Reel Sex: A Provocative Exploration of Sexuality in Film

Editor's Note:This article was originally posted on Reel Spirituality on May 12, 2014.

Sex is good.

This fact – established by the Bible and confirmed by millennia of human experience – should stand at the heart of any Christian consideration of sexuality and the movies. Sex is a good, God-created, Christ-affirmed thing. In the wake of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, I’ve had multiple conversations with Christians about how to approach sexually provocative films. It’s a difficult topic and ongoing discussion, yet it seems to me that affirming sexuality as a created good is a solid place to start.

Perhaps this truth about sex is partly why so many movies are obsessed with it. There’s poignancy in the way films return to this topic with palpable yearning, not only for the immediate act itself, but also for the wholly good gift it was once meant to be. By celebrating sexuality in a way that repressive religion often resists, movies as varied as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Blue is the Warmest Colorrightly recognize one of God’s first blessings on humanity.

Of course, this and the other blessings given in the Garden became distorted with the Fall. And without getting into a debate about what defines distorted sexuality, we can agree that in the aftermath, distortion itself has become a matter of interest for movies. As in real life, onscreen sexuality can be hurtful, damaging, irresponsible, abusive. For the characters in films ranging from Last Tango in Paris to Shame, sex is a conflicted, confused and even punishing experience.

Yet there is an important distinction to be made with such movies: in depicting distorted sexuality, they are not distorted themselves. There is a crucial difference between the depiction of something in a work of art and that thing’s existence in the actual world. Our question, as gracious filmgoers, should not be whether a movie has the moral right to show something. Rather, we should ask what the film is saying with its depiction of that something – not only about sexuality, but also about the basic human experience. Quite often, after all, a movie featuring sex is not really about sex. (See this spring’s Under the Skin, with Scarlett Johansson as a man-devouring alien seductress.)

When it comes to engaging with art, we must let art have the first word. What might it be saying to us, to others, to God? (So much of art is unconscious prayer.) As Christians, we don’t have to bear the burden of being cultural gatekeepers. Christ alone is our judge, something Paul made cleareven as he exhorted Timothy to evangelism. Preaching the word, then, does not require presumptuous condemnation. Engaging as a Christian with the arts does not require sorting the “holy” from the “depraved.” It requires public grace and personal discernment.

On the issue of discernment, a caveat: when I say that sexuality is a good and worthy topic for the movies to explore, I don’t mean to imply that watching such films is always a good and worthy act. A Christian—even a culturally engaged one—has every right not to watch something because of its sexual content, especially if doing so may prove to be a stumbling block in his or her effort to become more like Christ. Andy Crouch has rightly argued that wine, for example, is a good, God-blessed thing, but if I struggle with the misuse of alcohol, I might want to avoid watching something that features copious amounts of excessive drinking, even if that drinking is depicted as ultimately destructive. (So long, Mad Men!)

But isn’t sexual sin “worse” than alcohol abuse? Shouldn’t we be especially careful with sexuality at the movies? Operating under such a hierarchy, I’d argue, is deeply misleading. It’s another presumptive, chart-based approach to art. Why do we so often decry the sexual content in movies, but passively devour films chock full of theft and murder? Cinematic depictions of distorted sexuality should be viewed the same way as depictions of other good things gone wrong: power (in the form of violence); abundance (in the form of covetousness); beauty (in the form of pride). To blithely watch these distortions onscreen and nitpick over every hint of sex is little more than puritanical hypocrisy.

Speaking of puritanical hypocrisy, let’s get back to Nymphomaniac. This latest provocation from writer-director Lars Von Trier (Breaking the Waves) is a two-part opus, in which a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recounts her profligately promiscuous past to an attentive stranger (Stellan Skarsgard). The flashback scenes of Vol. 1 are explicit, yes, but they also explore shame, sin, love and desire in uncomfortable yet necessary ways. Not so withVol. 2, which piles humiliation and degradation upon Joe in what can only be read as an act of punishment. It’s as if Von Trier wanted Joe to have her “fun” only so he could lower the boom. If Nymphomaniac fails for me, it’s because the project becomes less and less valuable as an attempt to understand its main character’s extreme sexuality. What’s more, by its end, the movie becomes a joke on those who are interested in understanding.

And it’s the understanding that matters, especially now. The need for Christians, shielded by faith, to engage with movies about sexuality has never been more pressing. From gay marriage to transgender rights, society is undergoing a rapid, mainstream reconsideration of what it means to be a sexual being. The movies are a place where these stories are being told, where understanding can unfold and where healing can perhaps begin to take place. After all, we can ignore (or decry) movies about sexuality and the ways humans struggle with it, but doing so will not make sexuality or those struggles cease to exist.