Book Review – Real Sex Films: The New Intimacy and Risk in Cinema

Review of Real Sex Films: The New Intimacy and Risk in Cinema by John Tulloch and Belinda Middleweek. Oxford University Press. 2017. (HB/PB/eBook). 376pp.

Review by Connor Winterton, Birmingham City University, UK

In Real Sex Films: The New Intimacy and Risk in Cinema — the first monograph solely dedicated to presentations of unsimulated sex in contemporary, fictional, narrative films — media, culture and communications scholars John Tulloch and Belinda Middleweek promote the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to the analysis of ‘real sex’ in cinema. Their film case studies include Intimacy (Patrice Chéreau 2001), Le secret (Virginie Wagon 2000), The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke 2001), 9 Songs (Michael Winterbottom 2004), Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell 2006) and Blue Is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche 2013). They call this trans-disciplinary approach ‘rainbow scholarship’, which includes a mixture of theories such as risk sociology, feminist theory and feminist mapping theory, that they merge and blend with concepts more specific to Film and Media Studies such as narrative, genre, stardom and spectatorship. This ‘rainbow’ approach is the most original element of the work within the book, alongside a chapter on how performers in real sex films negotiate their identity and the tricky, ethical issue of performing sex acts on-screen in theatrically-released films. 

In regards to their ‘rainbow’ approach, the authors write: ‘the central systematic focus [in the book] is the issue of dialogical debate between disciplines in forging what Hyndman calls a bridging and extending interdisciplinarity’ (xv). This ‘bridging and extending interdisciplinarity’ is in itself a critique of the textual analysis approach that is standardised within Film Studies, and they merge film/media/cultural studies theories with ‘macro-sociological’ approaches (xxxi) to essentially fill in the gaps that Film Studies has supposedly missed. However, while this ‘dialogical debate’ helps them to try and fill in gaps along the way where other theories did not, their ‘dialogical debate’ across disciplines is sometimes narrow-sighted, whereby the authors elude contradictory or complementary scholarly theories within their analysis, theories that are especially grounded within Film Studies. This is made even more problematic with the over-emphasis on popular film reviews as a starting point to set up their own, often short arguments or proclamations. For example, in chapter one, ‘Intimacy: The Film’, Tulloch and Middleweek discuss, at length, Phillip French’s review of Intimacy in the British newspaper The Observer. Following their extensive discussion of French’s scathing review of Intimacy, which is one of many, the purpose of the chapter is to essentially disagree with French and to argue that the sex scenes and the ‘sequences after the sex scenes’ in Intimacy are not mutually exclusive and the sex scenes have narrative significance beyond titillation or spectacle. [1] This chapter lacks a fully formed argument, however. For the most part it is just a delineation of the plot, followed by a short commentary. This is replicated across a number of chapters. It is because of this that the book lacks a completely original contribution to existing knowledge, beyond their integration of risk sociology within real sex films.

The lack of originality and rigour within their film analysis (as opposed to their application of key theories to films which, on the contrary, is sophisticated) is further reiterated by the fact that the authors do not cite or mention a number of scholarly publications that make similar (or even better) arguments about the films included within this book, that were published before this work. For instance, in Chapter 7: ‘Desperate for Intimacy’: Loneliness and Fun in 9 Songs and Shortbus, the authors discuss how Shortbus in particular offers a critique of U.S politics and that the film shows the ‘utopic/dystopic potential for democratic negotiation between equals in the interpersonal domain’ (xxviii). Their discussions of the film are in a very similar vein to Linda Williams’ detailed analysis of Shortbus in her 2008 defining Screening Sex and Linda Ruth Williams’ fantastic chapter in Lindsay Coleman’s 2015 edited collection Sex and Storytelling in Modern Cinema. [2] Neither study is mentioned or acknowledged in the chapter. Both offer important discussions that would have given Real Sex Films a better grounding in Film Studies debates, especially as neither author has a solid background in this field.  

The most original and interesting chapter in the book is Chapter Eight, which has a more overt journalistic focus and is particularly in line with Middleweek’s academic background. In the chapter ‘Actors and Sexual Intimacies: Trust, Mistrust and the Double Standards of Love’, the authors note that ‘[o]ne of the problems with film critics who see the real sex film as a matter of double standards is that they are focusing on the film only, not on two everyday-life people who happen to be actors and who draw on that in their confluent love negotiation’ (201). Here, Tulloch and Middleweek revisit a number of interviews with performers in real sex films, as well as their partners, such as Kerry Fox (who stars in Intimacy) and Alexander Linklater (Fox’s partner), and how ‘central notions of trust and mistrust in the “pure relationship” [are negotiated] throughout the new risk sociology’ (xxix). Their application of ‘macro-sociological’ approaches pays off most successfully in this chapter, as they place performers (‘real people’) within the context of our ‘risk society’. [3] Elsewhere, they argue that fictional characters are embodiments of the same concept, yet the role of fiction within that debate is never fully clarified. 

My final point relates to the authors’ reluctance to establish a taxonomy of real sex films; they want to avoid offering a list of what a ‘real sex’ film actually is, as they feel this is what previous literature has been principally concerned with. However, by not delineating or discussing what constitutes a real sex film, the rigour of the work is immediately questionable, particularly because they discuss films that include both simulated and unsimulated sex, whereas the ‘real sex’ designation typically relates to presentations of penetrative (or other) sex that is not faked in any way. Tulloch and Middleweek do offer very brief qualifications as to why they are including films that have simulated sex but this is never thoroughly or extensively discussed, which led me to consistently question what the key differences are between films with simulated and unsimulated sex, and wonder why they would not be contextualised in different, more extensive ways. 

[Notes]

  1. I make a similar argument in my PhD about Blue is the Warmest Colour, a film that has been spoken about primarily in relation to the film’s controversies and the ‘male gaze’, rather than the symbolism of the acts as well as the narrative significance.
  2. Linda Williams. 2008. Screening Sex. Duke University Press; Linda Ruth Williams. 2015. Shortbus: Smart Cinema and Sexual Utopia. In: Lindsay Coleman, ed. Sex and Storytelling in Modern Cinema: Explicit Sex, Performance and Cinematic Technique. I.B Tauris, 95-118. 
  3. See Ulrich Beck. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Sage.

Contributor

Connor Winterton is a PhD candidate and Associate Lecturer at Birmingham City University. While Connor’s PhD research is centred on representations of gay, lesbian and queer sex in contemporary cinema, his other research interests include: gender, sexuality and representations in moving-image media; sexually explicit screen media; feminist film and media theory; audiences and spectatorship; queer theory; and LGBTQ+ film cultures. Connor is an editorial board member for MAI: Journal of Feminism and Visual Culture and has a number of publications forthcoming that relate to audience studies and action heroism, gay male identity in contemporary American teen cinema, and sexual politics and romance in Love Island.

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