How Sex Scenes are the Mirrors into the Dark Soul of the Film Industry

by Antonia Louisa Georgiou / October 19, 2017

Photo: a still from the 1897 film Peeping Tom

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When we watch films as a form of entertainment, we rarely consider that the violence we witness on screen could reflect a harrowing off-screen reality. 1153 words / 5 min read

When we watch films as a form of entertainment, we rarely consider that the violence we witness on screen could reflect a harrowing off-screen reality. Writing in The Guardian last week, French actor Léa Seydoux revealed that she was one of the many victims of Harvey Weinstein’s unwanted advances. But Seydoux’s article reminds us that the subjugation of women in the film industry is not confined to what goes on behind the screen: she also mentions two other instances of exploitation at the hands of men in the film industry. In the first, she recalls a director, whom she “really liked and respected”, telling her “I wish I could fuck you”. In the second, she denounces a director who filmed long sex scenes which lasted for days, bordering on the torturous. Whoever the man in question may be, Seydoux had previously criticised her Blue is the Warmest Colour director Abdellatif Kechiche at the film’s initial release in 2013. Describing a “horrible” filmmaking experience in which filming sex scenes lasted for ten days, Seydoux said that Kechiche made her feel like a “prostitute”.

As we lament the insidious aggression committed by men like Weinstein, we must also acknowledge that much of it occurs before our very eyes. Exploitation on screen reflects the exploitation and coercion that occurs off-screen. The ways in which the industry demeans women do not begin and end with the horrors of the casting couch. Misogyny manifests in infinite subtle ways, all of which usually go unrecognised by the average viewer. In an industry where men claim ownership of women’s bodies, it is through sex scenes that directors can wield their power and sense of entitlement. Take Blue is the Warmest Colour. It’s interesting that much of the criticism directed at the film’s sex scenes were centred on the positions of sex. For the heteronormative, it is comical to imagine lesbian sex in any way other than “woman goes down on woman”. But the positions are not the issue, and are in fact the sole positive aspect of these scenes (yes, there are different ways for lesbians to have sex). The problem is with the phallocentric lens of scopophilia through which the sex is depicted. Scopophilia is the act of deriving pleasure from observing people in sexual or nude (essentially vulnerable and exposed) states, which in turn leads to the observer having mastery over the object of the gaze.

When Kechiche films the actors having sex in Blue is the Warmest Colour, he is affirming his male domination over them. The camera lingers over the actors’ writhing curves, bodies without faces, synthetic sweat strategically placed to enhance the stylistic pornification. Rarely do we see the women’s reactions to what is happening to their bodies: occasionally we get a glimpse of their faces, lasting mere seconds before the camera returns to where Kechiche wants it to be – to the sum of their parts. As voyeurs, we must behold the object of the male gaze. The female protagonists are not allowed to reciprocate the gaze, which is exclusively male. When a woman becomes an object, and not a subject, she cannot reciprocate. The viewer is implicated in the gaze, complicit in the protagonists’ discomfort. Accordingly, female viewers must engage with the film as if they were men. In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey explains that “the man controls the film phantasy and also emerges as the representative of power in a further sense: as the bearer of the look of the spectator, transferring it behind the screen to neutralise the extradiegetic tendencies represented by woman as spectacle.”

In retaliation to her criticism of the sex scenes, Kechiche branded Léa Seydoux an “arrogant, spoiled child”. The intention of Kechiche’s response is to make Seydoux feel powerless – not just through exploitative sex scenes, but through demeaning paternalistic language that reduces her concerns to nothing more than the utterances of a spoilt child (“spoilt” implying that she doesn’t realise how lucky she is to have been humiliated and exploited). Having also watched Kechiche’s 2007 film The Secret of the Grain (also known as Couscous), it is evident that he has a penchant for filming the sexual humiliation of women. A mere three minutes into the film, a man pulls up a woman’s dress, exposes her buttocks, and repeatedly spanks her in an aggressive manner, a scene which serves the narrative in no conceivable way. Far too many male film directors use coercive methods to push women into doing things that make them feel uncomfortable under the guise of “art”.

In a phallocentric industry, there is no place for female pleasure. Capitalistic modes of mainstream film production mean that the female body is a commodity used to propagate misogynistic fantasies. The “female pleasure” we witness on screen is not the pleasure of women, but the pleasure of men in observing women. By contrast, when Lana (Chloë Sevigny) and Brandon (Hilary Swank) have their first sexual encounter in the Kimberley Pierce-directed Boys Don’t Cry (1999), there are no titillating shots of sweaty, writhing limbs or lacy underwear sliding down perfectly tanned legs; rather, the camera is fixated on Lana’s face, growing increasingly ecstatic, as Brandon brings her to orgasm. Pierce feels through herself and projects it onto her female subject: by putting women behind the camera, it enables the representation of female pleasure in ways that are not mediated through the male gaze.

For male film makers, psychologically penetrating the mind and will of a woman is yet another form of violation. In the notorious 1959 film Peeping Tom, the camera is depicted as a symbolic extension of the phallus whose ultimate goal is to destroy its female objects. This shows how the male gaze is an inherently violent one, as scopophilic exploitation not only robs women of their sexual identity, but of their humanity. After so much exploitation and abuse, women need to take back power and reclaim their bodies. Recently, film director Sarah Polley, herself once the object of Weinstein’s lewd advances, explained how being a woman behind the camera meant she could film women without reducing them to sexual objects: “I could decide what I felt was important to say, how to film a woman, without her sexuality being a central focus without context.” Polley’s working conditions are the way forward: a symbiotic relationship whereby both actor and director can feel empowered, working towards the shared goal of completing the film. Film making should not be a dichotomy of masculine vs feminine power play, of male activity vs female inactivity. With more women opening up about abuses of power and rejecting the conditions they have had to endure in the past, they can make exploitation both on and off screen a relic of patriarchal domination. It is every actor’s right to be treated with dignity and respect, as opposed to being reduced to slabs of meat solely for the male gaze.


Antonia Louisa Georgiou