No quality sex please, we're British

It's meant to be a pleasure. Please, says Jane Campbell, will someone tell our film-makers?
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The Independent Culture

In all the furore surrounding the depiction of oral sex on screen, there is one thing which seems to have been overlooked. The controversy about Intimacy, based on stories by Hanif Kureishi, is that, in fact, it is not controversial at all. Far from breaking taboos, it sticks resolutely to that time-honoured British celluloid tradition of depicting grim sex in squalid surroundings.

Look back over the past few decades and you will note that British cinema went straight from repression (Brief Encounter) and sublimation (see Hitchcock's ejaculation surrogates: smoke stacks puffing and champagne bottles overflowing at opportune moments) to joyless sex with miserable consequences (Alfie).

Since then we have had seedy middle-aged men huffing away on top of adolescent girls in Wish You Were Here and in Rita, Sue and Bob Too. We have been turned off by David Thewlis's misogynistic rutting in Naked and Gina McKee's alienating one-night-stand in Wonderland.

It could be argued that the Carry On and Confessions series of films are not depressing, but this would be to ignore the fact that on the basis of these movies, we are eternally fixated on breasts. This argument assumes that a world inhabited by horny wives, randy Jack-the-lads and cuckolded husbands, where everyone speaks in double entendres, might be a pleasant place to live.

That other great British institution – historical sex – is not especially depressing, but nor is it really sex; rather, it is Romping. This is usually done by males with a haunch of venison in one hand and a tankard in the other, and by females in one of those dangerous dresses from which breasts look set to tumble.

The grimness of our movie sex contrasts especially starkly with American film sex, which, like their teeth, is implausibly gorgeous. You have to laugh, because it's so obviously fake. The template for mainstream American sex is Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster snogging in the surf in From Here to Eternity. There is no sense of how uncomfortable what they are doing would be, and no hint of any practical difficulties. No suggestion whatsoever, in fact, of sand in your bikini bottoms.

American sex invariably occurs between extremely attractive individuals. That they look good is not surprising – a regular day's workout for an American film star is not dissimilar to an athlete's training regime for the Olympics. But it does mean that it's impossible to identify with what might as well be blow-up dolls. One cannot imagine Kim, Demi or Sharon having the imprint of a candlewick bedspread on their back, as Kerry Fox does in Intimacy.

It is instructive to compare the treatment of similar themes in US and British films. When it comes to triangular relationships, they have Indecent Proposal; we have Rita, Sue and Bob Too.

While the former has Robert Redford offering $1m to spend the night with Demi Moore, the latter has a seedy middle-aged man asking his teenaged paramours if they "fancy a jump". Redford showers Demi with gifts and takes her to exotic locations; Bob reclines the front seat of his knackered Rover. In fact the only similarity between the two is that both could have been called Two Losers and a Sleazebag.

Sexual play with food is another example. Jane Horrocks being smeared with chocolate in Life Is Sweet looks a messy business, while Kim Basinger trembling while Mickey Rourke drips honey on to her tongue looks inviting. She could be one of those girls you see on billboards advertising choc ices (apart from the fact that she is wearing a blindfold).

Prostitution in Mona Lisa looks every bit as unpleasant as it is (middle-aged men huffing away on top of etc etc), while Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman manages to be a prostitute who doesn't actually have sex with anyone.

Oddly enough, it is possible that the treatment of sex in British and American films springs in both cases from puritanism. In the States, the fact that sex takes place only between physically alluring and impeccably hygienic individuals means that your average smelly and saggy member of the public is discouraged from thinking that he or she might have a go at it. It is a sport of the gods, not something mere mortals can aspire to. In this country, on the other hand, we portray sex as being even more absurd, undignified and likely to end in disappointment than it is in real life – just in case anyone might get the idea that it could be fun.

We'd be better off if we were French. The sex in their movies takes place between people who might be a little better groomed than we are, but still look as though their DNA is human, not Barbie doll. And they are very matter of fact about it. Their censors have always been so keen on excising references to the Algerian war and police brutality that they simply haven't bothered about sex, and this carelessness permeates their cinema. So casual are they that the actors don't even seem to notice that they are naked half the time (Betty Blue) and sometimes a character will change sexual partners with so little fuss that no one even bothers to mention it (Le Goût des Autres).

That said, hybrid sex (French director and female lead, British setting and protagonist) of the sort that occurs in Damage is, frankly, bizarre. Passion is invoked in all the classic ways (tearing of clothing, clearing surfaces of ornaments), plus slightly less usual ones; as when Jeremy Irons bangs Juliette Binoche's head on the floor during sex, or hurls her around the place. She, in her unfathomable Gallic way, finds this highly acceptable, but it leaves the audience simply baffled.

Spanish film sex is bonkers, but then, after 40 years of Franco what would you do? Probably exactly what Pedro Almodovar and Bigas Luna do and make sex a riotous affair involving bondage (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!), transvestites and pregnant nuns (All About My Mother), and Penélope Cruz with nipples that taste of ham (Jamon, Jamon). We can however, be grateful that we are not Japanese since their cinema – from Ai No Corrida to Audition – suggests that sex, while exciting, is all too likely to end in castration or death.

But all is not doom and gloom. It is possible that grim British film sex could be used to stem the rise in teen pregnancies. My own sexual development was, if not arrested, then certainly put on hold by a Ken Russell season on BBC2 when I was at an impressionable age. The sight of Glenda Jackson thrashing around in a frenzy in The Music Lovers, and of Oliver Reed and Alan Bates wrestling in the nude in Women in Love, made me determined to steer clear of the whole business for as long as possible.

Let's keep our children away from any trash that suggests sex is a beautiful, mutually satisfying thing, and institute compulsory screenings of films in which grey-skinned participants have joyless encounters involving marmalade and spanking. It'd do more to encourage virginity than Britney Spears ever has.

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