Movies and TV Need More Sex, Not Less — Opinion

Penn Badgley is uncomfortable with sex scenes in "You," but his solution highlights the need for collaborating in their creation.
Franz Rogowski and Adèle Exarchopoulos appear in Passages by Ira Sachs, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Guy Ferrandis / SBS PRODUCTIONS
Ira Sachs' "Passages", which premiered at Sundance 2023 and will be released by Mubi, relies on sex to communicate what dialogue could not.
Guy Ferrandis / SBS Productions

For most people, sex is a private act; sex scenes in movies and TV shows bring it into the light. That creates a tension often borne by the actors and, as Penn Badgley recently revealed, he felt uncomfortable doing what he saw as too many sex scenes in Netflix’s “You.” In a recent interview with Variety, he delved further: “That aspect of Hollywood has always been very disturbing to me — and that aspect of the job, that mercurial boundary — has always been something that I actually don’t want to play with at all…. It’s important to me in my real life to not have them.”

Badgley’s choice should be respected: Doing sex scenes shouldn’t a prerequisite for anyone’s acting career. However, it’s too easy to focus on the generalities of whether sex scenes are necessary, rather than the nuance: As sexual identity becomes a more expansive conversation, there’s an even greater need for popular storytelling to define the terms.

Full disclosure: I have not seen “You,” but the actor’s unease, and his success in scaling back his sex scenes, highlights the necessity of collaboration. Actors must be complicit in the work, and showrunners Sara Gamble and fellow showrunner Greg Berlanti presumably found a creative solution that worked for all.

Personal boundaries vary, and they’re more likely to shift the longer someone commits to a work. But stories themselves don’t need to anticipate presumed discomfort: If anything, movies and TV need more sex, not less. In a post-MeToo era, the public discourse around consent tends to yield concerns of liberal censorship. Everyone’s so focused about what they can or can’t ask people to do that they stop asking them to do much at all.

At Sundance, veteran filmmaker Ira Sachs’ “Passages” enacts a powerful drama around the sensual love triangle created by a downbeat German filmmaker (Franz Rogowski) who cheats on his husband (Ben Whishaw) with a young woman (Adele Exarchopoulous). The movie uses its sex scenes to explore the main character’s simmering need to escape routine: Sex with his new partner is passionate until it’s not, and when he returns to his old partner, that same spark returns. Embedded in the physicality of these scenes is a degree of emotional sophistication that dialogue could not match. “I didn’t get resistance, but I went with actors I felt like we could imagine we’d have some aesthetic complicity,” Sachs told me at Sundance.

He allowed his actors to improvise around the demands of the scene to convey a certain mood. “It’s the actors creating a narrative within a scene in which they have freedom to explore,” he said. “I created the possibility of that story, but it’s really the actors telling an erotic story. The sex in the film is not real, but it is physical.”

The European context of the production helped that concept sink in. “Making a movie outside of America, you exist in a different set of mores and traditions,” he said. “The America that we know now was created by a puritanical approach to sex and the body.”

Emilia Jones and Nicholas Braun appear in Cat Person by Susanna Fogel, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute
“Cat Person”Sundance Film Festival

If America gets squeamish about sex, then movies and TV shows need to set the record straight. That doesn’t mean they have to be explicit, only that the narrative’s intents should dictate the outcome. That’s why “Cat Person,” which also premiered at Sundance, deserves an audience. (It’s in the process of fielding distribution offers.)

The movie finds Emilia Jones playing a college woman uncertain about the motives of the older man (Nicholas Braun) after a cringe-worthy date. The pair ultimately have a squirmy sex scene as Jones’ character engages with her internal monologue. When she visited IndieWire’s Sundance studio, Jones told me that she felt comfortable since director Susannah Fogel shared the choreography of the scene in detail. “I remember seeing the shot lists,” she said. “That was really interesting. Most sex scenes are not about that. They’re about, ‘How can we make this as beautiful as possible? These people are so in love!’”

Fogel added that she avoided nudity in the scene for strategic purposes. “The challenge was, ‘How can we tell this in a way that leaves nothing to the imagination, but also, there’s no nudity?’’” she said. “[With nudity], people are going to focus on that.”

With the actors knowing what they were getting into, “by the time we got there to make it happen, on the one hand it felt really straightforward,” she said. “But also we were able to have fun because there weren’t any surprises. It just felt like an easy vibe on set that day.”

Of course, there are decades of horror stories from productions where the power imbalance between director and star collapsed. There’s the predatory behavior of Marlon Brando on the set of “Last Tango in Paris” and the recent lawsuit filed against Paramount by the stars of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 “Romeo & Juliet,” more than 50 years after they appeared in the  movie as teenagers. But unethical on-set behavior shouldn’t negate this kind of storytelling so much as draw attention to the responsibilities involved in the process.

Last year, I reported on how French actress Catherine Ducey felt that director Catherine Breillat crossed the line by tricking the star into a rape scene she didn’t fully understand for the 1999 movie “Romance.” The thriller stars as Ducey as a young woman whose self-motivated sexual adventures lead her down a series of unpredictable encounters before the awful one that complicates her journey. Despite her anger over the production method, however, Ducey told me that she didn’t disavow “Romance” itself.

“I think the movie is important,” she said. “Catherine opened a door by showing that women are as complex as men. It may be painful, but we don’t have to be afraid of explaining to each other how desire works. I would like people to look at this movie as an exploration of freedom and people trying to discover themselves. Artists are supposed to task some risk to help the audience better understand their own lives.”

Storytelling can be sexy and sensual, or illustrate the dark underbelly of those same ingredients, at its own peril. But there’s profound value in embracing that same uncertainty. Sex sells, of course, which means that writers and directors who can put it in proper context have greater currency than ever. And if any audiences feel that sex should have less of a role to play in the work they’re willing to watch, they’re revealing more about their own boundaries than the ones of the medium itself.

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