From ‘Pink Flamingos’ to ‘Stranger by the Lake’, see a real history of sex on screen.
There have always been rumors about the 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice . Rumors that eventually became a myth: that one of the sex scenes in the film – in which Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange make out in the kitchen – was not faked. That the two actors simply had sex in front of the camera. Postman isn’t the only film to be talked about this way; the 1973 horror classic Don’t Look Now had a similar response, and the sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie became the subject of controversy.
Some mainstream films – which are not pornographic – have gone further than Postman and Don’t Look Now , and contain real, not simulated, sex. And with Bruce LaBruce ‘s new film from New Queer Cinema, The Visitor (a remake of Pasolini’s Theorem , which contains actual sex), now is the perfect time to look at the feature films that chose to go all out.
Pink Flamingos (1972)
John Walters’ work is the ideal starting point for any list of films that push the boundaries of good taste, something that Pink Flamingos, the director’s most infamous film, is filled to the brim with. Whether it’s Divine’s final act of eating dog shit, or the hard-to-watch sequence with the chicken, Pink Flamingos is full of things that shock precisely because they’re real.
And as if all that wasn’t enough, the film also contains unsimulated incestuous oral sex. Divine and Crackers are so turned on by the chaos they cause at their rivals’ house that mother and son end up taking their relationship to another level. Pink Flamingos will always live up to its own description: “An exercise in bad taste.”
In the Realm of the Senses (1976)
Worlds away from John Walters when it comes to ideas of good or bad taste, In the Realms of the Senses exists at the intersection of erotica and arthouse films. It tells the story of an affair between a sex worker who becomes a hotel maid and her employer.
With explicit sex and shocking moments of intimacy, the film was censored and banned upon release, and questions such as “Is it pornography?” – and all the baggage that question comes with – still lingers.
Time was kind to In the Realms of the Senses, though . From strong reviews to its release through The Criterion Collection—a distribution company that emphasizes important films, both classic and contemporary— Realm makes it clear that unsimulated sex isn’t just there to shock, and that even the most explicit films still have artistic relevance.
The Idiots (1998)
Lars Von Trier is no stranger to controversy these days , but his early work shows that the director has always been provocative, and the dark comedy The Idiots proves that there’s nothing he won’t do.
The Idiots was somehow made according to the rules of Dogme 95, a creative manifesto dreamed up by Von Trier and director Thomas Vinterberg. Dogme was a kind of radical minimalism, one that refused to indulge in special effects or post-production alterations. And it was through this framework that Von Trier built The Idiots , the story of adults trying to shed their inhibitions by releasing their “inner idiot.”
Controversial for more than its moments of unrequited sex, The Idiots also asks questions about what it means to represent disability on screen; questions that are more important than ever to answer now.
The Raspberry Reich (2004)
As sexually honest as it is politically furious, The Raspberry Reich shows you Bruce LaBruce at the height of his punk powers. Whether it’s montages of actors having sex or recitations from situationist theory books, the director interweaves intellectual culture with the modest.
After the kidnapping of an industrialist’s son, the personal and political connections of queer revolutionaries create a chaotic atmosphere that could hold the key to liberation. In Raspberry Reich , LaBruce asks the big questions, like, “Are you revolutionary enough to give up your girlfriend?”
But beyond the film’s satire and mayhem, LaBruce’s revolution still feels like a rallying cry for the queer community, giving him a chance to “come out of the closet and into the streets.”
The eponymous Shortbus from John Cameron Mitchell’s erotic comedy is a sex parlor where its eccentric members come to open themselves up to new experiences; from a couples counselor who can’t orgasm to a former sex worker who wants to open up about his relationship.
Mitchel has discussed at length the importance of unsimulated sex in Shortbus – and offers by way of comparison “people don’t ask if I could have done Hedwig (and the Angry Inch) without songs”.
Shortbus is a film about pleasure and connection, and sex works both as a narrative metaphor and as a way to understand the characters on a deeper level.
Before making the darkly humorous romantic comedy The Lobster, or the Oscar-winning anarchist The Favourite , Yorgos Lanthimos made a name for himself as a unique voice in Greek cinema. And 2009’s Dogtooth – nominated for an Oscar for Best International Film – shows just how well-honed his style was before crossing the Atlantic.
Dogtooth tells the story of an isolated family led by a brutal patriarch in stark detail. They live a dysfunctional life: words have different meanings, endurance games are the order of the day, and misbehavior is punished with violence.
In a similar way to how Shortbus uses real sex as a way to explore themes and characters in depth, the explicit stuff in Dogtooth becomes a way to show the kind of relationships that are born out of these levels of extreme isolation. Movies like Dogtooth make it clear that unsimulated sex is by no means shorthand for erotica or pornography.
Stranger by the Lake (2013)
This French film, full of echoes of directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, brings together a cocktail full of cruises, desire and death. Franck, a regular at a nudist beach , is immediately attracted to another man there – even after he sees another man drowning in the lake.
This crime mystery film is less about who the killer is and more about the powerful force of attraction; being attracted to someone because of—rather than in spite of—the threat they pose. The critically acclaimed Stranger is another example of how real sex meets artistic power.
L.A. Plays Itself (1972)
LA Plays Itself is different from all the other films on the list. While it, like the others, contains actual sex, it is the only one that explicitly falls into the category of pornography. But regardless of that label, Fred Halsted’s experimental film is as full of provocative art as the most mainstream.
This uncompromising 1972 film is in the permanent collection of New York’s MOMA and has recently been re-released by Vinegar Syndrome, a distributor of art films and important works in adult film history. Such treatments show how important it is not only to take the idea of non-simulated sex seriously in cinemas, but also adult films.