Insisting that audiences are tired of candy-coated coy, a new breed of
filmmakers is serving up remarkably graphic films in which nudity,
nymphomania, oral sex and even penetration are elbowing their way into the
spotlight, writes GAYLE MacDONALD
Racy. Raw. Voyeuristic. Sexy. Smutty. Pornographic.
All of the above are adjectives that could describe a new film, Lie With Me,
currently being shot in midtown Toronto in -- of all places -- a former
private Catholic girls' school.
To be released in 2005, the $2-million film has tongues in town wagging
because of its explicit sex. It's a closed set, so no one knows for sure how
far the film's main stars -- Eric Balfour (The O.C. and Six Feet Under) and
Vancouver's Lauren Lee Smith (The L Word) -- have actually gone. But sources
say everything's apparently there -- full nudity, (simulated) penetration,
(non-simulated) cunnilingus. There's little left to a fertile imagination.
The controversy and speculation pleases director Clement Virgo and his
backers, Toronto-based distributor ThinkFilm, who say they're on a mission
to shake North American moviegoers out of their puritanical boots. The press
release promises the film will "explore human sexuality with a bravery and
honesty not seen since [Bernardo] Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris." It goes
on to promise the most "erotic and intimate film about sex ever made in
High stakes and high expectations. But the filmmakers, who describe the film
as essentially a love story between a young, defiant nymphomaniac (Smith)
and an upstanding guy (Balfour), are rolling the dice because, they say,
they fervently believe audiences are starved for big-screen sex. Real sex.
Not the plastic candy that Hollywood serves up, but the sweaty,
you-can-almost-smell-it kind that will leave you mulling, after the credits
roll, "So did they actually do it?'
Virgo says his project is part of a sexually candid cinematic trend that is
sweeping the globe, particularly Europe and Japan. He points to a string of
recently released, sexually explicit films, such as Michael Winterbottom's
rock-heavy Nine Songs, David Mackenzie's Young Adam and Bertolucci's The
Dreamers, to name a few. All offer proof, he suggests, that sex is making a
major comeback -- and a remarkably graphic one.
In the Scottish drama Young Adam, Ewan McGregor lathers custard and ketchup
on his partner (Tilda Swinton) in a condiment-heavy scene that harkens back
to the days when Marlon Brando reached for the butter in Last Tango.
Winterbottom's Nine Songs has caused a huge furor in Britain because it
insists on showing full penetration, fellatio, ejaculation and cunnilingus
being enjoyed by stars Kieran O'Brien and Margot Stilley.
Bertolucci's The Dreamers got smacked with an NC-17 rating for its ménage à
trois in a coming-of-age story set in Paris. And, although few have yet seen
it, maverick filmmaker Catherine Breillat's Anatomie de l'enfer (Anatomy of
Hell) reportedly has left some film-festival programmers feeling squeamish
about a certain scene that involves -- how to put it delicately -- that time
of the month.
The sensationalism of their subject matter aside, such movies, pundits say,
are important because they blur the line between commercially distributed
art films and hard-core porn, propelling cineastes everywhere to ponder
another fine line: the one between erotica and pornography. And they have
many questioning whether audiences are really craving more sex in their
Virgo, for one, answers with an emphatic yes. There is a constituency of
filmgoers, he argues, who crave to be talked up to, who want grownup themes
on the screen. "There is a return to this notion of pushing extremes,
pushing the boundaries," he says, "and finding a common ground between dirty
movies and high culture."
People working on Lie With Me, based on Tamara Faith Berger's porn-lit novel
of the same name, have seen some early rushes, and say the sexual trysts are
very realistic. "If they're acting, they're damn good actors," is how one
woman put it. "It sure as hell looked real to me. It's cinéma vérité at a
whole new level."
Virgo, who co-wrote the screenplay with Berger (who is also his partner),
says there has been a slew of films like Lie With Me out of Mexico, France,
Spain, Britain and Asia, but embarrassingly few -- if any -- out of North
America. "I read Tamara's book and was struck by the thought that sexuality
is part of the culture, but no one here is making films about it. We make
songs about it. We see sex in movies out of Hollywood, but it's typically in
a coy way," he says, pointing as an example to Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide
"Sex, Hollywood-style, is played for laughs or jokes," is how Lie With Me
producer Damon D'Oliveira puts it. "We're making the anti-American Pie." In
the 1970s, filmmakers around the globe (including the United States)
loosened their collective britches and made mind-broadening films. Among the
most notable were Last Tango, Japanese director Nagisa Oshima's In The Realm
of the Senses, Ken Russell's The Devils and Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now,
the 1973 mystery best known for a sex scene with Donald Sutherland and Julie
Christie that sparked a penetrating debate over whether the couple actually
All of those films sent censors' heads spinning. But then such factors as
the rise of neo-conservatism in the United States, the appearance of AIDS,
and Hollywood's preoccupation with packaging blockbusters aimed at the youth
market essentially snuffed out most explicit sex in films, at least in North
Then, in the late 1990s, Europeans -- who have always had a more open-minded
and uninhibited appreciation for sex -- began to shake things up. In 1998,
Danish director Lars von Trier released The Idiots, which includes a scene
of an orgy, and has been cited for including the first graphic penetration
image in a mainstream film. The following year, one of the first erect
penises appeared in Breillat's Romance.
Then along came Patrice Chéreau's Intimacy (2001), the first art-house
feature in which relatively well-known actors -- Kerry Fox and Mark Rylance
-- engage in oral sex. There are many more. Breillat's Fat Girl, Alfonso
Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien (And Your Mama Too), Julio Medem's Sex and Lucia,
Leos Carax's Pola X, Gaspar Noé's I Stand Alone and Michael Haneke's The
Piano Teacher (which delves into sadomasochism).
The truly shocking thing about many of these films is that faces have
wrinkles, and bodies have pot bellies. Breasts and bottoms sag. They are
natural snapshots of real people in love or lust. Some of the actors,
remarkably, aren't even all that attractive.
The aim of these avant-garde filmmakers, insists Noah Cowan, the Toronto
International Film Festival's new co-director, is to use sex not simply to
titillate but as a means to connect with other themes. He points to the
French thriller Baise-Moi (translated, it means Kiss Me, although the film
was also distributed as Rape Me), which used grisly violence and graphic sex
to explore the gangster genre. And Cowan believes Winterbottom's Nine Songs
is intrinsically about the musical experience. (He'd have a hard time
selling that theory to the British tabloids, which called Nine Songs, which
premiered at Cannes this past spring, "the rudest film ever to hit our
That kind of reaction makes Cowan chuckle. Filmmakers like Winterbottom, he
suggests, "believe that a frank discussion of sexuality is a key to a
healthy brain life."
That said, Cowan adds that he has yet to see a truly mainstream film tackle
sex in an aggressive, ballsy way -- at least in recent years. "Americans are
still figuring out their positions on sex and sexuality in their art forms,
in their novels, films and television," he says.
Cable TV, however, is clearly an exception. Turn on The Movie Network,
Bravo! or Showcase any time after 11 p.m., and you're bound to see some
sweaty coupling. Samantha has swung from a trapeze, barely dressed, on HBO's
recently wrapped Sex and the City. The gang at Queer as Folk (shot in
Toronto for Canada's Showcase channel, and for Showtime in the United
States) regularly gets good and raunchy. There's also the Playboy TV channel
and Naked News TV (both gay and straight versions). The reality show Can You
Be a Porn Star? debuted on pay-per-view earlier this year.
Film historian David Thomson says many good directors prefer working on
cable TV because they don't have the same pressures to make commercially
acceptable, rubber-stamped, pre-packaged films. "Cable channels like HBO and
Showtime are narrowcast for a specific audience," says Thomson, "and these
directors have more freedom."
The San Francisco-based historian, author of The New Biographical Dictionary
of Film, yearns for the movie-making days before Eros died -- a time, he
says, when American filmmakers explored the topic of sex with the same heady
enthusiasm they now reserve for violence. Three decades ago, he notes,
American directors were exploring sex in a refreshingly candid way, making
the X-rated Midnight Cowboy, Straw Dogs, The Devils and Pink Flamingos.
In the eighties, America turned more conservative and began buttoning down.
To Thomson, it's a travesty. "I'm not saying every movie has to be about
sex," he says. "But I think it has to be a very important part of it. There
should be an emphasis on sexual experience, the guilt-free, pleasurable side
of it. It's very important to stress 'guilt-free,' because America is a
guilt-ridden culture. It doesn't do guilt-free sex as well as it does guilty
On the set of Lie With Me, Balfour is in his trailer, all muscles and tanned
skin. There's a Lucifer-like, bad-boy quality to this actor who once played
Satan in a car commercial. But his personality is genial and easygoing. He
took this role, he says, because he wanted to do a "serious" film with
something worthwhile to say. The nudity, he adds, doesn't faze him -- but
the intimacy does.
"The honest answer is that sometimes it's scary. Not the physicality of it .
. . but emotionally we had to make love to each other in those scenes. And
that's not easy, it's very sensitive, and definitely the most difficult part
for us. Porn is two-dimensional. This is so much more.
"This is not a tutorial on how to insert your penis in a woman's vagina.
It's not about how to give a blow job. But, yes, this movie is very candid
about the human body."