Sarah Churchwell: I'm sorry, but I don't like watching sex on the screen

Share

Ang Lee's new film Lust, Caution, which opens in Britain tomorrow, is being touted as "much-anticipated". There are three reasons for all this anticipation: it is Lee's follow-up to the equally hyped Brokeback Mountain, it won the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and it is, evidently, so graphically sexual that the Chinese government forced Lee to censor the film before it could be released there.

I share the anticipation for three different reasons. I am a long-time fan of Lee's work, although I was apostate about Brokeback Mountain, which seemed to me deeply implausible from the first sexual encounter (that said, I also know nothing about gay shepherd sex and thus am amenable to correction). I enjoy stories set in Shanghai, for personal and historical reasons. And I have always relished romantic thrillers, wartime espionage films and homages to them. Evidently, Lee peppers this film with tributes to some of the greatest, including the incomparable Notorious, one of the sexiest films ever made.

The one part of the film I am not looking forward to is what seems to bring everyone else through the door: the gratuitous sex. It is with some reluctance that I admit I don't particularly enjoy watching sex on film, because it makes me sound like a stereotypical Puritanical American and I detest playing to type, especially that type. I don't object to sex on screen for moral reasons on the contrary. As far as morality goes, film-makers have my cheerful permission to simulate people bonking away to their heart's content.

Nor is my objection political, although this does get trickier. I'm a bit a sceptical about easy assurances that sex on screen today is not exploitative; this seems a trifle glib. But as long as the actors aren't objecting, I'll give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt.

The truth is, I just don't want to look at it. I especially don't want to look at it when it's 10 meters high. I find sex absurd enough even when I'm actively engaged in, and enjoying, it; I don't think I ever quite recovered from the astonishment I first felt when, at the age of six, I was informed by 12-year-old Anthony from down the street of the anatomical facts of life. My response was pure scepticism: surely no one in their right mind would put that there! By amplifying the size of the genitals in question and my distance from them, sex on film simply intensifies this reaction. You want to put what where?

Film-makers have a number of tricks for dealing with the inherent comedy of watching other people have sex. The most obvious is to increase the violence; if it's scary, we will take it more seriously. Danger is not just titillating; it can also be aggrandising.

This has apparently been Lee's strategy in the case of Lust, Caution, in which the sex is evidently acrobatic, sado-masochistic, and grim. Apparently, these scenes were "difficult" to film. I'll bet. Lee has said in interviews that he found them exhausting, so just think how the actors must have felt. The crew doesn't seem to have enjoyed it, either; one crew member called filming these scenes "11 days of hell" and Lee suggested in an interview that the film itself is about hell: where Brokeback is about lost paradise, he explained, Lust, Caution is "down in the cave, a scary place. It's more like hell".

Scorching and perfervid as all that sounds, US reviewers have responded by finding the film's sex scenes "cold". And this is surely no coincidence. One does not have to feel lust in order to find a film erotic: but one does, presumably, have to feel desire. It is a clich that the censored films of the golden era which after all Lust, Caution is supposed to be emulating were crackling with suggestive tension because all the sex had to be sublimated. But the point that often gets missed is that this didn't occur only on screen; watching those films creates tension because they frustrate desire romantic, as well as sexual, desire in the moviegoers as well. Audiences can share in the characters' anticipation and frustration.

In the same interview, Lee said the sex was necessary to reveal the characters, explaining: "It's part of the plot, since it's all about acting, levels of acting. You're performing when you have sex." Well, that all depends on your relationship, but it is precisely my problem with sex on screen. It turns us all into actors, watching ourselves watching each other, which makes it a hell of a lot harder to relax and enjoy it.

The writer is a senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Queen spoke of respect for all cultures and faiths in her Christmas message  

Decoding the Queen's speech: Was Her Majesty taking a swipe at Ukip?

Jane Merrick
Iraqi soldiers trained by the US were routed by IS’s smaller force  

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

Patrick Cockburn
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015