“Sex and death,” William Butler Yeats once wrote, “are the only things that can interest a serious mind.” And since its inception, the cinema has held a unique fascination with human sexuality.
In 1899, just four years after the Lumière brothers hosted their first private screening of moving black-and-white images—or motion pictures—French filmmakers Albert Kirchner and Eugène Pirou birthed Le Coucher de la Mariée. The film, silent and seven minutes in length, featured cabaret star Louise Willy performing a sultry striptease. Kirchner and Pirou’s short is widely regarded as the first pornographic film ever made.
It wasn’t until Un chant d’amour, a short film directed by Jean Genet and released in 1950, that unsimulated sex crept into “mainstream” cinema. The 26-minute film, featuring cinematography by Jean Cocteau, told the tale of a guard in a French prison that derived pleasure from watching the inmates masturbate. Genet’s groundbreaking black and white film boasted close-up shots of male masturbation. Following the abandonment of the Hays Code, a strict set of moral censorship guidelines that governed Hollywood from 1930 to 1968, sex became more prevalent in cinema.
Lars von Trier’s 1998 film Idioterne, which contained a close-up shot of penetrative (vaginal) sex ushered in an era of unsimulated sex in movies, which included Catherine Breillat’s Romance, Leos Carax’s Pola X, Chloe Sevigny’s oral sex scene on Vincent Gallo in The Brown Bunny, and Michael Winterbottom’s music-and-sex flick 9 Songs.
The Danish provocateur’s latest is Nymphomaniac: Vol. I. It’s the first in a two-part saga centered on Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the titular sex addict, who traces her erotic journey from birth to the middle age. The risqué psychosexual odyssey also contains what appear to be unsimulated sex scenes between a twenty-something Joe (Stacy Martin), and her one-time lover, played by Shia LaBeouf.
How did von Trier’s team pull it off? And how have cinema’s most realistic-looking sex scenes been created? Let’s take a look.
NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL. I (2014)
In the climactic scene of von Trier’s sexually explicit film, the audience is treated to close-up shots of LaBeouf penetrating Martin. The scene is shot from below while LaBeouf is standing and Martin is straddling him, so you see his shaft repeatedly entering her—with the troubled actor’s face appearing in the leftover space.
“We shot the actors pretending to have sex and then had the body doubles, who really did have sex, and in post we will digital-impose the two,” producer Christine Vesth explained. “So above the waist it will be the star and below the waist it will be the doubles.”
The CGI-matching was such a painstaking process that it delayed the film’s production, which wasn’t ready for Cannes.
“Because of the special effects, they needed the porn doubles to do it first,” said Martin. “So they would have sex—they would do their job, basically, because I think they’re porn actors in Germany—and then we would come on and do exactly the same thing, but with pants on, basically. And then it’s all [edited in] post.”
There’s also a very real-looking blowjob scene in the film, with Martin orally servicing a train passenger, but the Nymphomaniac team used a prosthetic, according to Martin.
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (2013)
Filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche’s three-hour epic, based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, tells the story of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), an awkward (but beautiful) 15-year-old girl who, after a failed fling with a male classmate, finds herself falling for Emma (Léa Seydoux), a blue-haired college student studying art. It’s as honest and raw a depiction of first love you’re likely to see onscreen, and contains a much-ballyhooed seven-minute sex scene between the two young women that looks awfully real—a mélange of writhing, grunting and slapping, as well as what appears to be manual and oral vaginal penetration.
“We had fake pussies that were molds of our real pussies,” Seydoux told me. “It was weird to have a fake mold of your pussy and then put it over your real one. We spent 10 days on just that one scene. It wasn’t like, OK, today we’re going to shoot the sex scene! It was 10 days.”
“One day you know that you’re going to be naked all day and doing different sexual positions, and it’s hard because I’m not that familiar with lesbian sex,” added Exarchopoulos.
It’s one of the most notorious—and disturbing—sequences in modern cinema. In Gaspar Noe’s French rape-revenge thriller, told in reverse-chronological order, Alex (Monica Bellucci) has become frustrated by the antics of her boyfriend, Marcus (Vincent Cassel), and leaves a party. On her way home, she sees a pimp named “le Tenia” beating a transgender prostitute. He turns his attention to Alex, follows her into an underpass, pins her to the ground, and brutally beats and anally rapes her.
One of the reasons why it’s so chilling—and caused a string of walk-outs—is that the scene appears to be shot in a continuous take, making it seem all too real. After le Tenia is done raping and beating Alex, you see him removing his penis and putting it back in his pants. But the “continuous take” effect was achieved by joining two of the takes via editing. Noe shot seven different versions of the scene uninterrupted, and ended up with a “virtual take”—combining the first half of take 7 and the second half of take 4.
“It’s not real,” said Bellucci. “It looks like a snuff film because Gaspar shot it in such a realistic way, so people get very upset when they see it. But it’s just acting…You know that nice dress I wore? We had 10 of them because they get destroyed during the rape. So I asked for one for me when we finished. I thought that maybe one night I would wear it because it’s so pretty. But after the scene, I couldn’t touch it. I couldn’t even look at it.”
The scene’s realism was further enhanced by digital clean-up and CGI effects, including adding blood and gashes to Bellucci’s face, as well as attaching a detumescent penis to the rapist as he rolls off her.
“We kept the zip up while we were filming the rape scene because otherwise it would have been too much for Monica,” said Noe. “But I [digitally altered] the scene in postproduction to make it more real.’”
MONSTER’S BALL (2001)
Arguably the most memorable part of Swede Marc Forster’s race relations drama is the feral, cathartic sex scene between Leticia (Halle Berry), a single mother whose husband was executed on death row, and Hank (Billy Bob Thornton), the racist corrections officer that led the man to the electric chair. Angela Bassett was reportedly offered the role but turned it down because of the sex scene, which is very raw, and sees Berry’s character—butt naked—riding Thornton’s while screaming, “Make me feel good!”
But the scene, which shows both actors stark naked and appearing to have sex, was merely the result of excellent acting.
“I would only do it if Billy Bob agreed to be as naked as I was,” said Berry. “We shot the sex scene on Day 19 of a 21-day shoot. I always say Billy Bob and I dated for three weeks and then we had sex. The sex scene scared me completely, but courage comes in strange ways. I look at it now and I think, who is that girl up there?”
“Halle said, ‘Either you tell me every angle of the shoot’—which would make it very stiff—‘or you just give me final cut over the scene,’” added Forster. “I said that was fine. It was better because they didn’t have to worry about it and so we had more freedom. We shot the scene and then three of us went through the dailies. Basically it was decided from there what they wanted to cut or keep. When they saw the final scene, they were both very happy with it.”
Berry went on to win the Best Actress Oscar for her uninhibited performance, while Thornton later claimed the realistic nature of the sex scene contributed to the demise of his relationship with then-girlfriend Angelina Jolie.
Now regarded as one of the worst films ever made, this biopic tracing the rise and fall of the titular Roman Emperor, played by Malcolm McDowell, contained a great deal of nudity from its stars—including Helen Mirren as his ex-courtesan/wife, Caesonia. But Penthouse founder Bob Guccione’s $17 million epic, scripted by Gore Vidal and (mostly) directed by Tinto Brass, contains a laundry list of unsimulated sex scenes featuring Penthouse Pets, including fisting, fellatio, urination, and penetration.
After Guccione fired Brass, he hired Giancarlo Lui to film an addition 14 minutes of hardcore sex scenes featuring his beloved Penthouse models, editing six of those minutes into the final cut.
“In the two hours of this film that I saw, there were no scenes of joy, natural pleasure, or good sensual cheer,” wrote the late, great film critic Roger Ebert. “There was, instead, a nauseating excursion into base and sad fantasies.” Caligula is one of only three films that Ebert ever walked out of.
DON’T LOOK NOW (1973)
Forster used the sex scenes in the films of acclaimed British director Nicolas Roeg as a model for his big scene in Monster’s Ball. The most famous—and notorious—of which is in his 1973 classic Don’t Look Now.
After the accidental drowning death of their young child, John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) take a trip to Venice, Italy. While Laura is out at a restaurant, Heather, a blind woman who claims to be a medium that’s able to communicate with her deceased daughter, approaches. Laura faints, and is taken to the hospital. Upon her return, John and Laura engage in passionate sex—a four-minute sequence that, for years, was claimed to be real thanks to the actors convincing performances.
In Peter Bart’s tome Infamous Players: A Tale of Movies, the Mob, (and Sex), Bart, then a young Paramount exec, claims he visited the Venice set of the film on an “auspicious” day—the day they shot the sex scene. Bart claims he had the following conversation with Roeg:
Bart: Don’t they expect you to say “cut?”
Roeg: I just want to be sure I have the coverage.
Bart: His dick is moving in and out of her. That’s beyond coverage.
The actors, however, claim it was just great acting.
“Peter Bart mendaciously writes that he witnessed the shooting of the love scene in Don’t Look Now and saw sex,” claimed Sutherland. “Not true. None of it. Not the sex. Not him witnessing it. From beginning to end, there were four people in that room. [Director] Nic Roeg, [DP] Tony Richmond, Julie Christie and me. No one else. Wires under the locked door led outside, and this was 20 years before video monitors.”
“It was pretend sex, (but) it was tough on both Donald and myself,” added Christie. We did the scene at the beginning of the film and we were dreadfully embarrassed. After the film came out, my stepfather said to me, ‘I hope you’re not doing any writhing in your next one.’”