The pleasure principle

With Ira Sachs’s Passages given an NC-17 rating in the US, censors still seem shy of frank depictions of sex on screen. But whether they choose to use intimacy coordinators or not, many filmmakers are finding new ways to show eroticism.

20 September 2023

By Christina Newland

Passages (2023)
Sight and Sound

“I’ve decided my job is that I want to pleasure the audience. I didn’t want to just give pleasure – I wanted to actively pleasure, as a verb,” filmmaker Ira Sachs said to Sight and Sound in a recent interview about his racy, critically lauded new film Passages. Perhaps with a cheerfully perverse clarion call like this, it’s not a huge shock that the Motion Picture Association (MPA) slapped an NC-17 rating on the film in the US, in effect limiting its theatrical release to fewer cinemas, a move that Sachs has referred to as “cultural censorship”.

The lively and warm critical reception given to the film – combined with a general sense that Passages is working against a tide of prudish external forces, the MPA most prominent among them – has proved a flashpoint in the long-running discussion about the portrayal of sex on screen. Passages is the story of a cataclysmic love triangle that upends the lives of each person involved: Tomas (Franz Rogowski) is a wolfish, unpredictable film director in a long-term relationship with the sensible Martin (Ben Whishaw). He has a one-night stand with a woman, Agathe (an excellent Adèle Exarchopoulos), that soon blossoms into a full-blown affair.

But the much-vaunted sexiness of Passages – containing as it does three very different, graphic and narratively pivotal sex scenes – does not come at the expense of a thoughtful story. Rather, lust and the unruliness of desire are baked into the entire framework of the film. As Sachs says: “Sex scenes are just a part of a larger fabric. But that being said, I wanted to make an erotic film, meaning one that understands the relationship between the audience and the image as one of sensuality and sensitivity. That occurred in every decision: it occurred in what colours are on people’s bodies, what light is being projected on to their forms. It’s the patience of the film, the pace. The energy and the suspense of the film.”

It’s fair to say that there’s been a tiresome cycle of sex-scene fixation in contemporary film discourse: whether there are enough of them, how they can be sensitively and sensually filmed, and even if they are necessary at all. For Sachs, the fact that his film has had such a reaction is part of a larger story about the state of contemporary cinema.

“We just don’t have an abundance of films about adults in relationships with other adults, or with their families, or in homes, marriages,” Sachs points out. “We have a filmmaking industry which is focused on the non-real. It’s also focused on a commodity which can be ­globally sold. And so, of course, you go the more generic way. Because it’s easier to sell McDonald’s in 100 different countries, or Starbucks, than it is to sell what happens in a very specific place in time, among very specific people. I think the absence of sex is just the absence of a kind of humanity in a certain way.”

Passages (2023)

It’s possible that a combination of factors, both culture-wide and industry-specific, have contributed to this odd moment of both the avoidance of and a fixation on sex acts on screen.

Initial hesitation around on-set safety post-#MeToo, and a sense of discomfort around sensitive topics, has perhaps been fuelled by social media pearl-clutching and a Gen Z backlash against the idea of ‘sex-positive’ feminism. But there’s also the fact that it’s not just about sex alone. This is an industry where output is dominated by neutered, big-budget global franchises.

The rise of the intimacy coordinator on set in the wake of #MeToo has undeniably been a positive change, but many filmmakers do not feel the need to employ one, instead choosing to use their own resources on set to create a safe working environment.

“Having a place where an actor can take their concerns, and hopefully feel heard, seems to me very valuable,” says Sachs, though he did not use an intimacy coordinator on Passages. “The challenge is bringing someone besides the director into a conversation around the content of a film, and also creating an atmosphere in which improvisation is given space, which for me has been very significant when it comes to filming sexual intimacy,” he says.

Some filmmakers are inspired by an intimacy coordinator’s ability to come up with solutions to practical problems on set and thus free up the creatives to be more innovative in sex scenes; others, like Sachs, know that the exchange can possibly cause a loss of some of the spontaneity that makes a sex scene so sparky. (He’s far from alone in this: some of the most respected auteurs/purveyors of transgressive, realistic sex on screen have made similar comments, from Paul Verhoeven to Mia Hansen-Løve.)

As Rogowski recently told GQ, “It wasn’t real sex, but we created real intimacy: we were sweating, we were touching each other, rubbing our bodies together, you know, grabbing each other’s ass. I think it helped that we just trusted each other.”

Trust is the key word on a set without an intimacy coordinator. Sachs describes the working process as one of special and delicate collaboration with the actors. “The actors give you those scenes, and then they write them, too. Literally, there’s a lot of language in those scenes which creates a narrative I have not given them. But I’ve given them a sense that they can trust me.”

“I’ll change the lens, the movement, where someone walks… but in the sex scene between Tomas [and Agathe], I think I probably told him: chair, couch. But I had no idea that it was going to be like a comic kind of romp that was acrobatic. I had no idea.”

The sense that the actors’ bodies in their space, their expressivity and their physicality in a sex scene can all lend to character development and even plot is an important one. In Passages, the fast and excitable sex between Tomas and Agathe is nothing like the longer duration, the familiarity and insistence, of the long-term relationship of Tomas and Martin.

The Feeling that the Time for Doing Something Has Passed (2023)

Filmmaker Joanna Arnow also seems to understand implicitly the power of the sex scene to communicate more than just eroticism to the audience. Her forthcoming debut feature The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed, which premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes this year, features long sequences of full-frontal nudity and sex.

It focuses on a dissatisfied millennial woman, Ann, who explores BDSM as a submissive, with Arnow herself in the lead role. Although she did not use an intimacy coordinator, she carefully choreographed and blocked all of the intimate scenes, unlike the more improvisational approach used by Sachs.

At Cannes, in an interview I did with her for Mubi Notebook, she said they “worked very hard to make sure that we had a safe and respectful environment for all the actors, including myself. We had a lot of conversations about comfort level, being careful to plan and coordinate the scenes, reminding everyone that they could change their minds at any time.”

It’s telling that some of the films which are rethinking sex on screen are often doing so in contexts which go beyond traditional heteronormative expectations, be that the extended gay sex in Passages or the unvarnished (but never judgemental) sequences of BDSM experimentation in Arnow’s film.

The most sex-positive – and sexy – scenes on film are not just progressive in subject matter, but begin in safe, inclusive and sensitive production environments. Whether that is with or without the aid of an intimacy coordinator, the fact that the role exists is itself a telling indicator of change: filmmakers are reconsidering how best to give their actors protection and give themselves the space to achieve their aesthetic ambitions for those scenes. If sex should be as inextricable from the movies as it is from life, Passages is a film which serves as a reminder that ungovernable passions can be orchestrated, captured and transmitted to audiences in all manner of imaginative ways.

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