (a debate which has only increased with the recent coronavirus outbreak), two relatively recent films have stood out for their bold approach to the subject. Lars Von Trier’s 2013 film Nymphomaniac and Gaspar Noé’s 2015 Love (recently back on MUBI) saw two of our most provocative and controversial filmmakers facing life’s most tantalizing subject head on.

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Both films made headlines with their use of unsimulated sex and subsequently met a lot of resistance. Critics accused Von Trier and Noé of wanting to make pornography rather than cinema, and of using real sex simply to drum up hype for their films and outrage audiences.

On closer inspection, that doesn’t seem fair. Von Trier’s depiction of distinctly un-eroticised and mechanical sex captures the director’s bleak psychological fissures. Noé’s deliberately hedonistic and overtly orgiastic scenes of sexual pleasure evoke his protagonist’s gradual loss of grip on reality. Both both films make persuasive and passionate defences for the power that sex can hold in cinema.

The approach is different: Von Trier forces us to watch long scenes of cold, clinical penetration and ejaculation (the director’s cut falls just shy of a harrowing 5 and a half hours) while Noé revels in the beauty and grace of these very same acts. But hichever filmmaker we are dealing with, the message is clear: cinema should never allow sex to become a taboo topic.

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In Nymphomaniac, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe—her voice breathy, quavering and pain-inflected—recounts her story to Segilman (Stellan Skarsgård), a sheltered old man with little life experience. Polar opposites, these two can be seen as the two sides of Von Trier: the desperate, depraved, but empowered vs the fearful celibate. And even though the safety conversation hadn’t fully hit the mainstream (and Von Trier is known for pushing his actors to the limit) here he employed digital trickery to replace his main cast’s bodies with those of porn actors. Gainsbourg commented that Von Trier’s respect for all the actors—including the porn performers—created a “good spirit” on set

Of course, there’s a whole lot more to Nymphomaniac than just sex. But it is the sex scenes that truly lay bare Von Trier’s vision of the world: mechanical, icy, stripped of any ounce of love or passion. These sequences are shot with cold, natural light and rarely have a score; instead we get the physical soundtrack of every encounter that Joe has, amplifying the animalistic, messy nature of her activities and tearing away any hint of romance of affection. And indeed, Joe declares early on that “for me, love was just lust with jealousy added. Everything else was just total nonsense.” 

Von Trier’s view of the dark and corrupting nature of love is underscored in the one astonishingly passionate and intimate scene, between Joe and Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), for whom she’s resisted her feelings.  As the screen fades to black, signalling the end of part 1 (Von Trier had the film split into two parts because of its length), young Joe (Stacy Martin) says despairingly “I can’t feel anything, I can’t feel anything” and breaks down in tears.

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So though the marketing team courted outrage with the infamous orgasm posters, Nymphomaniac actually has a much more mature thesis. It shapes sex to its protagonist’s view of her own life and the rest of the world. And that’s where Gaspar Noé, whose style is so different but who uses sex in similarly confronting ways, comes in. 

If Love’s unsimulated sex scenes were controversial, Noé decision to release the film in 3D was also the subject of much feverish discussion. But although he obviously enjoyed the outraged reception (at one point Noé places the audience as the target for a so-called “money shot,” which must have ruffled feathers at Cannes), he has also been adamant that there is far more to his film than just ‘real’ sex.

Noé defended his approach to sex scenes as “not as you usually see them, but shown more in a beautiful, sad or melancholic way.” He also explained that his intention was to “portray sexual passion as much as possible, because in real-life it’s very common, but you don’t see it properly portrayed onscreen.” In doing so, Love blends an authentic depiction of untethered passion with lingering regret and melancholia.

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At surface level, Love is about the fall-out from an affair—and the over-romanticising of the original relationship. Pulled from Murphy’s (Karl Glusman) memories, the sex scenes are suffused with soft, warm hues and shot in long, extended takes that feature very little choreography, letting the actors improvise and incorporate natural impulses into their performances. 

That naturalistic point is stressed by Noé’s assertions that he was very “hands off” on set and respected the actors if they objected to filming any of the scenes. It is a far cry from the controversies of the past, like the disturbing story of Maria Schneider’s non-consensual sex scenes in Last Tango in Paris, and shows some of the progress the industry has made in terms of protecting actors. 

As in Nymphomaniac, an abstract otherworldliness is constantly present throughout Love. The camera clings to Murphy and forefronts his building depression, crafting a claustrophobic atmosphere that becomes almost unbearable at times. The phenomenal climax—Murphy breaking down and weeping like a child—is a shockingly melancholic closing statement for a film otherwise defined by graphic sex and glossy passion. 

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Perhaps most tellingly of all, this final scene is lit in the exact same red hues as the film’s sex scenes, casting all kinds of links between the two and twisting the orgiastic earlier scenes into something far darker.

Whatever your opinions on Nymphomaniac or Love, it is hard to deny that both pushed the boundaries of how sex could be depicted on screen at a time when attitudes are becoming increasingly sensitive and filmmakers significantly more cautious. Both films showed the vast possibilities that sex could have as a narrative and emotional vehicle within cinema, and most crucially, both directors used the carnal act to throw us directly into the world and mind of their troubled protagonist. 

Looking past the 3D and marketing gimmicks, Von Trier and Noé showed how filmmakers could revolutionise the depiction of sex on screen—while still ensuring their actors felt secure and respected. Their films might also serve as a strong slap in the face to the mind-numbing effects of on-demand pornography. At a time when 77% of British men regularly consume porn and 55% cite it as their main source of sex education, filmmakers like Von Trier and Noé have started paving the way for battling any desensitizing effects of porn – and showing us the vast, largely unexplored, power of sex on screen in all of its unsimulated glory.