When Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac was released earlier this year, it garnered quite a bit of attention because of its sexually explicit nature. The trailer itself is scandalous, let alone the actual movie. While sex scenes in film are not a new phenomenon, Nymphomaniac attracted relatively more controversy because sex is not an accessory in the film — it is the crucial axis upon which the plot revolves. This explicit focus on sex is something that audiences are not used to in non-pornographic films. While Nymphomaniac is not considered as controversial for today’s audience as it would have been in earlier years, it’s still quite scandalous for some.
Here, we explore what makes a sex scene controversial, and how perceptions have changed throughout the years as audiences have grown more and more numb to shock. The focus here is more on consensual sex scenes rather than rape scenes (although in some cases such as Antichrist, there is some overlap).
In 1933, the Czech film Ecstasy featured Hedy Lamarr in one of her most controversial roles. This was the first time that a non-pornographic film portrayed a female orgasm. Although only the actors’ faces are shown during this sex scene, there is also an earlier scene during which Lamarr runs naked through a field. Ecstasy was predictably scandalous for all of these reasons. It attracted criticism at the time not only because a female character enjoys the act of sex, but also because she does so while cheating on her husband. After the release of this film, Lamarr became known as “The Ecstasy Girl” throughout most of Europe, proving that people are drawn to scandal.
A few decades later, director Larry Clark released Kids (1995). This film follows the lives of a group of teenagers in New York City, focusing on their liberal, unrestrained attitudes towards sex and substance abuse. The film attracted controversy during a particularly sensitive time: the era of HIV in the mid ‘90s. The morally questionable plot involves protagonist Telly on his mission to sleep with as many virgins as possible, with the sole purpose of infecting them with HIV. Along with the other explicit aspects of the film, this shockingly amoral storyline predictably stirred up a lot of public debate and opposition at the time.
While Shortbus (2006) is often referred to as a “sex film,” it’s not considered a pornographic film by most. Similar to Kids, the plot follows a group of sexually active people in New York City. The film, directed by John Cameron Mitchell, garnered considerable attention and controversy because it features graphic, non-simulated sexual intercourse. For a film which declared itself to be non-pornographic, this was a considerably novel approach. Many credited it as the first serious-minded film to feature real sex onscreen. Mitchell later claimed that through Shortbus, he wanted to explore sex in new creative and cinematic ways, as the subject is “too interesting to leave to porn.”
Lars von Trier is no stranger to controversial films, and one of his most controversial to date is Antichrist (2009). This film, which revolves around a couple dealing with the death of their child, is so graphic that it apparently made multiple moviegoers faint in the theatre. As the mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) gradually spirals into madness, her sexual behaviour becomes increasingly violent and sado-masochistic. Von Trier pushes sexual and graphic boundaries with a lot of his films; with Antichrist (and Melancholia) as points of reference, Nymphomaniac seems like a natural progression in relation to shocking subject matter.
As is the case with gore and violence, audiences gradually become more numb to graphic sexuality. As filmmakers continue to push boundaries, whether for shock value or artistic value, viewers are bombarded from all sides with images. As these images become naturalized, viewers become harder to shock. In turn, filmmakers seek new and untested ways to push boundaries through their work. While this vicious cycle has led to increased numbness, it has also led to more liberal attitudes towards sexuality as a whole.