Have you ever sat at coffee shop, minding your own business and munching on a tasty croissant, when pleasantly and unexpectedly a handsome man or beautiful lady sits down across from you? If life were a movie, one of you would drop something, reach to pick it up at the same time, and charmingly knock heads. Engaging conversation would ensue, you’d fall madly in love, music would swell, and credits would roll like the tears down your movie-self’s cheek. Le sigh and scene.
But like movies are oft to show, so much sexual passion can just as easily bring out the evil in characters as it does the good. Movie love can be so intense it borders on destructive, and a budding couple’s sanity can unravel before the audience’s eyes as the story reaches its climax. Sex unites the couple and keeps them together longer than it rationally should, until both partners become weaved so heavily in a tangle of sex-caused insanity neither can see where reality and delusion lie.
The sexual thriller is one of many genres cut from the film noir cloth. Billy Wilder began it, Brian De Palma perfected it, and Adrian Lyne profited from it. Along the way other directors have waded in the sex-turns-you-crazy pool, but few have been able to touch the over-the-top perfection of Lyne’s Fatal Attraction. A movie mostly remembered for its harsh punishment of innocent rabbits, Fatal Attraction confronts head-on how sex can turn two perfectly rational people into mad messes. Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) is a seemingly happily (aren’t they always?) married man who meets and beds Alex Forrest (Glenn Close). Although it is just one night of seriously sexy sex, Alex snaps and makes it her mission for the rest of the movie to destroy Dan’s marriage. Now anyone who has engaged in a one-night stand with a married man knows it’s a better idea to just move on rather than stalk his family, but sex has triggered some suppressed crazy in Alex, and she will stop at nothing to take what she believes is hers. Acknowledging the sexual sin and Alex’s consequential death is the only way this world’s axis can shift back to center.
Films often sensationalize sexual crimes and romanticize sexual deviants. Viewers can get caught up in the sensual images on screen only to later reflect on their negative nature once safely tucked in bed. Jean-Pierre Denis’ 2000 Murderous Maids tells the true story of infamous chambermaid murderers the Papin Sisters who killed their employer and her daughter in 1930s France after they discovered the two sisters engaging in an incestuous relationship. Through multiple steamy bedroom scenes the movie suggests younger sister Lea (Julie-Marie Parmentier) was emotionally and physically seduced by her older sister Christine (Sylvie Testud) during their taboo relationship.
Their feelings are not wrong between the walls of their attic bedroom, and the on-screen intimacy between the two sisters is almost innocent. These scenes challenge the audience to question if what they are doing could possibly be wrong if it looks so beautiful. However, the moment Lea begins to realize Christine’s desire may not be all it’s cracked up to be, Christine turns malicious. She “proves” her love first by trying to rape Lea and then killing the one person who threatens to tear them apart—their employer. Lea’s weakness is avenged in the end when Christine finds herself behind bars declaring her love for her sister while Lea confesses she was a victim all along of Lea’s delusions.
Sex on screen doesn’t always toss the couples into a murderous tizzy. Sometimes sex, or the desire to have sex, can push the couple into complete mental instability while neither partner’s life is harmed. In the sexually repressed 1950s, teens had few outlets for their sexual desire. Clearly teens were engaging in sex, but being called a slut was not a word many girls embraced, especially not the ones who hoped to marry their high school sweetheart. No “good” girl wanted to be “that” girl, and movies of the time reflected this completely dramatic, yet legitimate fear.
Splendor in the Grass was one of many sexually themed melodramas produced during this period of American wholesomeness. While the story takes place during the years leading up to the Great Depression, the teen lovers Wilma Dean (Natalie Wood) and Bud (Warren Beatty) embodied modern teens. They never engage in sex, but their desire for each other is so intense the relationship implodes. Bud makes himself sick with thoughts of sexing up Wilma Dean, causing him not only to hurt her immensely by breaking up with her but to also sleep with the school slut. In turn, Wilma Dean erupts into passionate fits and ends up hospitalized for loving Bud too much. Bud and Wilma Dean are too emotionally tainted to find balance with each other, and their only relief comes in the form of partners to whom they are not sexually attracted.
Since the art form’s inception, filmmakers have been infatuated with, dissected, and displayed sex-triggered insanity on screen. Film noir and the 1970s New Hollywood revolution developed and thrived off this device, and modern movies have benefited from their contributions. Double Indemnity didn’t shy away from righting a corrupt world by killing both main characters for their sexual indiscretions, while American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) gets away with murder even after he recognizes his own illness. Punishment for sexual bad decisions is expected in movies, be it lawful, vigilant, or self-inflicted.
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