I don’t care what people say about Lena Dunham, the woman knows how to shoot a sex scene. Although it does help that she has Jon Bernthal in her back pocket. In Sharp Stick (currently in theaters), Dunham’s first low-budget feature in over a decade, Bernthal plays a self-described “loser” named Josh who says things like “you got this” and wears hoodies and basketball shorts and multiple chains and is married to a high-achieving alpha (played by Dunham) with whom he shares a son with Down’s Syndrome (Liam Michel Saux). Of course, he starts fucking the babysitter. It’s a trope so common it barely causes a ripple anymore, except that the babysitter, Sarah Jo (a very game Kristine Froseth), reads like a kid herself. She’s so immature it seems to reverberate across her personality in various ways, including her Little House on the Prairie wardrobe and her wide-eyed “Pa?” energy. Most importantly for the film, it affects her sexuality. Sarah Jo had a “radical hysterectomy” at 15, which means she went through menopause at 17, and, as she explains to Josh, “I don’t feel my age and I don’t feel my body.”
Now, many grown-ups in their 40s—even without being the boss and having a pregnant wife and a kid with special needs—would hear all this and, I would hope, pat Sarah Jo on the hand and make her a hot cocoa and send her on her way. But the road to hot sex is paved with moral quandaries, and so, 20 minutes in Sharp Stick, we find Josh folding in the laundry room, rapping under his breath, as Sarah Jo, gawky and nubile, appears at the door and asks, “Do you find me beautiful?” Josh is caught off guard—Bernthal’s “Huh?” is classic—but his are the kind of hesitant no’s that are accompanied by increasingly yes body language. The way he swiftly closes the door after she shows him her scars, the way he cocks his head in sympathy, the way he covers his mouth in a manner that says “Really? A virgin? For me???” the way he advances when he should be retreating, the way he can’t help but be flattered by this kid calling him masculine when everything else in his life tells him he is not. “I promise you, you don’t want to lose your virginity to me,” he says. “I’m like a loser.” He suggests Zac Efron instead, but Sarah Jo doesn’t watch Disney.
OK, I’m going to describe THE KISSING SCENE here, but nothing will do it justice like watching it. As Sarah Jo narrates her hysterectomy to Josh in graphic detail, Josh slowly approaches her, kind of dropping his height a bit, ducking his head so he is level with her, to the point where when he is finally face to face with her and says he does think she’s beautiful, he almost looks her age. She smiles. Josh closes his eyes and whispers, “Can I kiss you?” (I know.) Sarah Jo gives him an enthusiastic nod. He kind of bows his head, resigned like it’s out of his hands, and says, “K, I’m gonna.” (I know.) Josh strokes Sarah Jo’s cheek and chin—oddly paternal—then, “Oh, fuck,” he says, and he goes in and—OK, here you have to imagine just the sound of breathing and those smooch sounds that are kind of viscerally gross but also viscerally not—so he kisses her once, normally, she is against the wall, basically being overtaken by all this, then, he delicately licks her top lip, getting some of her teeth, then, softly, kisses her bottom lip, then, again, he licks the bottom lip, then the top lip, then, as he pulls away, she kisses his nose, trying to keep up but obviously dazed. . . BIG EXHALATION. Then, you know, they basically have sex, but whatever, because they already did everything. WITH THEIR FACES.
Now I KNOW there was an intimacy coordinator (Chantal Cousineau) on this film. I KNOW Bernthal is a happily married man with three kids. I KNOW this is just two actors doing their jobs. But this may be the greatest kiss that has ever happened on the face of the earth. It is more intimate than most sex scenes. It is perfect. And it is unsurprising that this is the scene Dunham is most proud of Sharp Stick, specifically, “the many stages of sort of like bargaining and dialogue that they go through as they have that experience, and how much Josh reveals of himself, but pulls back,” she told Nylon. “I think that was so virtuoso on the part of those actors.” Dunham wanted the film to be about sex but didn’t want to revert back to the conversations around nudity that dominated the Girls discourse (noting she wished she had someone like Cousineau back then). She wanted the sex scenes here to be about emotion, she told Yahoo, “but that doesn’t mean they’re not intense. . . and it doesn’t mean they’re not graphic.” Part of that was the way Dunham shot it, choosing not to look at the actors’ bodies—only Bernthal is ever nude and only then from behind—adding that having a female cinematographer, in this case Ashley Connor, was instrumental. “Aesthetically, I really wanted to have these very composed frames,” she said, “almost as if you were just shooting a landscape or a conversation.”
Let’s be real though, this scene is a turn-on in large part because it should be a turn-off. Sarah Jo may be 26, which keeps it from becoming legally gross, but as Dunham said of Josh, “he’s not recognizing some of the essential power dynamics of the relationship that they’re involved in, and so it’s easy for him to explain it to himself a certain way, which I think is so often the case in these dynamics.” That he’s way too old for Sarah Jo, that he has a pregnant wife, that Sarah Jo is a guardian for his special needs son, that she herself is in many ways an innocent, that she is a virgin, that she is coming to him with trauma, all these things, one after another, are barriers that, unfortunately, make the conquest that much more titillating. The whole forbidden fruit thing is as old as time, but at a moment when the social mores around consent are being recalibrated, situations like this are increasingly thorny. A punitive but hypocritical culture that openly believes in people’s right to privacy while quietly getting off on watching leaked celebrity sex tapes keeps us from asking out loud: How do you walk the line when crossing it feels so good?
Filmmaker Andrea Arnold is a pro at teasing out these types of taboos. I remember being at the Toronto Film Festival screening of Fish Tank, in which a 15-year-old girl (Katie Jarvis) has a huge crush on her mom’s boyfriend (Michael Fassbender), and watches as he drunkenly puts his arm around her and strokes her hair, and shrinks into my seat. “Don’t do it!” I yelled to laugh around me as he did it anyway. Part of the reason that was so cringeworthy was the meta-textual stuff—Jarvis was only 18 and Fassbender was 32. It was a significant age gap, making his raunchy commentary while thrusting on top of her hit that much harder. The same goes for the infamously explicit Marguerite Duras adaptation The Lover, in which Jane March was 18 playing a version of Duras at 15, and her co-star (Tony Leung Ka-fai) was in his 30s. The incredibly explicit sex scenes had an air of documentary considering the story was at least somewhat based on the author’s real experience. Then filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud only made it worse by intimating to the media that the sex scenes were unsimulated, forcing March to deal with the fallout before Annaud confirmed it was indeed all fake.
Of course, it tends to be the women who pay for men’s transgressions, such as Maria Schneider having to deal with bro-y exploitation by Bernardo Bertolucci and Marlon Brando while making Last Tango in Paris, in which she was also a teenager. Despite being older, Margo Stilley (in 9 Songs) and Chloë Sevigny (in Brown Bunny) both bore the brunt of the blowback for performing real sex on screen with their male co-stars. Blow back that seemed to come from predominantly male critics who clearly didn’t want to get off despite themselves, so they had to blame someone for it (why not the male directors???).
People are loathe to admit that the risky fuck with no future is kind of the best fuck. Well, queer filmmakers aren’t. Openly gay director Alain Guiraudie used body doubles to show real sex Stranger by the Lake an erotic thriller about a guy on a cruising beach who falls for a man he knows killed his last lover. Every single graphic sex scene on that beach is only that much hotter for the threat of others invading their space, not to mention the possibility that our hero might be next. There’s a similar dynamic in Elle, in which Isabelle Huppert’s character, Michèle, falls for the guy (Laurent Lafitte) who rapes her. But Paul Veroheven and Huppert—she considers them co-filmmakers here and I would have to agree—pull off the insane magic trick of diluting the taboo. The film culminates in the “lovers” staging a mock rape, which gets Michèle off, meaning she has successfully denied her rapist of power and adopted him as her own. In an interview with the TelegraphHuppert denied having “a passion for perversion,” calling Elle instead “a revenge story that explores the fragile border between rage and rapture.”
With Sharp Stickk, Dunham—a Verhoeven fan—explores that fragile border even further, building on the sexual taboos showcased by female directors like Arnold, queer directors like Guiraudie, and collaborators like Huppert. While their characters struggle to even acknowledge the lines they are crossing, these filmmakers are exposing them for all the world to see, inching us that much closer to answering the questions we have avoided for so long.