Article: Why exhibitors shouldn’t be afraid of programming cinematic sexual narratives

Writing for The Bigger Picture, film programmer Thea Berry writes about the narrative purpose of sex in cinema, why programmers shouldn’t be afraid of booking explicit content and the taboo-busting films that have come before. 

Radu Jude’s upcoming Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (out on 26 November from Sovereign Film Distribution) opens with incredibly graphic footage from a sex tape teacher Emi (Katia Pascariu) makes with her husband and is leaked online causing uproar and outrage at her school. Now, why start a film this way? To shock and outrage the audience? In a way, yes, but primarily Jude uses this sex tape as a tool for a far more interesting conversation around what today is classed as ‘obscene’ and the outcome is an uncompromising satire is a relentless attack on prejudice and hypocrisy. 

“We are used to acts which are much more obscene, in a way, than small acts like the one that set off the uproar we see in the film” – Radu Jude 

Meaning, that in a world where we are exposed to thousands of images on a daily basis which contain varying levels of sexualised nudity, violence and war, a sex tape that is deemed obscene, in comparison, seems hardly that at all. 

Having won the Golden Bear award for Best Film at this year’s Berlinale, Bad Luck Banging has joined the ranks of other impactful and exciting films coming out of the Romanian New Wave. Exploring a variety of themes, this film is a great springboard to be creative with film curation, allowing programmers to explore topics such as censorship in cinema, women’s sexuality and desire, and, as I will discuss below the narrative purpose of sex in cinema. 

Below, I’ve chosen three titles that use sex as a narrative and character development tool to explore the human condition and the society we live in.

Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015, Marielle Heller) Vertigo Releasing

Adapted from the graphic novel, Diary of a Teenage Girl follows 15 year-old Minnie (Bel Powley) as she embarks on her journey of sex and self discovery by having an affair with her mother’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård). This exploration of a teenager’s discovery of herself and her sexuality is refreshing in how honest, frank and unembarrassed it is, not only in its depictions of sex but in how Minnie thinks, talks and writes about sex and her body – this level of openness I would say is comparable with Netflix’s Sex Education and Big Mouth

Unfortunately, like so many films before it, it fell prey to the tight regulations of the BBFC, and a film that was for women and about women was refused a 15 and was given an 18 certificate – the full breakdown of why can be read here

“The film explores female sexuality with boldness and honesty in an unexploitative manner. In an age where young women are still continually being sexualised and objectified we feel The Diary of a Teenage Girl sends a very positive, reassuring message to young girls about female sexuality and body image.” Wahida Begum, Vertigo Releasing

In a society where teenage girls and young women are objectified and sexualised but are refused their own sexual agency and autonomy, Diary of a Teenage Girl builds sex into the core if its narrative to show how healthy and normal it is to explore your sexuality. 

The Handmaiden (Park Chan-Wook, 2016) Curzon

“Though ironically the film is a story told by a man, it’s still very faithful to the idea that the women are appropriating a very male pornographic tradition to find their own way of exploring their desires.” Sarah Waters, author The Fingersmith (2002)

In 2016 Park Chan-Wook released his take on the genre with his adaption of the novel The Fingersmith written by Sarah Waters and transports the story of a conman, a thief, an heiress and a pornographer from Victorian England to 1930’s Korea, which was then under Japanese rule. 

It’s easy to read this film as a simple feminist tale of sexual liberation away from the dominance of men with the two leads Sook-Hee (Kim-Tae-ri) and Hideko (Kim Min-hee) becoming lovers. However, it’s absorbing labyrinthine plot which is used to explore the overlapping intricacies of the oppression of class, colonialism and the patriarchy, make the explicit sex scenes feminist acts of defiance but that are anti-classist and anti-colonial. 

Y Tu Mamá También (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001) Filmbank Media

Often found in lists of sexiest films of all time, Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También, follows two teenage boys, Tenoch and Julio (Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal ), one working class and the other upper middle class as they embark on a road trip with a married older woman, Luisa (Maribel Verdu).

What stops this from becoming a gross, leery male fantasy, firstly, is how non judgemental and tender the storytelling is and secondly, how these two clueless lads are always the butt of the joke. Luisa laughs at them, sees through their surface level male bravado and holds all the power in this relationship while never inflicting them with any sense of guilt or shame at their most base thoughts. However, through all the fart and masturbation jokes Y Tu Mamá También also explores Mexico itself experiencing a period of change, as well as its political history and future, mortality in a country plagued by violence, Latino machismo and Class. 

Each of these titles offer something refreshing and unique in their approach to representing sex and sexuality on screen; to portray personal growth, to portray tension, to explore sociological and philosophical ideas about relationships, to name a few. Consider them just a starting point in a much larger conversation. 

Further Viewing: 

  • Romance (Catherine Breillat, 1999)
  • Fat Girl! (Catherine Breillat, 2001)
  • Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987)
  • Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)
  • She’s Gotta Have It (Spike Lee, 1986)
  • Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (Pedro Almodóvar, 1989)
  • Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagino, 2018)
  • Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
  • The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001)
  • The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)
  • In the Cut (Jane Campion, 2003)
  • God’s Own Country (Frances Lee, 2018)
  • XXY (Lucía Puenco, 2008)
  • Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)
  • Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996)
  • If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, 2018)

Impact Areas

Focus Areas