clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

It was a great year for movie sex scenes, despite the discourse

In Poor Things, Oppenheimer, Passages, and more, sex on screen drove the plot.

A woman sits on the edge of a bed with a sleeping man in it.
Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) after a romp with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo).
Searchlight Pictures
Esther Zuckerman is a culture writer who has been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, GQ, and Vanity Fair. She is the author of two books, A Field Guide to Internet Boyfriends and Beyond the Best Dressed, with a third on the way.

Earlier this year a TikToker posted a video explaining how she and her husband “prepared” themselves for the sex scenes in Oppenheimer featuring Cillian Murphy and Florence Pugh. The influencer described how her husband would close his eyes every time there was nudity or intercourse onscreen and she would tell him when it was over. “It literally, I will tell you what right now, took nothing away from the story,” she says to the camera.

An account on X posted the video with the comment, “this actually makes me feel like i’m losing my mind.” But this one clip also felt indicative of a larger trend: a growing resistance to the notion of sex in film. For the past year, it has felt like every couple of months someone tweets (or whatever we want to call that action now) a declaration that sex scenes are Bad and Unnecessary. This is followed usually by a round of people dunking on said tweet until it quiets down enough for someone else to have the same thought, and thus the cycle continues. But it’s not just anecdotal. There is actually data to back up the sensation that Gen Z is resistant to seeing sex depicted. A study from UCLA recently revealed that 47.5 percent of 13- to 24-year-olds surveyed said they didn’t think sex was necessary in movies and TV shows.

God forbid any of these people see Poor Things: the new film from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, which stars Emma Stone as Bella Baxter, a woman made anew from the dead body of a suicide victim and the brain of her unborn child. As Bella’s mind develops so does her libido, which is unearthed after she gleefully happens upon masturbation leading her down her adventure of sexual discovery. Her understanding of her own mind and the world around her corresponds with her experimentations in pleasure.

But this isn’t the only film that has used sex in crucial ways this year. In fact, with Poor Things leading the charge, this has been one of the best years in recent memory for meaningful sex scenes that are revelatory and relevant, as well as sensual. These movies all act as a counter to the notion that you can or should just close your eyes if two people are getting it on during the plot.

Why the sex in Poor Things is so good

In Poor Things sex is everything. It is often very funny, but more importantly, it’s the way in which Bella becomes a full person rather than simply a creation. The film, based on the 1992 novel of the same name by the late Scottish novelist Alasdair Gray, opens in black and white as Bella, newly brought to life, is living in the home of surgeon Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe).

Godwin, called God, is possessive of Bella as he means to study her, but also kindly, in a way, toward her. Yet as soon as she figures out how to make herself orgasm she develops a power he cannot control. Stimulating herself with an apple she realizes she can make herself “happy when want.” Sex is immediately framed as a path to joy. Godwin himself has been experimented on by his late father, and his flesh is a prison for him. He cannot eat without being hooked up to a machine that turns his gaseous eruptions into bubbles. As soon as Bella becomes a sexual being, however, she is free.

She runs off with a toff of a lawyer, the hilariously named Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who promises to show her the world and indulge her impulses. But it turns out her voracity for sex — a routine she calls “furious jumping” — is even too much for this ladies’ man. Stone performs these lustful scenes with Ruffalo with a deliriously amusing looseness. We can almost see Bella’s new brain churning as she bounces on top of Duncan: She’s thrilling herself, but she’s also calculating her likes and dislikes.

But, sex, like everything, is not all euphoria. She realizes Duncan cannot satisfy her needs, and he, in turn, becomes jealous and controlling, forcing her aboard a ship where she cannot escape him. After learning onboard about both philosophy and poverty, she gives Duncan’s gambling winnings away and gets them kicked off the ship.

Marooned in Paris, she decides to earn her living through sex work and is quick to discover the strange and depressing side of carnality. And yet Bella is never fully disillusioned. It’s all an experiment for her. Sex is capital, and she’s learning about capitalism, socialism, and her intellectual wants.

When she finally returns to God, she is not ashamed of her sex work, and perhaps less insatiably horny but still proud of her needs. In the climactic moment, she faces off against the man who was her body’s husband in her former life (Christopher Abbott), a violent military general who wishes to remove her clitoris so she will become docile. She refuses and gives him a goat brain, becoming the mad scientist herself.

Poor Things is about a person who, initially, has a physical form and brain that are alien to one another. Sex allows her mind and body to meet. It’s through sex that she can understand the peculiarity of her species, and herself as well.

2023 in (other) sex scenes

In Poor Things, sex is an act of searching for self. In other films this year, it can be an act of pure connection, or an act of manipulation, or an act shot through with horror or foreboding. The indie Passages, directed by Ira Sachs and released over the summer, uses sex as a tool of its messy protagonist, Tomas (Franz Rogowski), a gay man with a husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw), who begins an affair with a female schoolteacher, Agathe (Adéle Exarchopoulos).

Tomas is a person who acts totally on impulse, and when he sleeps with Agathe for the first time, it’s invigorating in a way he didn’t expect. Agathe, meanwhile, is entranced by him — someone who is so at home in his skin, and his cute little crop tops, that he wields it like power over other people, including Martin, who, despite his anger, continues to be drawn into Tomas’s orbit. Sex in Passages is both exciting and dangerous for these people, and necessary to understand how someone like Tomas — so reckless in the way in which he toys with others’ emotions — holds such sway over their lives.

On the contrary, the sex in All of Us Strangers, the new film from Andrew Haigh, is overtly tender even at its most explicit. Andrew Scott plays Adam, a writer who starts up a relationship with Harry (Paul Mescal), another lonely man in his London tower flat. All the while Adam is experiencing a ghostly occurrence: When he returns to his childhood home for research he finds his parents, who died in a car crash in the 1980s, living as if no time has passed. With his parents, he must confront the closeted part of himself; with his new lover, he is liberated. Even as All of Us Strangers deals with the transcendental, the sex is rooted in the corporeal with all of its exchange of fluids. It feels real to us because it feels real to Adam. That’s what matters.

Sex this year has been absurd and nightmarish, getting at the particularly carnal fears, threats, and humiliations that make up human life: Like the moment between Joaquin Phoenix and Parker Posey in Beau Is Afraid or any number of scenes in Emerald Fennell’s often ridiculous Saltburn, including the period oral sex that indicates the bloodlust of Barry Keoghan’s striver protagonist. It has also been used to try to illuminate the personal lives of various historical figures. In Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, Phoenix’s inept thrusting represents his insecurity. Or there’s Oppenheimer.

The TikToker who went is an anti-porn, which she calls “corn,” activist, but regardless of that context, her idea that the sex is totally irrelevant to the rest of the film is crazy-making from a critic’s perspective. Of course, there is a point to the sex scenes in Oppenheimer. Director Christopher Nolan uses them to show his protagonist’s hubris, hubris that will lead to the creation of a weapon that haunts society. J. Robert Oppenheimer is in the middle of his tryst with psychiatrist Jean Tatlock when he recites the words from the Bhagavad Gita that will become his grim catchphrase: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” Tatlock will eventually become canon fodder in his ascendancy toward greatness.

In all of these movies — absolutely including Oppenheimer — the sex feels earned. It might be over the top (as it is in Poor Things) but it is utterly crucial to understanding how people move in their environments. It is completely and utterly human, a way of unpacking how these characters treat others and themselves. To remove it would be to exorcise some of the soul of these films. Look away if you dare.

Poor Things is playing in theaters now.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.