“I hope you’ll want to love, and to wish to do something else than love. To touch, too,” Tunisian director Leyla Bouzid said ahead of the July 14 premiere of her latest film, Une Histoire d’Amour et de Désir (A Tale of Love and Desire), at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival’s Critics’ Week. What followed was nearly two hours of intense sexual tension between the film’s two main characters—complete with nudity, masturbation, and warmly lit sex scenes.
After a year-long hiatus, the Cannes Film Festival has re-opened its doors to the hundreds of filmmakers, critics, industry professionals, celebrities, and tourists eager to watch some of the year’s most anticipated films. Like any massive event taking place during the “new normal,” the specter of the coronavirus looms large: Guests must take mandatory PCR tests every 48 hours, ticketing is fully online, and masks are required everywhere, for example. But the effects of the pandemic on the biggest film event of the year seem to extend far beyond the festival’s protocols. After watching dozens of movies from across the festival, it’s clear that filmmakers are embracing Hot Person Summer. And, if the outdoor art installation focused on cinematic make outs and the increased nudity in the films are any indication, they’re hornier than ever.
Maybe it’s the fact that much of the world has spent the year utterly touch-starved; maybe it’s that we’ve seen so few new movies this past year that such a focus now feels like an anomaly. Or maybe I just gravitate toward watching the very brand of indie film that would include a 7-minute sex scene. Whatever it is, it feels like a lot of the films playing on the Croisette this year have featured lengthy, drawn-out sex scenes. And it’s not just gratuitous sex either. In what unfortunately still feels out of the ordinary, many of these films at least attempt to show sex on-screen that is sensual and intimate, grounded in mutual desire and pleasure from both parties.
In all these sex-obsessed films, bodies are on full display (though some bodies more than others). And even those films I’ve watched that don’t have sex scenes seem to ensure that some sort of nudity, mostly female, appears, and probably just because they can.
Take director Eva Husson’s Mothering Sunday—which was filmed entirely during the pandemic—for example. The gauzy period film, which premiered at Cannes on July 9, is divided into three acts: The first, most pivotal of them follows maid and aspiring writer Jane (Odessa Young) and the charming son of a neighboring bourgeois family, Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), as they meet for a secret afternoon tryst. Though they meet only days before Paul is set to marry another woman, the empty Sheringham estate gives space for the couple to act freely. Through uncensored, lingering close-ups of the naked lovers in the act, Mothering Sunday creates a stunning portrait of intimacy that feels especially powerful after more than a year of isolation. As the story unfolds in flashbacks and intersecting timelines, the sex scenes serve as an anchor for a grieving Jane. Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island similarly features sex between two unfaithful lovers; where Mothering Sunday’s scenes were blatantly front and center throughout the entire film, Bergman Island’s take a back seat. Still, they carry the film as it explores the complex themes of jealousy and perception.
Other films with prominent sex scenes, like Leos Carax’s Annette and Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, are less successful in creating this same genuine sense of sexiness, but they prove to be notable mentions nonetheless. They too use sex as a plot device, symbolizing the relationships between desire and control and pain and religion, respectively. But in both films, directed by male directors, the passionate sex scenes are buoyed as much by the characters’ near insatiable hunger for each other as they are by the male gaze.
Annette’s Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver play the role of intoxicating and toxic lovers without reservation, giving their sex a camp-like aestheticism primed for voyeurism.* (A particular scene of the two in an unexpectedly erotic performance quickly became the most talked about part of the film following its premiere.) The film also includes a largely unearned, unnecessary reference to Driver’s character, the controversial comedian Henry McHenry, being implicated in a #MeToo scandal, with hardly any repercussions for or attention paid to the allegations. More than anything, this inclusion left the impression that Carax was simply trying to check a box, while doing nothing to engage with the reality of sexual violence. And he isn’t alone among male directors at Cannes this year who have included awkward and unsuccessful attempts to address sexual assault: Sean Penn’s Flag Day also features an ill-advised rape scene, in which there is no fallout for the abuser. He is simply never seen again, creating a disturbing trivialization of sexual assault.
Verhoeven’s gleeful fixation on two nuns risking their lives for passionate, shameless sex in Benedetta feels performative in much of the same ways as Annette does. While not any more graphic than other films, the relationship depicted between the two women feels almost exploitative in its excess and stereotyping of lesbian relationships. Verhoeven and Carax largely fail to recreate the same type of authentic intimacy that Husson and Hansen-Løve so excelled at, sometimes to an extreme degree—but the focus on mutual pleasure largely resonates, nonetheless.
After more than a year spent indoors, when most of our interpersonal relationships have been confined to screens, to texts and Zoom calls alike, to experience films with such a focus on physical connection feels surprisingly cathartic. To focus on sex of all things, an act that invites physical as much as emotional closeness, is to provide much-needed escapism from the loneliness and general detachment that has marked much of the last 18 months, presented in a way that feels powerfully attuned to the moment.
Correction, July 19, 2021: This post originally misspelled Marion Cotillard’s last name.