That Luminous Medium of Desire

By Tanya Krzywinska

eyes-wide-shut-immoral-tales.jpgL: Eyes Wide Shut, 1999 R: Immoral Tales, 1974

The expansive intimacies of cinema offer the perfect medium for exploration of the erotic

Romantic intimacies. The supple ripple of satin lingerie. A sculpted bare torso. A hand brushing a naked thigh. Furtive sex in a seedy hotel room. Passion in the embrace of nature. From the sanctioned to the forbidden, the suggestive to the blatant, evocations of the sexual have saturated cinema with a heady distillation of fleshly passions. Whether laced in the rapturous rhetoric of romance or seeking to pack a harder erotic punch, sex has provided cinema with one of its major attractions.

Sex and sexuality in the cinema are shaped by a wide of variety of factors, some formal or generic, some relating to the institutions that regulate what is allowed to be seen and not, and others grounded in the more general configurations of the socio-historical context in which a film is produced and consumed. Sex can be used to spice up a weak storyline or build characterisation. It may provide an important aspect of a narrative, a subtext, undercurrent, or motivational force. Some aspect of sexual desire and sexuality has a presence across the entire range of cinema, most obviously in films that focus on sex itself, such as Secrets of a Chambermaid (1997, US), a soft-core film designed to titillate.

But the presence of sex is also found in more mainstream films where it is not so overtly central, as with the melodramatic and adulterous kiss in the wave-surge in From Here to Eternity (1953, US) set against the backdrop of the events of Pearl Harbour, or the ‘will-they-or-won’t-they’ relationship between the central protagonists in the high fantasy PG rated anime Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime, 1997, Japan). It is apparent in the way that Brad Pitt’s body is shot to express the desires of one of the protagonists, functioning as an articulation of the male body as erotic object of the gaze, in the female buddy movie Thelma and Louise (1991, US), and in the more subtly portrayed submissive sexual desire of the male protagonist in the film noir Out of the Past (1947, US). Despite differences in form, uses and intent, whether sold directly as a masturbatory tool or couched in the generic trappings of romance, art cinema, comedy, crime, tragedy, high fantasy or melodrama, sex has proved a primary means to sell films to potential audiences throughout cinema history.

Sex and cinema have a very intimate, special and sometimes stormy relationship. Subject to regulation and censorship, yet often articulating diverse fantasies, the portrayal of sex and sexuality in cinema runs the gamut between raw transgressive acts and idealistic notions of sex as an expression of romantic love. Sex has perhaps caused more controversy than any other aspect of cinema and is subject to competing claims that range between the extremes of libertarianism and conservativism. Cinema is intended mainly for a mass audience and it therefore operates in full view of the public sphere. Sexual acts are meant conventionally to be closeted in the private domain so their public presence has tended to solicit intense debate hinging on what constitutes public morality.

Unlike radio or the written word, cinema shows rather than tells. This has an impact on the way that sex and sexuality are mediated by film, tailored to fit with the particular contours of the medium, as well as the capacity of the camera to manufacture that which might, ordinarily, be-or perhaps imagined to be- hidden from view. Many films from across the range trade precisely on such a seductive promise. Robert Kolker claims that ‘film and the erotic are linked in some of the earliest images we have’. Evidence for his assertion is found with the Edison Company’s The Kiss (1896, US). The allure of the sexual has been integral to the appeal of cinema ever since.

interrogation.jpgInterrogation, 1989

The spectacle of cinematic sex is often intended to produce strong reactions, with controversy proving to be an excellent marketing tool. Many films, from The Kiss to 9 Songs (2004, UK), have traded on the conflicts that inevitably arise when entertainment and moral values clash. It is clear from the ubiquitous presence of sex in cinema that it has a strong seductive power and it may well provide images and ideas that affect our own expectations and fantasies about sex, sexuality and desire. Representations of sex and sexuality in cinema have therefore been regarded as having the potential to destabilise dominant mores about sex and desire.

As such, cinematic sex is subject to the scrutiny of vested interests beyond the average cinema-goer. At times these are able to influence what is considered acceptable for public consumption. However, throughout cinema’s existence stakeholders have disagreed over what they consider the role and impact of cinema to be in society and what should be sanctioned against. The history of sex in the cinema is therefore informed in often dynamic ways by struggles between competing investments.

Sex in cinema is framed and contextualised by a dizzying number of factors. Some of these are formal and media specific while others are institutional and conceptual. All of these are related in some way to the broader socio-cultural arena, which in itself is composed of competing trends with concomitant pressures and contentions. These ebb and flow in time in accord with the rhythms of dominant and emergent forces, narrative trends and social concerns. Sex and sexuality in the cinema are tightly bound to these ever-shifting contours.

In looking across the history of sex and sexuality in the cinema the definition and understanding of concepts as varied as good taste, civilisation, perversion, pleasure, morality, shame, love and obscenity, are subject to reinterpretation and change. Some concepts and the issues appended to them fade from view while others arise. Others have acquired radically different meanings; some moving away from the margins, their places taken by other incarnations. In exploring the factors that shape the cinematic representation of sex and sexuality it is possible to build a picture of the way that the various facets of such representations are keyed into and fashioned by broader contexts.

Existing works on this much discussed subject tend to focus on particular aspects of sex in the cinema. Censorship, gender, sexuality, issues of sexual identity and definitions of pornography are common topics. Others focus in on a particular era, genre or methodological approach to the topic. By contrast, my book Sex and the Cinema takes a broader approach and addresses the ways in which sex and sexuality are mediated by the particularities of cinema.

In order to examine the factors that contribute to representations of sex and desire, Sex and the Cinema is divided into two parts. Defining Sex in Cinema maps out the various institutional and industrial forces that play their hand in the way that sex appears in cinema. An analysis of the relationships between form, context and knowledge frameworks provides a basis from which to move to an examination of common conventions used in the representation of sex and sexuality. A range of commonly used narrative types are also examined. This is followed by an account of the impact of censorship and regulation on the way that sex appears in both ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ cinema.

Themes of Transgression focuses in on a select number of themes that are encoded as in some way transgressive: adultery, bestiality, incest, bondage, domination, sadomasochism and real sex. Each of the sections draw on films from various genres and cinematic traditions. The conditions that permit the exhibition of such transgressive themes are linked to what is culturally sanctioned at any given juncture; often ‘art’ values are employed as a means of rendering the unconscionable suitable for consumption as entertainment. The practice of couching sex in transgressive rhetoric works for the industry, acting as something of a strange attractor for prospective audiences, yet the rhetoric of transgression employed in the representation of sex take many different forms and have a range of implications and intentions.

Sex and the Cinema is organised around a number of frameworks, trends, issues, themes and approaches that present themselves as significant in the representation of sex in cinema and which typify the influence of certain ideas about sexuality that have emerged in a broader context. Cinematic sex is intricately interwoven into a matrix of industrial, economic, social and cultural factors. Within and between these, various competing claims are often in evidence. The amalgam of perspectives on the representation of sex in cinema taken by this study is designed to acknowledge and analyse the diverse range of forces, frameworks and factors that shape those representations.

Tanya Krzywinska’s Sex and the Cinema, from which this edited introduction is taken, is published by Wallflower Press.