If you don’t know what The Decameron is, look it up. It’s 14th century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio‘s story of 10 Florentines quarantined during the Black Death at a luxurious villa (seven women, three men) who tell each other stories (100 in total) to fill the time. We’ll have a few Decamerons of our own when this is all done and said, no doubt.
Instead of a story, i’d like to compare notes with whoever reads this (if you have any notes you’d like to compare of course). Having written & produced a few film or TV sex scenes, I can tell you flat out — there’s nothing sexual about their production. It’s all choreographed.
For me, sex scenes will always be epitomized by the one I wrote/produced while doing Tale From The Crypt for HBO. Tobe Hooper directed the actors James Remar and Vanity in an episode called “Dead Wait”. Tobe imagined a cool sex scene to open the show (it runs while the opening credits run). The only problem — the shot was a “oner” — a single shot with no coverage (the other shots we use to put together a scene visually).
The shot depended on actor timing, camera timing and all sorts of hard to predict elements that made shooting it arduous. With 15 takes behind us and time running out, Tobe finally seemed to have the perfect take — and just as James Remar went to exit the frame — ending the shot — James Remar’s very erect pecker let up into the bottom of the shot, “ruining it”.
Nothing sexual had happened between the actors but it would have been super hard to be doing what those two actors had been doing — in the days before anyone thought about safe movie sex — and not get sexually aroused.
My list is short. As you can already see. Maybe it’s knowing what I know. I doubt that because these couple of sex scenes touch something that transcends the physicality of the love-making. They actually get to a place where, unfortunately, sex itself too rarely gets — the deeply human. The connection to both self and another that sex creates.
Number 1 (And There’s No Discussion To Be Had On The Subject): “Don’t Look Now”
For starters, Don’t Look Now is a great movie. It’s a great psychological thriller with an ending that — no spoilers here. It’s a gut punch and a great pay off.
Donald Sutherland & Julie Christie are a couple living in England with two young kids. He’s an art restorer about to begin a huge project in Venice, Italy, to repair a stained glass window in one of the city’s many basillicas when their 10 year old daughter dies, drowning in the pond on their property.
Picking up their story in Venice as the restoration to the stained glass window finally begins, we see them getting ready to go out to dinner one night, early in their stay. They’re still a couple in crisis, dealing with their own guilt. Director Nic Roeg (a director of photography by trade but an excellent “cutter” as well) intercuts the couple getting ready to go out for dinner that night (including brushing their teeth) with them making love, we get the feeling, for the very first time since “the accident”.
The intercutting of the mundane with the sex takes away all the glamour but leaves the emotional directness of it. The story has always been that Sutherland and Christie actually had sex on the set that day. Regardless of whether they actually did or didn’t, they achieved something harder actually — the feeling that they had. Call it acting. Call it filmmaking.
Call it “The Best Mainstream Movie Sex Scene Of Them All”.
What makes it even more astounding? It’s the only sex scene I can think of that features any level of intimacy between two married people.
Number 2 (And There’s Not Much Discussion Here Either): Desert Hearts (1985)
It’s 1959 and Vivien (the wonderful Helen Shaver — I’m biased; I’ve worked with her) has moved to a dude ranch outside of Reno, Nevada to establish residency. She wants a quickie divorce from her cheating husband. Cay (the equally wonderful Rebecca Charbonneau — I’m biased; I’ve worked with her, too) lives on the ranch. She’s a sexual free-spirit, bi-sexual but more inclined to women. She sets her sights on Vivien.
When they finally do consummate their affair, the more sexually comfortable Cay leads the way. The sex scene reflects both Cay’s wolfishness but also Vivien’s curiosity and uncertainty.
Director Donna Deitch, herself a gay woman, ” …raised the $1.5 million needed for the production budget with a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and sales of $15,000 shares to stock brokers and individual investors. The largest group of investors were lesbian and feminist women in several cities of the U.S., and the largest single investor was a gay man. She gave fundraising parties and published a regular newsletter to keep investors informed about the project’s development. Raising funds took almost four years. She eventually sold her house to cover completion costs.”
Deitch wanted to tell a mainstream story about characters that, up until then, rarely if ever got treated as “main stream”. She succeeds as do both actresses. The rest of the movie is just as good, by the way.
Number 3: There is No Number 3
You can Google “best movie sex scenes” and they’ll give you lists of 25… 50… 70. It’s filmed simulated sex — yes. But is it “good”? Let’s just say “it’s edible”. Consuming it won’t kill you. But it won’t make you happy either.
The reason these two films are on my list is because they both contain something elemental that is NOT on display in any other film that I’ve ever seen. But, hey — I’m here to be educated. And, turns out, I’ve got plenty of time.