The transgression of sexual taboos has played a significant part in the history of cinema. It’s partly a response to the Hays Code, the American restriction on perceived immorality that held it back from viewers; and various other countries saw such censorship throughout the 20th century. It’s also the case that sex on film is naturally more of a draw than on paper, the graphic nature making the busting of taboos more significant. There are, however, some taboos perhaps that need to be tackled more than others, and the history of film leaves in doubt the motivations of those bringing nudity to viewers. A question that so many works raise is: where’s the line between exploitation and liberation? And why do taboos need to broken?
Concerns around exploitation certainly are raised by the male gaze seen in sex-driven works that appeared post-Hays, the lingering and regular shots of women’s bodies making moral judgement difficult. A work like 1973’s Immoral Tales seems to narratively be centered around the depravity of men, with some genuinely unsettling examples of feverish, callous abuse; yet the constant display of breasts, the thin potting, and a dearth of dialogue leaves it feeling on the verge of the pornographic. That meaning is suggested but not forefronted leaves the viewer to interpret their way through what might seem like intentionally ambiguous stories.
Perhaps an improvement upon this approach is the one taken by Successive Slidings of Pleasure, released a year later but having a much more explicitly self-aware nature. It’s a story about a woman accused of murder of her female lover, and is interrogated whilst being held in captivity by — as erotic cinema would have it – nuns. There’s a great mystery that unfolds as a tale is spun around the truth of the circumstances and the woman’s past that become increasingly vague; this intelligent constructed confusion could almost seem like the character vieling their truth from a party of judgemental characters. It’s still hard, though, to justify the eroticism as purely humanitarian or an extension of art when there’s a male director.
Pasolini, perhaps, has a more mature approach than other directors from the period, mostly because he doesn’t address sex beyond the power it holds when used as metaphor. His 1968 classic Theorem is a pertinent example, reducing to metaphorical plot device the conventionally shocking situation of a stranger (Terence Stamp) having sex with everyone in a bourgeoisie family. There isn’t much to be alarm in that, there’s nothing graphic nor a sense of reality; this is a surreal study predominantly of the self-realisations and grapplings that occur subsequently. It, at least, recognises and respects the importance and power of the sexual act.
A much more controversial work is his later and last work Salo, released in 1975, and seen by some as obscene for its array of morally unacceptable, graphically depicted acts – but it is, as per the earlier film, all in service of a larger meaning. This story follows a group of young men and women kidnapped by Nazis and taken to perform a variety of degrading, disgusting acts, and these are acts that the Nazis participate in themselves. It’s a degradation tied to twisted freedom for the perpetrators; the freedom from the civilised morality they mock as they spout philosophical aphorisms and live amongst splendour.
Linking power and sex is something that’s been done impeccably in a comparable work, In the Realm of the Senses. Superficially the work explores sexual obsession, the protagonist a prostitute called Sada (Eiko Matsuda) who develops an all-consuming physical relationship with the master (Tatsuya Fuji) of the house she works for. From her lowly position, however, she uses sex to dominate the master and ultimately control the household – bringing his reputation down towards hers. Her journey seems like a quest to destroy someone akin to the characters of Salo, who would use a veneer of respectability to behave atrociously.
A film that should have a similar spirit is 2002 indie classic Secretary, a story about a woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal) employed by a lawyer (James Spader) who is drawn into a BDSM-driven working relationship. His actions aren’t driven by consent, there being no clear boundaries set, and even some active crossing of said boundaries. It is not a healthy, moral way to engage in sex especially given serious worries around workplace harassment; but rather than interrogate this or show the real consequences, most of these situations are played for humour or dramatic effect. It avoids fully advocating for this as the film is steered to tediously heteronormative territory, but seems to exemplify the at best inconclusive, at worst self-servingly weak ethical positions of male creators.
There are certainly lots of issues with male-directed cinema on this subject, especially as it’s in a constant dialogue with itself over its moral purpose. One of the best ways that men can explore issues of sexual liberation is to interrogate how patriarchal and class-based power are the oppressors even within this sphere, rather than to attempt to suggest a route forward for liberating women. Male ideas of women’s liberation seem tied up in male desires – and are perhaps even more oppressive in, intentionally or not, not just blocking but possessing and deciding on the nature of liberation itself. It’s a problem that still seems to hold on even with the passing of time.
Most of the best films about sexual liberation are LGBTQ+ films, perhaps because many of the creators are arguing for their own freedom, but also that there can be less of a negative gender-based power dynamic at play. Luca Guadagnino creates a wonderful inversion of the latter dynamic in Call Me By Your Name, a film with two young men who fall for each other. The male gaze lingers on men in this film, admiring the male form reverentially – but with the power imbalance gone and general cinematic beauty put in its stead the film becomes deeply romantic. It highlights, too, how central a concern gender in the ultimate impact of any portrayal of love.
An even more revolutionary busting of taboos is offered by Portrait of a Lady on Fire, an immensely sensitive film by Celine Scammia that is all about female desire – not just in showing that the truth but doing so from the perspective of a women’s eyes. Characters’ feelings are shared through changes in expression, from the mutual, gentle, steady burgeoning of romance; and sex is displayed not to focus on the mechanics but their shared affection. The taboos being broken here are multiple, and not just the taboo of lesbian sex but of showing female sexuality without conceit or ulterior motives.
It’s evident that it’s not just the subject but the intent of the creators that matters. Blue is the Warmest Colour is a well-known and critically acclaimed lesbian drama but has still had much criticism for the way it handled sex scenes. It is, naturally, the case that it was directed by a man, Abdellatif Kechiche, and the result has been a sex scene that the creator of the original novel suggested is fantastical and that even one of the stars, Lea Seydoux, explained to The Independent was at points “humiliating” to film. There might be merit in the film beyond this but there can be little value in representation or understanding through a scene so male gaze driven – and the film is somewhat sullied by that scene being central to conversation around it.
Much of the history of tackling sexual taboos has not been very progressive at all, and the focus on unrestrained on-screen nudity is at the heart of it; the restraint of nudity really being an issue that really is a by-product of bigger concerns. LGBTQ+ cinema has been boldest in tapping into those bigger concerns and resisting societal restrictions, presenting sex and love in a way that’s driven by an attempt to present honest emotional reality. Sexual taboos need to be broken for a healthier society, but one of the most important taboos to tackle, and that leads to the most vital work with its removal, is simply letting people tell their own stories.