If we assume the past twelve months in film reflect the time we’re living in now, then it would be easy to claim the year has been all about kinky sex and full-bodied sadness. Now, before you start preparing your arguments against my simple summation, let me clarify what I mean. On the surface the great films garnering attention (that masterpiece Jack and Jill aside) right now are in our consciousness more for the depiction of pretty people having crazy sex, rather than how the films are trying to expose the troubling nature and consequences of sex. Yes, we all know sex has consequences outside of disease and pregnancy, but the shear amount of filmmakers willing to show more than the grey, Hollywood sexual consequences (the above, plus violent Law and Order: SVU style stranger-rape) has been substantially small until this past year.
Maybe films of this year are a commentary on our current economic depression, or maybe they reflect a modern relaxing of what is profane and what isn’t. We have become so desensitized in our own lives that we need something that seems almost too real to shock us out of our own minds. Whatever it is, looking back at 2011 I can’t help but shout “it’s about time” when I see a film feature sex as just as much a mental struggle as it is a physical action. Because sex and feelings are messy, and what better way to show that than through someone else’s experience?
January’s release of No Strings Attached kicked off a surprising trend of sexual frankness by being honest and laying out exactly how sex works between two people unable to express their feelings. While neither Emma (Natalie Portman) nor Adam (Ashton Kutcher) were particularly interested in stopping their lives or opening up emotionally to another person, they both needed the physical attention the other offered. The film features no shockingly kinky scenes (that honestly will come later in the fall), it surprised by plowing through Hollywood’s unwritten rules of female sexuality and man feelings. In this case, Emma wanted sex as a stress relief and Adam fell in love with her—just as happens in real life when someone’s P has entered a V. Clearly, it’s a mainstream romantic comedy so we know how it ends, but dedicating an entire film to the fluidity of sex and how feelings from it aren’t just a “women’s issue” is a bold move and something June’s Friends with Benefits explored with a bit more heart and consideration—but with less Greta Gerwig (Patrice), which is a shame.
But the feelings derived from sex hurt just as much as they help. August’s Bellflower kicked off the fall trend of “sex sads.” Woodrow’s (Evan Glodell) judgement is clouded by his extreme hatred for Milly (Jessie Wiseman) the woman who not only cheated on him but shattered Woodrow’s already fragile emotional stability with her intoxicating vagina. As it is not a film particularly concerned with portraying women in a light other than heartbreaker or submissive, Milly’s destruction of Woodrow’s sanity is seen as something all women have done, currently do, or will do. While Bellflower may seem like a classic case of “first world problems” it actually presents one of the most compelling arguments for where love lives so does hate. Both of these emotions reside in the same house and affect the same people; it’s only a matter of time before they recognize their bedfellow.
October’s release of Martha Marcy May Marlene took sexual manipulation to a new, troubling, and uncomfortable level. Here we see the dramatic after effects of extreme trauma while interspersing it with images of what the victim remembers. Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a beautiful woman unaware of the power of her beauty. She is meek, naïve, and trusting. Martha is so trusting in fact that she falls under the spell of Patrick (John Hawkes), a cult leader who manipulates, mistreats, and even rapes her into submission until she begins to believe she likes it. Likes, not deserves. That’s the true power of his sexual control; he makes women believe they want this trauma, rather than that they deserve it—pitting many of her fellow cultists against each other in hopes for his attention. And even in the moments where she realizes she wants freedom from Patrick, he still uses his sexual power against her by denying her the sex she craves.
In one of many shocking scenes, a recently escaped Martha lays at the foot of her sister and brother-in-law’s bed while they are making love. Due to her extreme sexual trauma she feels more comfortable—almost at home—when she can be near two people having sex. Typically a film would shy away from showing a victim continuing to want or be near sex following their ordeals; however Martha Marcy May Marlene respectfully shows how many people in fact use sex to feel anything but abused and empty. But that feeling of euphoria goes away the moment the physical connection breaks, and the memories come back.
Sometimes we fuck because it’s fun, sometimes we fuck because we need to feel close to another person, and sometimes fucking just makes us feel nothing, leaving us emotionally vacant despite clinging on to a fantastic high. This month’s Shame exposes one man’s need for a sex high and his descent into a spiral of self-loathing and emotional disconnect. It has been argued to death that Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is not a sex addict but a lonely young man living in a lonely city who craves carnal pleasures and who may or may not be gay. Yeah, that is just as ridiculous a summation as assuming his need for sex can be fixed with the attention of a good woman. He is an entirely messed up man who clearly has physical and mental discomfort with any emotional connection outside of his control. He is a man who desperately wants to love and feel love, but who can’t go through with it. Brandon isn’t just an addict, he is all of us.
Steve McQueen is meticulous when it comes to unraveling the bible paper-thin layers of Brandon’s sexual needs. He allows us to watch him try and fail to pleasure someone he actually cares for just as long as we also watch him fuck his feelings away in return. To Brandon sex is neither fun nor terrible, but in fact just a selfish release he needs to help him feel alive.
Many other films released this year used sex to flush out characters or expand stories, and we should all be thankful for the dialogue they chose to begin. Talking about sex today involves our fear of feelings, as we want nothing more than to suppress everything until it doesn’t hurt anymore. But, denying our emotions and our hurt only makes the sex we cling to feel even dirtier, even more manipulative and exposing. That is what we need to see more of. Art should show us who we really are and what we are really hiding by presenting us with stories and characters who are exactly as we are—hopelessly flawed.
For more on the sexier side of cinema, check out the Reel Sex archives.