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

Operational Risk Manager - Asset Management

£60,000 - £80,000: Saxton Leigh: Our client is an leading Asset Manager based...

Year 5/6 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Permanent Year 6 TeacherThe job:This...

KS1 & KS2 Teachers

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: KS1+KS2 Teachers required ASAP for l...

Year 2 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Year 2 Teacher The position is to wo...

Day In a Page

 

In Sickness and in Health: Waking up to my 4am witching hour of worry

Rebecca Armstrong
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past