Reel Sex: The Need for Sexless Intimacy on Film

If movies are to be believed, it’s easy for couples to meet in some cute way, fall in love, and tumble right into the sack without any trouble in the world. Yes, some films address the clumsiness of lovers’ first times together, but by the end of the scene they have figured out each other’s ticks, pleasures, and even kinks. No matter how long the on-screen couple has dated, their comfort with each other develops quickly, never leaving the audience time to question their accelerated level of intimacy. It’s as if they know each other perfectly or had a well-paid sex choreographer on retainer.

But, truth be told, steamy intense intimacy doesn’t always need to involve gyrations.

I saw Steve Carrell’s new relationship drama Crazy, Stupid, Love this week, and was struck by the lack of love scenes in a film all about sex. Don’t get me wrong, there are some sexy moments, considering a shirtless Ryan Gosling has been smoking up my thoughts recently, but the intimacy comes in the form of conversation rather than bed dancing.  It was refreshing to see two people address their own troubles with intimacy through all-night conversation rather than super spicy lovemaking. Gosling and Emma Stone have the perfect mix of sex appeal and sweetness to pull off the opposite of what audiences expected, and rather than be disappointed we are relieved that this couple appears almost normal (minus how beautiful they both are. That doesn’t exist in real life!).

But seeing Crazy, Stupid, Love got me thinking about how films tend to shy away from sexless intimacy. We of course want to see some naked people with the price of admission, however an engaged audience member also wants to connect to the featured couple. We enjoy bringing in our own experiences while watching a well-crafted fantasy.

The Lover and Ghost both resonated with me the same way as Crazy, Stupid, Love, as both films show a sex-ready couple initially connecting through the suggestion of sex rather than engagement.

Let’s start with 1992’s The Lover. A 15-year-old French girl takes leaves of school to visit the inner city of Saigon (French Vietnam), where she is sexually awakened by a rich, older Chinese businessman. They meet when he offers her a ride to Saigon in his chauffeured car, impressing this troubled girl and instantly attracting her to him. The moments move slowly as they drive on, wordlessly sitting next to each other and staring out onto the countryside. As they travel farther outside the town, their hands seek warmth and inch closer together. The camera focuses entirely on their desperate grip, the Young Girl’s (Jane Marsh) hand tentative but submissive and the Chinese Man’s (Tony Leung) dominating and passionate. We can feel where this handholding is going, but for this brief moment they have developed an understanding of what they both want. Without speaking, they can agree to an affair which will fulfill both their lives.

Later in the film The Young Girl and The Chinese Man engage in more than just hand-holding, their sweaty bodies representing their desire but also tinged with the reality that their affair is a limited one. They have a deep sexual trust with each other, never shying away from sampling the darker desires, but in the end she must leave for Paris and he must marry an heiress. Alas, it might be suggested that neither of them will be able to sit in a car without thinking about needy, entwined fingers.

Speaking of getting all handsy, 1990’s iconic tragic melodrama Ghost features one of the sexiest love scenes ever committed to screen. Heartbroken Molly (Demi Moore) is recovering from the murder of her boyfriend Sam (Patrick Swayze), who, unbeknownst to her, is following his one true love around in a sort of earthbound limbo. In an intense and often parodied scene, Molly sits at her pottery wheel, moving clay between her fingers as she sculpts a vase or a pot or something. The result is definitely not what it was supposed to be. She is entranced, focused entirely on the item in front of her when Sam’s spirit slips behind her and engulfs her hands with his. They sink into each other, intimately connecting in a way we never had a chance to see when he was alive. She doesn’t know he’s there, but she feels something rumbly in her tumbly and gives herself completely to the moment. They never do anything more than lean into each other and get a little dirty, but in that scene they connect like soul mates. And we all leave wanting to take pottery classes.

In real life sex is incredibly personal; we have someone’s pieces near our tenders, our faces smooshed together while sweat drips down in places we normally don’t enjoy. We take multiple attempts to break down another person’s shield, and sometimes what we find there doesn’t mesh with our own personalities. But this never means sex leads to love. Rather sex can muddy the waters of a couple and leave some confused, hurt, or disinterested. That’s why the fantasy of cinematic intimacy is so compelling. Love and boobs, what else could one need to fall in love?

Stop holding hands and read more Reel Sex

While Gwen Reyes has only briefly been a film critic and columnist, she's long been telling people what movies they should drop dollars on, regardless if they are listening to her or not. Based out of Dallas, she wants to live the dream by watching movies all day and drinking vodka gimlets all night. She graduated from Sweet Briar College with a surprisingly handy degree in Philosophy and Film Studies--it explains why she spends so much time analyzing the murderers in sexual thrillers (yes, dear reader, that's her excuse!)--and she loves anything to do with gnomes, pot-bellied pigs, and beards. But most importantly, Gwen likes movies about sad people, funny people, naked people, and bearded people.

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