The sexiest scene in Adrian Lyne’s new film, Deep Water, starring Ana de Armas and Ben Affleck, may be de Armas eating an apple—a distant echo of the iconic food scene in Lyne’s 9 ½ Weeks (1986). Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1957 novel, in which an openly adulterous wife suspects her husband of drowning her latest lover, the plot has more to do with power than pleasure.
The 81-year-old Lyne, who hit paydirt with Fatal Attraction (1987) and Indecent Proposal (1993), has re-emerged after a two-decade hiatus since Unfaithful (2002). Sadly, the hotly anticipated return of the erotic thriller is neither erotic nor thrilling, which may explain why it was pulled from theatrical release. Although the lead actors dated after meeting on set, Deep Water douses any chemistry they had off-screen.
If Lyne, with his track record in the genre, shooting de Armas, who has sex appeal in spades, ended up with a flaccid film, what hope do we have for cinematic sex? It may be time to sound a zero-fire alarm: the percentage of feature films containing depictions of sex has been at its lowest since the 1960s. In an interview with Variety last year, Paul Verhoeven rejected the theory that online porn is to blame for the decline, lamenting what he perceives as a ‘general shift towards Puritanism’ in the culture at large. A sexless Sex & the City reboot and the chaste handshake in No Time to Die between Daniel Craig as Bond and de Armas as a CIA agent epitomise the era.
It may be a case of art reflecting life: the sex recession continues, with Americans hitting a 30-year low. Seduction has been replaced by narcissism, with an ever-buffer Bond and hench superheroes there to be ogled rather than touched. Among the factors eviscerating eros is the infantilization of cinema, with studios favouring blockbusters that are easily exportable and able to attract an audience from all four demographic quadrants. Stephen Soderbergh has said that he could never make a Marvel movie because of their sexlessness: ‘Nobody’s f••king! Like, I don’t know how to tell people how to behave in a world in which that is not a thing.’
Since the heyday of the erotic thriller, the heterosexual landscape has become more fraught. Perhaps that’s why the hottest sex scenes in recent years have been same-sex (think Call Me By Your Name and Blue is the Warmest Color). In line with the broader cultural conversation around #MeToo and Time’s Up, television programmes have been predominantly preoccupied with portraying bad sex and assault (starting with Girls, and more recently, I May Destroy You, Sex Education and the first season of Euphoria). Some of these depictions have been ground-breaking and educational, but it’s important to model good sex as well. Otherwise we risk a generation schooled only by pornography and CCTV footage of Matt Hancock snogging in a lift.
The power dynamics at play in Lyne’s early work don’t all sit well with contemporary values. Their erotic ambiance may have also come at times at the expense of the wellbeing of the actors: Kim Basinger described the experience of filming 9 ½ Weeks as traumatic. ‘She needed to be scared of him,’ Lyne told the New York Times. Today, actors are often supported by intimacy coordinators on set. Not all of the old guard are enthusiastic about this evolution, however, Lyne included. An intimacy coordinator ‘implies a lack of trust,’ he told the Guardian. One would think, however, that—just like arousal—a good actor is capable of expressing fear without having to be frightened.
Even if Deep Water disappoints, there is hope that the flickering flame of eros has not sputtered out entirely. Perhaps along with being Zoomed out we’re ready for a return to vitality, in life and its simalcra. Romance was among the top trends reported in Pornhub’s 2021 year in review: searches for ‘romantic’, ‘passionate’ and ‘bromance’ increased dramatically, suggesting what viewers might be missing from their primetime programming. What porn does particularly poorly is convey eroticism — the intimation of and build-up before the act — implying an opportunity for big and small-screen producers to create content to fill that need.
Entre temps, for guilty pleasure (historical accuracy and dialogue be damned), we have the start of the second season of Bridgerton to look forward to next week. ‘Bonkerton’ offers not just sex but the long-lost erotic art of undressing to get to the prize: all the unbuttoning and untying is a grownup version of the unboxing Youtube videos. Chris Van Dusen, the show’s creator and showrunner, has promised ‘peak thirst’. Good news for those of us left parched by Deep Water.
As seen in The Spectator