PARK CITY, Utah — In 1989, sex, lies and videotape, Steven Soderbergh’s candid look at infidelity and voyeurism, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and told a story that mainstream TV and movies wouldn’t touch.
Nearly a quarter-century later, sexually frank content is readily available across cable television, in R-rated studio comedies, on YouTube and even on Kindle readers. So one might expect maverick filmmakers to turn their attention elsewhere.
But a peek into the screening rooms of this year’s Sundance Film Festival shows that many directors still have sex on the brain. A lot of it.
The 1970s porn icons Linda Lovelace and Paul Raymond are being feted with features — Lovelace, from Oscar-winning documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, and The Look of Love, from British director Michael Winterbottom. Amanda Seyfried portrays Linda Lovelace.
Porn itself is receiving the feature treatment in Don Jon’s Addiction, a comedy that marks Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut; Kink, an S&M documentary produced by James Franco; and Interior. Leather Bar., a meta-documentary about William Friedkin’s explicit 1980 film Cruising that was directed by — who else? — Franco.
On screens around this charming, snow-dappled town, teachers are sleeping with students (in Hannah Fidell’s A Teacher), older women are sleeping with teenagers (Liz W. Garcia’s The Lifeguard), mothers are sleeping with their friends’ sons (Anne Fontaine’s (Two Mothers) and suburban moms are turning to lesbian prostitution (Stacie Passon’s Concussion).
And then there’s Daniel Radcliffe as a young Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings, in which he’s on the receiving end of sexual acts from both men and women.
Sundance has long been a place for edgy fare. But movies about sexual taboos have been rare in recent years as the transgressive subjects independent filmmakers once trafficked in have gone mainstream. Instead, Sundance filmmakers have told stories about revenge, drugs, poverty, music.
So what’s prompting the sexual renaissance? And is it even possible for a director to say something new about sex when so much has been said by predecessors?
"I think there’s something happening with all these sex movies," said Franco, 34. "We’ve been using violence as a storytelling device for decades but we’ve only just begun to use sex that way instead of as simply something to shock."
There is no single explanation for what’s prompted the flowering of sex-themed movies. But in interviews around Sundance, many of the people responsible for the films agreed with Franco that we’ve entered a new era. Now that the taboos have been broken, it’s about character and storytelling.
An abundance of female directors at Sundance — fully half of the U.S. dramatic competition lineup comprises films made by women — may also be animating the trend.
"For a long time, movies about sex were directed by men," said Kink director Christina Voros. "Now that there are so many great female independent filmmakers, there’s a chance for sex to be told from our point of view."
Needless to say, not everyone has been happy with the sex-themed fare.
Derek Monson, policy director of the conservative Utah think-tank Sutherland Institute, has called for the state to revoke its funding for Sundance in part because of the festival’s proliferation of sex-themed movies.
"We’re questioning whether these films reflect the values that Utahans hold dear," Monson said.
Indeed, some say the battle to bust taboos isn’t over. Though a show such as HBO’s Girls may depict sexual doings that mainstream Emmy winners had never shown before, filmmmakers say there’s still a larger cultural battle to fight; they recall an NC-17 rating for Blue Valentine several years ago because of an oral sex scene that showed no nudity and lasted barely a minute.
Fontaine, the director of Two Mothers, says she was motivated to make her movie because, as much sex as there is on the screen, little of it engages with taboos. "There’s a real conservatism to what we see even in movies about love and sex," she said. "I wanted to show a relationship that can happen but that we never see because people think it’s too forbidden."
Meanwhile, just because the audience is ready to see sex doesn’t mean it’s easy to satisfy its appetite.
"You read explicit material on the page and it seems very simple," said Franco, planning to direct a movie based on the writings of a young Charles Bukowski.
"And then you get on a set with actors and crew and you think, ‘How am I going to do this?’"
— Los Angeles Times