Carnal Knowledge

Good sex is even harder to find on-screen than it is in real life. Here 10 directors who know from experiences how to film the erotic tell us what sex scenes they admire themselves.

When Philip Kaufman's Henry & June received the first NC-17 rating in 1990, some of us hoped it might be the beginning of a sexy new wave. But that proved to be a pipe dream. Before long the NC-17 became just as verboten as the old X rating. Blockbuster, the nation's biggest video rental chain, refused to carry NC-17 movies, and so nervous studios forced filmmakers to trim their sex scenes (as Paul Verhoeven did with Basic Instinct) to qualify for an R. "It wasn't the victory it was supposed to be," Philip Kaufman says of his battle to create a new rating category. "The new rating was meant to allow for adult sexuality, but that didn't happen."

But now a few intrepid souls are once again defying the canons of good taste. Not surprisingly, most of the ground-breaking work comes from European filmmakers. Jean-Jacques Annaud's The Lover was slapped with an NC-17 rating for its steamy love scenes between a teenage girl and an older Chinese man in French Indochina. Annaud, however, appealed the rating and managed to have it changed to an R without making any cuts. Other movies are also pushing the envelope. Neil Jordan's The Crying Game is a startling love story that harks back to Performance in its gender-bending subversiveness. Louis Malle's Damage is a graphic study of sexual obsession, with feverish scenes between Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche that test the limits of the R category. Roman Polanski is seeking a distributor for Bitter Moon, another chronicle of sexual obsession, this time with sadomasochistic overtones, starring Polanski's 26-year-old wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, and Peter Coyote. "It will cause controversy," Polanski said during filming last year. "Especially in the United States." And in January, Madonna's Body of Evidence will go out with an NC-17 rating, at least if the saucy star (who seems on a kick to loosen American mores) has her way. The fact that so many major filmmakers seem determined to flout the moralists suggests that pungent adult sex may not be quite down for the count.

Still, it remains a touchy subject. In asking prominent filmmakers about their favorite sex scenes in movies, I found that quite a few were skittish. Neil Jordan's first response was, "I haven't dealt with sex in any of my movies." Then he was reminded of Mona Lisa, which focused on a high-priced prostitute, and of a scene of oral sex in The Crying Game, and he conceded that he might have something to say on the subject. Spike Lee, who first came to our attention with an impudent sexy movie, She's Gotta Have It, has lately moved on to weightier political subjects and didn't have time to pontificate on something as frivolous as sex. Alan Parker, who ran up against the rating board with one scene in Angel Heart, and Lawrence Kasdan, who once raised temperatures with Body Heat, seemed to want to forget this part of their past and declined to comment on the subject. Even David Lynch, who may be trying to clean up his act after a couple of commercial disasters, refused to participate in a sex symposium.

But I found 10 directors willing to talk about the sex scenes that inspired, challenged or simply titillated them, and about their own adventures in the skin trade. The diversity of their responses proved what Nicolas Roeg articulated most eloquently: Sex is a very private matter, and it is notoriously difficult to connect one's own erotic fantasies with the longings of a mass audience. "Our carnal desires are fantastically strange," Roeg says. "The greatest lover's question is, 'What are you thinking, darling?" It's such a private affair. To hit that private area is wonderful and often can't be discussed afterwards."

Nevertheless, these 10 directors plunged gamely into the discussion and shed a bit of light on the dreams conjured up in a darkened theater.

Louis Malle has been one of the pioneers of sex in cinema. His 1958 succes de scandale, The Lovers, helped to abolish censorship in America when the Supreme Court ruled it was not obscene. In Murmur of the Heart Malle looked at incest without hysteria, and in Pretty Baby he scrutinized child prostitution. Even in a less controversial movie, Atlantic City, Malle managed to film a sexual encounter between an old man (Burt Lancaster) and a younger woman (Susan Sarandon) without the usual coy snickers. "I remember the light was very sensual when we filmed that scene," Malle reports. "It's as if time was suspended. It was a moment of grace when these two people were getting close to each other. I thought it was a positive statement about the human heart, not a scene about a dirty old man. I always try to be non-judgmental."

and Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris, when they meet as total strangers in an empty flat and within minutes are having violent sex up against the apartment wall. "That was very beautifully shot,'" he says. "It was erotic and quite surprising."

The sex scenes in Malle's new film. Damage, are not unlike the anonymous encounters in Last Tango; they are startling, brutal bouts between two people who know very little about each other when they meet for torrid trysts in her apartment. "I haven't done sex scenes for a while," Malle observes. "You don't want to make them too choreographed. At some point you have to trust the actors. Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche were great. I shot with two cameras to give them as much freedom as possible. I let them improvise. All in all, I'd much rather see people making love than cutting throats. It's a more civilized way to communicate."

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