Provocative Sex Is Back at the Movies. But Are We Ready for It?

In Todd Haynes’s newest film, “May December,” Joe Yoo (Charles Melton) is a 30-something man in a marriage with an unconventional back story. He met his wife, Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), the summer after seventh grade — but she was 36 at the time. She went to prison, but they stayed together, and the two eventually married and had three children. The couple are being shadowed by a famous actress, Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), who will be portraying Gracie in a movie about the first years of their relationship. As Elizabeth enmeshes herself in their world, Joe opens himself up to her, and one evening, after she invites him to her hotel room, Elizabeth initiates a tentative kiss. “You’re so young,” she says. “Believe me, you could start over.” The two have sex, and we watch Joe thrusting briefly from a bird’s-eye view — a position of surveillance rather than intimacy.

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It’s an explicit sex scene, but it is not wholly sexy. Elizabeth and Joe have two distinct sets of feelings and perspectives, and the film’s visual approach captures this sense of dissonance. There’s something concrete, even thrilling, about the fleshly realism of Joe’s slight paunch and the texture of their labored breathing, something beautiful and tragic about the way their interlocking fantasies converge and decouple. It’s an encounter thick with layers of lust, pleasure, self-deception and disappointment. Though the sex is consensual, the viewer’s experience of it is uneasy. It slips from steamy to disconcerting to alienating in a way that, though not uncommon in lived experience, has become less familiar on the screen. After it’s over, Elizabeth presses him on his relationship with Gracie. Joe draws back, wounded: For him, the sex was a way of regaining some of the agency he lost in entering a relationship with an adult as a child. In his eyes, Elizabeth is suggesting that he has no agency at all. We’re observing the discordant, syncopated elements a single sexual encounter can encompass.

Over the last several years, the matter of onscreen sex in the movies has been a continuing source of anxiety for audiences, critics and filmmakers who feel that desire has been shunted offscreen in favor of more chaste fare. In a 2021 interview, the director Paul Verhoeven lamented “a movement toward Puritanism” in Hollywood. Over the summer, buzz around Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” hinged in part on the fact that it was the director’s first film to feature either sex or nudity. As some on X dissected the extent to which Florence Pugh appeared naked onscreen, a repost of an anti-porn TikToker’s reaction to those scenes (“Have a plan and talk about it before you go,” she advised potential viewers who might feel “triggered”) caused a stir among some commentators, who saw it as proof that viewing audiences were caught up in an anti-sex fervor. Whether or not there has actually been a widespread puritanical shift, the portrayal of sex has certainly been complicated by heightened scrutiny in the wake of the MeToo movement.

That cultural moment inspired films that, today, read as artifacts of their time: stories of girlbossed Fox News personalities standing up to misogynist superiors, tragic narratives of sexual violence and recovery, journalism procedurals about the birth of the movement itself. These films reinforced a newly prevailing narrative that sex and systemic injustice often go hand in hand and promised just resolutions wherein abusers and harassers were exposed and punished. Emerald Fennell’s 2020 directorial debut, “Promising Young Woman,” crystallized both tendencies: After protagonist Cassie’s (Carey Mulligan) friend Nina is sexually assaulted during medical school, leading her to commit suicide, she feigns intoxication in bars so she can ensnare would-be assailants. She graduates to enacting her revenge on those she holds responsible for Nina’s death, but the film glosses over some of her crueler stunts. Things end tidily with Cassie’s engineering her own murder at the hands of Nina’s rapist and his subsequent arrest. The film had a slick social-justice message but elided the complex public discourse around accountability in favor of crowd-pleasing turns.

“May December” is part of a wave of movies and television shows that cut against this impulse to use sex as a warning or a cudgel and attempts to bring back sex as sex — as something titillating, seductive, gratifying, provocative and, at base, erotic. This year there are raucous throwbacks to raunchy comedies like “Bottoms” and “No Hard Feelings,” sexual bildungsromans like “Poor Things” and HBO’s lurid “The Idol” and a film adaptation of “Cat Person,” a New Yorker short story that went viral in the first months of MeToo, to name just a few. These films want to depict sex in a broadly appealing way while retaining an awareness of recent shifts in the cultural conversation.

“Bottoms,” for example, resituates the teenage sex comedy in the world of queer adolescent girls. “The Idol” utilizes the recent cultural redemption of maligned women celebrities like Britney Spears as the staging ground for the comeback of its own troubled pop star. Fennell’s new film, “Saltburn” and Chloe Domont’s “Fair Play” serve up salacious scenes alongside social critique, underlining the role of sex in gender- and class-based power struggles. “May December” examines the long aftermath of sexual abuse and the way it can haunt desire decades later.

Lily-Rose Depp in “The Idol.”Credit…Eddy Chen/HBO

The influence of MeToo, which forced a re-evaluation of sexual mores throughout our culture, is unmistakably present. But these films push beyond, asking what it means to treat sexual relations as a phenomenon that is related to, but distinct from, power. In her book “The Right to Sex,” the philosopher Amia Srinivasan asked whether a focus on issues of consent obscured a deeper consideration of the weird forms that sexual desire can take. To Srinivasan, desire itself is shaped by the conditions of power and is potentially complicit in its perpetuation: To prefer thin white bodies over brown or disabled ones, to take one example, can be a matter of intimate personal preference at the same time as it reflects the influence of the societal norms that shape us. Sexual desire encompasses desires for power, belonging, advantage and disruption that we would not typically think of as erotic.

“For better or worse, we must find a way to take sex on its own terms,” Srinivasan writes. “On its own terms” means sex that matters in multiple senses, that has sensual weight but does not ignore how politics lends it some of that weight. This new crop of movies is wrestling with what that could look like, interrogating inherited desires and struggling to reinvent them for a new moment. They don’t all succeed, but the failures are revealing.

In “Saltburn,” Barry Keoghan plays Oliver Quick, a poor Oxford student whose peers make fun of him for his “Oxfam” clothes and awkward affect. When the aristocratic Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) takes pity on him, Oliver’s fortunes change. Soon he’s spending a summer at Saltburn, the Catton family’s estate. Felix’s sister, Venetia, lusts after him, while his parents approach him as if he is an alien species. Farleigh, Felix’s queer Black American cousin, a fellow dependent, tries unsuccessfully to get Oliver ejected from Saltburn. Oliver has a trump card, though: When he joins the younger family members in a field for nude sunbathing, he reveals his own sizable member, making himself an object of desire and sexual power. The movie brims with erotic excess as Oliver seduces his hosts one by one.

“Saltburn” is a jumbled, cockeyed update of many genres and stories (“The Talented Mr. Ripley” comes readily to mind), but the genre it’s most interested in revising is the 1980s and ’90s erotic thriller. This tendency to adapt older genres is common among this year’s sex-obsessed films — unsurprising, given that genre itself is a way of revisiting and amending inherited ideas. The erotic thriller was practically invented to hold together audiences’s ugly, contradictory feelings about sex, bringing the craving for erotic encounter into conflict with the looming specter of AIDs and the perceived threat of empowered women. This year’s films find their contradictions among contemporary social issues while embracing more inclusive understandings of desire. Thus even though Fennell is again considering sex as domination — this time a queer weapon of class war — she also wants audiences to think of Oliver’s seductions as sexy.

Alison Oliver as Venetia in “Saltburn”Credit…Amazon Studios

“Saltburn” deprioritizes the social message of “Promising Young Woman” in favor of tantalizing images. At one point, Oliver propositions Venetia after catching her beneath his window in a see-through nightgown. She protests on account of her period, but Oliver goes ahead and sticks his head under her gown. “It’s lucky for you I’m a vampire,” he quips. Oliver’s sexual aggression is treated as a tool that breaks down barriers of breeding and wealth, a sign of personal strength and cunning. Venetia’s period and Oliver’s transgression against her demurral (along with, perhaps, the disingenuous nature of that refusal) also accentuates the act’s erotic charge — a familiar formula for titillation. In another scene, Oliver forces himself onto Farleigh, who protests and then accepts his enemy’s advances. It’s sex as a disturbing assertion of power over a foe, but it’s also meant to be thrilling for each of the characters and, we assume, the audience.

Oliver’s sexual coercions clash with the film’s crude attempts to refashion the erotic thriller as queer, feminist and class-conscious. Fennell doesn’t seem interested in whether these acts are morally acceptable. Instead, by depicting Oliver’s victims as privileged brats, she gives us permission to take pleasure in his misdeeds. In place of any serious engagement with the strange ways that class, consent, violation and the erotic are messily entangled, Fennell turns to the thriller as a kind of escape hatch. Oliver’s schemes allow her and her protagonist to indulge in dark seduction while evading its repercussions.

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the erotic thriller, which if anything is obsessed with sex’s consequences and how desire and vulnerability go hand in hand. A similar misunderstanding happens in “Fair Play.” Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich star as Emily and Luke, two financial analysts at a hedge fund who are in a relationship they must hide from their colleagues. Their relationship is robust — they have period sex (there it is again!) in a restroom at a wedding before Luke proposes marriage — but things sour when Emily is promoted to a position of authority over Luke, who grows jealous. Their sex life cools. As Emily embraces her male colleagues’ chauvinistic work culture and flaunts her new wealth, Luke takes on beta male tendencies, like spending his time and money on a business self-help course. Emily’s promotion plays on his gender-related insecurities, uncovering the misogynist assumptions lurking below their relationship’s surface. They never have a real conversation about what’s going on. Instead, straddling a reluctant Luke, Emily insists that they need to have sex. The performance of a healthy heterosexual order seems more urgent to these characters than grappling with the dissonances between them or the confusing presence of sexist gender norms within their relationship.

Though the premiere of “Fair Play” at Sundance earlier this year was heralded by some press and critics as a contemporary take on the erotic thriller, the little sex it features illustrates underlying conditions rather than posing questions that need to be negotiated or explored. The first sequence leaps from an interrupted quickie to a marriage proposal to a shot of the postcoital couple — less an erotic encounter than a relationship-goals checklist. The second happens during a nightmarish engagement party thrown by Emily’s oblivious family. After a furious shouting match, Emily and Luke begin to have angry sex, but when she tells him to stop, he doesn’t. Rather than staying with the choice the characters have made and exploring the frustrated intimacy that might have motivated it, Luke rapes Emily because, the film seems to say, violence is the only domain in which men can still have the upper hand. We find ourselves in familiar territory: Sex cannot be separated from the malignancy of the social structures that surround it.

“Fair Play” is capable of striking more provocative notes. After Luke assaults her, Emily finds a morally discordant way to reconcile her trauma with the demands of the workplace. She goes to her boss and disingenuously explains Luke’s disruptive office behavior as the culmination of a long period of stalking. This scene puts questions of gender-based violence in queasy juxtaposition with professional ambition. Rather than resting there, though, the movie ends on a shallow note of empowerment: When Emily returns to her apartment and finds Luke waiting for her, she picks up a knife and forces him to apologize for raping her. The ending frames Emily as a victim, asking the audience to take satisfaction in a ready-made trope when the outcome is much more fraught.

Julianne Moore and Charles Melton in “May December.”Credit…Photo illustration by Chantal Jahchan

Fennell and Domont have produced interesting failures that illustrate the inherent difficulty of returning sex to the screen: Older forms can’t always give shape to the strange eddies that sex inserts into the flow of our lives. This problem animates Todd Haynes’s “May December.” Haynes’s approach suggests that rehabbing the erotic will require a formal invention more rigorous — and far weirder — than what Domont and Fennell attempt.

When we meet Joe and Gracie and Elizabeth (the film is set in 2015, a couple years before MeToo), most see Joe as Gracie’s victim, but for her purposes, Elizabeth is more concerned with what motivated Gracie’s choice and how the couple see themselves. Gracie, whose outward presentation of white feminine fragility and naïveté enables the control she exerts over her mixed-race family, fiercely resists Elizabeth’s attempts to understand her. Joe, on the other hand, seems to be an open book. As he re-examines his relationship through an outsider’s gaze, long-suppressed questions and dissatisfactions come to the surface.

Like “Saltburn,” sexual desire saturates “May December,” though not always in the ways we expect. In one scene, we see Gracie teaching Elizabeth how to apply her favorite makeup, patting the lipstick onto Elizabeth’s open mouth with her fingertip while the two discuss their mothers. In another, Joe sits alone in front of the TV at night, watching a videotaped face-wash commercial featuring Elizabeth on a loop. As she splashes water on her face, rivulets drip endlessly from her eyelashes and open mouth. The camera zooms in each time before cutting to Joe’s rapt gaze. The interplay of the two images is like a dialogue between lovers — the formation of a relation, or fantasy of a relation, in real time. We can’t know why Joe has chosen this image at this moment, what is going through his mind, but we feel the emergence of a consequential desire that will encourage him to question all the other desires that his life with Gracie has stunted.

Haynes is interested in the way the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves buckle under the weight of retrospection and how central the erotic is to that process. The title gestures toward one of the grand cultural narratives that Gracie and Joe use to understand their relationship. Seen through the eyes of a public that has rejected that narrative, though, Gracie’s attempts to frame their relationship as a meet-cute story are chilling. “You know Joe’s been with more women than I have men,” she tries to explain to Elizabeth at one point. Joe tries to tell Elizabeth the same story, beginning with how different he was from other kids his age. “She saw me,” he says, insisting, “I wanted it.” But the insistence rings false. He is hunky yet has the hunch of an older man mingled with a boy’s soft, awkward bulk — a body in arrested development indicating a static mind.

The film’s score and script collude to resist psychological revelations about the characters. The score combines original compositions and an adapted score from the 1971 period drama “The Go-Between,” laying melodramatic music over scenes that contradict their emotional sway. As the movie introduces us to Gracie and Joe’s family, we peer in on a seemingly normal family anticipating a celebrity’s arrival. Then Gracie opens the fridge door to retrieve wieners for a barbecue. Ominous chords sound, and the score’s effect is bizarre, almost comic. What does Gracie feel here? What are we meant to feel, and what are these feelings’ objects? It’s a moment of misdirection, an analogue for the complex, prickly reticence of Elizabeth and Gracie, two characters who refuse vulnerability and self-revelation at every step, but also for the way that we, as spectators of the sexual lives of others (and sometimes our own) rely on defunct tropes that have nothing to do with our own direct experience. If, upon opening the fridge door in anticipation of Elizabeth’s invasion, Gracie sees herself as the besieged heroine of a romantic melodrama, the score pushes us into feeling that way as well. Eventually the score comes to seem like a tool of manipulation similar to the ones Gracie wields against Joe and Elizabeth.

Abuse is at the very center of “May December,” but it is not the only force at work: Joe is bound by a genuine love for and attachment to his children and wife, but he grapples with the contradictions of his situation and is not simply their product. Gracie, in turn, is not only an abuser but a complicated, opaque figure of barbed frailty. The film offers up narratives that might unlock her motivations: child sexual abuse and a subsequent early marriage to an older man — but they cannot fully illuminate Gracie’s desire or her behavior. “May December” is more concerned with repercussions, and perhaps its biggest accomplishment is the way it dwells in the afterlife of abuse with keen attention to emotional weather. In one scene, Joe smokes weed with his son — his first time getting high. He gets caught in a spasm of unacknowledged grief. “Bad things, they happen,” he warns. “And we do bad things also. And we have to think about those things. If we try not to think about it, there’s this. …” He trails off.

Where “Saltburn” and “Fair Play” dismiss sex’s complications in spectacular ways, “May December” stays with the difficulty, avoiding the glib treatment of harm as something that can be resolved through either punishment or self-empowerment. For Joe, Gracie and even Elizabeth, desires of the past haunt their presents, trapping them in harmful situations from which they might never recover — the stakes are scarier than anything Fennell and Domont can conceive. But perhaps most important, as we think through what sexual desire means in complicated times, Haynes’s view of sexuality is multidimensional, taking it seriously as a force that unmakes and remakes us. If there is hope for Joe, a chance for him to make a life of his own, then it is due in part to his ability to desire something new, something other than what he has been handed.

Source photographs for photo illustrations above from Netflix.

Alexandra Kleeman is a novelist and Guggenheim Fellow and the author, most recently, of “Something New Under the Sun.” Her last essay for the magazine explored this year’s television adaptation of David Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers” and the radical way it depicted birthing onscreen.

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