The least-gratuitous sex scenes ever filmed
Alright, quieten down everyone... we're all grown-ups here. No giggling!
But the skill of Park Chan-wook's direction means that, while The Handmaiden itself is swaggeringly, swoon-inducingly sexy, the scenes of actual sex therein are not supposed to be exciting for the audience. Instead, they brilliantly capture the excitement of the characters involved. Chan-wook manages to avoid predictable voyeurism and makes these scenes absorbing rather than arousing. They're a significant element of the story and its characters.
This non-gratuitousness is relatively rare for onscreen love-scenes – more usual is Game of Thrones and its constant jumble of breasts (‘balanced out’ by the odd flash of penis). But The Handmaiden isn’t unprecedented in depicting sex for all the right reasons. Listed below are the best examples of when on-camera sex, real or simulated, is entirely justified.
Theo and Hugo (2016)
Theo and Hugo was one of the sweetest films of last year. It's a beautiful, sincere romance that has you rooting for its two lovers from the very beginning. The fact that it begins with an extremely explicit gay orgy scene is by-the-by.
That's not quite true – the sex-club basement orgy is completely necessary. It's a singular introduction to the protagonists, and the only way to start Theo and Hugo's story (which, of course, is the story of Theo and Hugo). Even the explicitness is important: the filmmakers aren't squeamish about openly showing sex, and this pays dividends – you really believe in the sudden connection between the two men.
Lust, Caution (2007)
In Ang Lee’s brilliant period drama, Wong Chia Chi is an undercover resistance agent in occupied Shanghai, part of an assassination plot against Japanese agent Mr Yee. She’s already lost her virginity to a fellow conspirator, in a brief innocuous encounter meant to prepare her for the inevitable moment when she’ll have to seduce her target.
Chia Chi’s limited experience is no help when she finally gets this target alone in an empty room. The composed and taciturn Yee immediately flips, and his near-violent expression of desire sends shockwaves through the rest of Lust, Caution. Chia Chi’s final, fatal decision at the end of the film only makes sense in the context of this scene: it expresses the intensity that she never knew she was missing, and which she ultimately finds too addictive to abandon.
Another scene set in East Asia, but one about as different from Lust, Caution’s as it’s possible to be. But then Tampopo is different from most films. It’s a ‘noodle western’: not just a western set in Japan, but a western in which the entire plot involves a showdown between noodle restaurateurs. Really.
The story itself noodles along aimlessly, interspersed by little vignettes and side-plots that meditate on the nature of food. The sex scene in question – in which two lovers make innovative use of a hotel’s room service – is one of these vignettes. No, it might not be entirely necessary plot-wise, but it’s a lovely, joyful part of the film’s thematic patterning, balancing out a darker scene about last meals. Plus it shows you how sensual an egg yolk can be.
Shortbus is the only film on this list that’s as sexually explicit as Theo and Hugo, and it’s not even European: it was made in America, the perversely puritan country that would rather show you Saw III than an act of consensual love. Shortbus makes up for this Hollywood contrariness by opening with a man pleasuring himself. It’s actually a very sad scene, but… Sure. We understand if you want to just take our word for it.
There’s no one scene in Shortbus that stands out – it’s mostly sex, and all of it is necessary. Director John Cameron Mitchell says it best:
In the old days, when you couldn't show sex on film, directors like Hitchcock had metaphors for sex (trains going into tunnels, etc). When you can show more realistic sex, the sex itself can be a metaphor for other parts of the character's lives. The way people express themselves sexually can tell you a lot about who they are. Some people ask me, 'couldn't you have told the same story without the explicitness? …Why not be allowed to use every paint in the paintbox?
A History of Violence (2005)
Director David Cronenberg became known for his grotesque body-horror films like The Fly, and A History of Violence is relatively subdued in this sense. No one transforms into a flesh-eating mutant. There is a terrible metamorphosis, but it happens internally – you know, psychologically. Brrr.
When generous small-town family-man Tom Stall (a charming Viggo Mortensen) violently foils a robbery, it seems to trigger a regression to his secret former self: gangster ‘Joey Cusack’ (a terrifying Viggo Mortensen). This change is best demonstrated by the film’s two love scenes, both between Tom/Joey and his wife Edie (Maria Bello): the first is so cute and intimate that it’s almost embarrassing to watch; the second is a disturbingly savage expression of selfish desire (and it happens on the stairs – ouch).
Under the Skin (2014)
Okay, so ‘Scarlett Johansson as a seductive man-eating alien’ doesn’t sound non-gratuitous: it sounds distinctly ‘early career mistake, £3.99 on a petrol-station DVD rack’. But anyone who’s scene Under the Skin can testify to the chilling beauty of Jonathan Glazer’s art-noir-horror-scifi-drama (surely the best film ever made in that genre).
Johansson’s extraterrestrial drives around Scotland, luring men into her van for murderous purposes, until she has a crisis of conscience and abandons her mission. Taken in a by a softly-spoken stranger, it looks like she’s found love, or at least companionship – but their first attempt at sex is stymied by the miserable revelation that her human form hasn’t come equipped with a vagina. It’s a surprisingly heartbreaking moment, and it leads almost directly to film’s devastating conclusion.
What are we? Just bodies, right? And minds, inhabiting these bodies and looking out of them? But how do our bodies and minds differ from the bodies of other people? Significantly? Slightly? At all? What are the implications of our attempts to bring our bodies together? Why do we do it? Does it change anything?
Yeah, we’ll get back to you about that. In the meantime, watch the wonderfully discomfiting animation Anomalisa. It’s a stop-motion existential crisis, and its hotel room tryst is its strange, tragic centrepiece. See it to believe it.