What’s ‘Love’ Got to Do With it? Why Do Audiences Reject Sex in the Movies?

Gaspar Noé’s Love was panned in many different parts of the world because its unsimulated sex scenes defy narrative norms and take moviegoers out of the story.

When Gaspar Noé’s Love (2015) was released in Cannes last year, many moviegoers were disappointed. How dare Noé, the consummate provocateur, promise a film so filthy, with a 3D money shot as its centerpiece no less, only to disappoint with a tame meditation on modern romance? Despite the film’s explicit sexual content, Peter Debruge of Variety described it as Noé’s “tamest” outing yet, and Jessica Kiang of Indiewire called it Noé’s “most softhearted” effort.

Something extraordinary had taken place. For his entire career, Noé had confronted audiences with challenging images, but when it came to his most direct film about sexuality, he failed to shock. His latest act of provocation, it seems, was an inability to provoke.

This raises broader questions about the relationship between pornography and cinema, and the role that performers can play. In order to understand the muted response to Love, we must explore this relationship and all of its complexities.

For different reasons, filmmakers have tried to incorporate pornography into cinema. To be clear, I’m not talking about erotic films that revolve around sexuality but don’t include any sexual activity. I’m talking about films that contain unsimulated sex scenes, and that try to transcend the genre conventions of pornography. That is, these are films with plots and professional actors that just happen to include unsimulated sex in them, as opposed to pornographic films that prioritize the unsimulated sex to provide pleasure to the audience, and could care less about more traditional cinematic aspects like plot movement or character development.

Andy Warhol’s Blue Movie (1969) is the first film with an unsimulated sex scene to receive wide theatrical distribution in the United States. It’s not exactly great cinema. It’s slow and nothing substantial happens. Warhol himself said at the time, “I’d always wanted to do a movie that was pure fucking, nothing else.”

Warhol wanted to shock the “lamestream” audience of his day with in-your-face unsimulated sex, and he succeeded. However, Blue Movie was very much an experiment in provocation, and as celebrated as it is by academics, it didn’t exactly inspire a long-lasting cinematic movement. Soon enough, “porno chic” wore out its welcome, the porn industry embraced the VCR revolution, and filmmakers stopped trying to make unsimulated sex scenes palatable to moviegoers.

Of course, pornography remains a booming business in the Internet age, but the only thing it has in common with cinema is the use of a camera. Every so often, auteurs like Noé try to follow in Warhol’s footsteps, but movie audiences don’t seem to have an appetite for these films.

It’s interesting, if you think about it. Movie audiences, for the most part, are comfortable with simulated sex scenes and nudity in films, and they most likely have watched graphic unsimulated sex scenes in pornography. So why can’t moviegoers tolerate films that bridge the gap between the two?

An explanation for this can be gleaned from audience expectations surrounding storytelling. As much as different cultural norms and customs can shape the moviegoing experience, there’s a universality to cinema that cannot be ignored, precisely because it has so much in common with traditional storytelling. As film theorist David Bordwell puts it, “narrative appears to be a contingent universal of human experience.” That is, from the stories we consume to the stories we tell to our co-workers, friends, and family, narrative dominates our lives.

Therefore, to understand a moviegoing audience’s rejection of unsimulated sex scenes is to understand their rejection of non-narrative cinema in general. Over time, film academics have tried their hardest to determine which films belong in the canon and which don’t. The most revered canon of them all, the Sight & Sound poll, is full of non-narrative art-house films like Breathless (1960). And yet, if you ask the average moviegoer what they think of Breathless, they’ll offer a blank stare.

This isn’t to knock art-house cinema, but to put it in its rightful place. Film academics do not represent the majority of the moviegoing audience, which explains why the highest grossing films in the ‘60s in France were Ben-Hur (1960), One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), The Longest Day (1962), Le Corniaud (1965), and La Grande Vadrouille (1966). There isn’t one French New Wave film here, despite the critical community’s insistence that Breathless is the most important French film of that decade.

Maybe it is, but it was only being appreciated by the art-house intellectuals of the time, whether in Europe or the United States. The rest of the moviegoing audience was getting its genre fix. This tells us that for all of our praise of auteurs, it’s the entertaining stories that keep audiences coming back to cinema. As harsh as it may sound, non-narrative films remain on the margins where they’ve always been.

The art-house crowd can complain about Hollywood’s lack of creativity until the last Nuri Bilge Ceylan is screened, but Hollywood continues to churn out genre films because they work. Genre films make money for studios, and they also entertain audiences and fulfill their narrative expectations. Even with culturally specific genres like Bollywood, storytelling remains at the center.

Since unsimulated sex scenes do not effectively move a story forward or convey anything useful about a character, they are not celebrated by moviegoers. Noé’s Love was panned in many different parts of the world because its unsimulated sex scenes defy narrative norms and take moviegoers out of the story.

When it comes to storytelling, audiences like the comfort of artifice. For example, most audience members can handle violent films because they understand that they’re fiction, and many can tolerate sexuality because they know that the actors are only performing. Once filmmakers strip this artifice away and offer realistic depictions, all bets are off. Look no further than the vitriolic response to The Brown Bunny (2003), in which actress Chloë Sevigny performs unsimulated fellatio on writer/director Vincent Gallo.

A violent Quentin Tarantino film can make millions at the box office, but these same moviegoers wouldn’t pay to see a snuff film. Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) grosses over $500 million worldwide, but virtually none of these moviegoers would watch a pornographic film in public. Moviegoers don’t want realism per se, they want verisimilitude, which is the appearance of reality. They want filmmakers to give them just enough reality to engage with a story and its characters, but not too much so that they forget a story is being told. Filmmakers and performers who violate this contract won’t be well-received.

There is such a thing as too real, especially in regards to cinematic depictions of sexuality. This is because moviegoers already have pornography as a distinct genre, with all of the expectations that come with it. Steamy simulated sex as seen in NC-17 films like Lust, Caution or Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) is all that most moviegoers will accept, and even then, it might be too much. Anything more, like what Noé shows in Love, distracts moviegoers from the narrative.

It may be an easy explanation for film academics, but it’s not good enough to claim that moviegoers reject unsimulated sex scenes because they are too prude and sheltered. This is the common criticism — that moviegoers aren’t sophisticated enough to appreciate these non-narrative experiments. If only these moviegoers got what the filmmakers were trying to do.

Moviegoers get it, alright, they’re just not interested. Pornography and narrative cinema come with different expectations, and when filmmakers attempt to merge the two and expect audiences to embrace them, they engage in a futile exercise.