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Sex and Nudity in Film: The Fine Line Between Provocation and Functionality

Posted on Thursday August 31, 2017
Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) in Basic Instinct (1992).

When I was thirteen years old, I saw Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992) for the first time. I remember being excited. This film was somewhat controversial because of its erotic content, especially the famous leg-crossing scene with Sharon Stone. What I didn’t know at the time, was that Basic Instinct was strongly influenced by the film noir genre and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. I really liked the nudity and sex scenes but I liked the film as a whole even more. Later on, I became a huge fan of both noir and Hitchcock.

Sex and Nudity as a Cinematic Marketing Scheme

Sex sells, so they say. This definitely holds for cinema. Celebrity nudity and sex scenes seem to attract certain viewers to film. Of course, in some cases the nudity can be the artistic content, but the existence of websites like Mr Skin, which keeps track of all the nude scenes of actresses, indicates that the appearance of nude celebrities can sell a film.

Basic Instinct became notorious for its nudity and sexual content. Somehow you could say that the film was marketed by this. A lot of male teenagers in the 90s would watch this film. The reason obviously being the sex but a lot of viewers, like me, ended up seeing a great film. A film where the erotic nature and sexual tension added to the suspense and were a crucial part of the story. The film really instigated my love for classic noir and great Hitchcock films like Vertigo (1958) and Rear Window (1954). Films that don’t contain nudity at all. Would they have been better with nudity or sexual content? As some of these films are perfect it would be hard to make them even better with nudity. They could have been even more exciting perhaps. You could say that a film like Basic Instinct, or other later neo-noirs like Body Heat (1981), gave noir-fans a modern update where sex was a more explicit part of the genre. These films are not necessarily better than classic noir and mystery films.

Unfortunately, there are, unlike Basic Instinct, quite a number of films that are famous for their nude stars and are not that good. In some cases, even very bad. Basic Instinct’s sequel is a painful example of this. Films like Piranha 3D (2010), almost every American Pie movie, 80s comedies and slasher films, Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004), Swordfish (2001), Killing Me Softly (2002), and Original Sin (2001) only have high ratings at websites like Mr Skin and would have been long forgotten if it wasn’t for their naked celebrities. Hardly anyone talks positively about these films from any other point of view, let alone artistic.

Nudity as a Functional Part of the Art Form and Narrative

La Vie d’Adèle (2013)

From the late 60s until now there also have been quite a number of films that became well-known for their sexual content and are also critically acclaimed and good from an artistic point of view. Films like Last Tango in Paris (1972), Boogie Nights (1997), or Eyes Wide Shut (1999) are just a few examples. In most of these cases, sex is a very important part of the narrative.

A film that accounted for some controversy a couple of years ago was Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Vie d’Adèle (2013). A film where sex is a very effective and functional part of the story. After this film won the Palme d’Or in Cannes, the internet exploded and it became notorious because of its explicit sex scenes. Something which this film is best known for, unfortunately. What should be mentioned about this film is how the sex scenes are functional and the film is a great universal story about love and attraction. The explicit and somewhat extensive scenes are there to tell you something about the sexual development of the titular character and more importantly, make you understand the level of attraction between Adèle and her lover played by Lea Seydoux. A film like this could never have been made in times where nudity was prohibited in film.

As a critical viewer though I would say that the art film doesn’t necessarily give a carte blanche for portraying sex and nudity. Some great films still sometimes seem to show nudity and sex in a rather gratuitous manner. A film like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) doesn’t necessarily have to show Kirsten Dunst naked to make us realize how emotionally hard a depression can be. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) also has one or two scenes where you could ask what the added value of the portrayed nudity really is. Luckily these scenes don’t ruin the films but you could wonder if it doesn’t distract from what the film really wants to say. Or is this part of some sort of marketing strategy? I wouldn’t be surprised if Lars von Trier purposely put a naked Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia because he knew that it would pick up a broader audience and as a provocation. If nudity can sell a good art film, why not show it? For me this sometimes feels problematic. A good film shouldn’t need nudity or sex unless it really serves the story or message it wants to. In other words, it should be functional. But can there be a line drawn on this topic?

Obviously, it’s hard to draw a line when it comes to artistic freedom. Perhaps some of the gratuitous nudity that I’ve pointed out is simply misunderstood by me and does serve a purpose. Personally, I have mixed feelings on the topic. I find it distracting to be lured into watching a well-known film to discover that the whole fuss was simply there because of a nude appearance. On the other hand, I don’t mind nudity as I still find it appealing just like it did when I saw Basic Instinct for the first time. The only difference being that I was more excited to see nudity in a film when I was younger and I didn’t care as much about the overall quality of a film as I do now. All in all, I would like to give the benefit of the doubt to artistic filmmakers like Kechiche who turn it into genuine art. The fact that his commercial counterparts use it for marketing purposes is something I can live with, as long as it results in a beautiful (art) film every now and then.

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