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When Female-Directed Shows Like ‘The Deuce’ and ‘Alias Grace’ Take On Sex, They’re Not Afraid to Make It Scary

TIFF: Three of the series which premiered in the Primetime lineup explored the consequences of sex beyond simple pleasure. 

The Deuce Maggie Gyllenhaal

Paul Schiraldi/HBO

It’s impossible to calculate how much film and television has been created on the subject of what happens when men and women interact, especially when sex enters the equation.

Three of the Toronto International Film Festival’s Primetime selections represented television being told from a distinctly female point of view, but while they all were helmed by female directors, that doesn’t mean they fit into any sort of uniform box.

The one subject none of them were afraid to tackle: How sex is much more than the act itself, and how for women in particular it creates real risk. It’s a concept that many women know instinctually, which is why it’s so important that all of these shows were brought to life by female directors.

The most sexual thing to happen in the first few episodes of “Alias Grace” is the stroking of quilts across beds, but don’t underestimate director Mary Harron, because the sensuality of those sequences is quite real — even while the series delves into the dangerous activities that occur under the covers.

Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel is very much a classic period drama, but while the ultimate outcome of the story is a double murder, sex weighs heavily upon the two episodes screened at TIFF. Set in the 1800s, young maid Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) is technically innocent, but the facts of life mean that she’s all too conscious that “what occurs between a man and a woman” can have seismic consequences for the woman. An unwanted pregnancy could literally be a death sentence during this time, after all.

Alias Grace

As Grace’s story continues, her awareness of why people might take those risks will grow, and as we know from history ultimately upend her life entirely. What Harron captures so brilliantly is that razor’s edge of knowing and not knowing — knowing to be afraid, but also knowing it might be worth it in the end.

Meanwhile, four episodes of “The Girlfriend Experience” were screened at TIFF, and the two directed by Amy Seimetz offer a fascinating portrait of a woman now known as Bria (Carmen Ejogo) who has officially abandoned her old life but can’t actually leave old habits behind.

What’s important about Seimetz’s episodes of the show — for Season 2, she and collaborator Lodge Kerrigan split up their narratives individually — is how invested it is in identity.

Bria is a former escort when we meet her, but when forced to reinvent herself it’s clear that her past employment is how she sees herself, how she defines her own value. It isn’t something she can run away from, despite the fact that it puts her at risk — something that tracks with Season 1 of the series, in which Christine/Chelsea (Riley Keough) was often exposed on screen, but was never truly vulnerable during sex. It was only when Chelsea’s late-night activities were discovered by those in Christine’s life that we saw her truly laid bare.

Girlfriend Experience Season 2 Bria

In the first two episodes of Bria’s story, Seimetz lays the groundwork for a similar journey, though undoubtedly there are some unique twists and turns looming for her.

The same could be said of the women who walk the streets in “The Deuce,” for which the 87-minute pilot was directed by Michelle MacLaren. The series, created by David Simon and George Pelecanos, is notable for being a prestige drama that doesn’t shy away from one of the few quasi-taboos remaining on HBO: While plenty of breasts were on display, they were nearly matched equally by full frontal shots of naked men.

Prosthetics are often used in instances like this but real or fake, the fact is that MacLaren made an effort for something resembling gender parity, with the resulting effect being a truly grounded perspective that only heightened the realism of the show’s depiction of sex — for what she excels at depicting is how transactional how all of these relationships are.

Emily Meade, "The Deuce"

MacLaren brings a frankness to the on-screen action, with a matter-of-fact approach to nudity. And that just highlights the dangers that these women put themselves in every day as they walk the streets, because the violence they face is all too real, even when the violence itself is part of what’s being sold.

The sex isn’t necessarily scary for these women; it’s routine for them, until it isn’t. “The Deuce,” like “The Girlfriend Experience” and “Alias Grace,” doesn’t romanticize sex even at its most sensual. Instead, sex is seen as something far more complicated than just putting boobs and butts on screen — an act that exposes far more than just skin.

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