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From ‘Nymphomaniac’ to ‘Shortbus,’ a History of Unsimulated Sex Scenes in 32 Films

From Lars von Trier to John Cameron Mitchell and almost every Vincent Gallo movie, here are the films that actually captured real sex scenes.

“Wetlands,” “Pola X,” “The Idiots,” “Intimacy,” “Strange by the Lake,” “Immoral Woman”

Everett Collection

Sex on film is nothing new, and yet unsimulated intercourse in non-pornographic films has been somewhat of a marvel.

Catherine Breillat‘s first film in 1976, “A Very Young Girl,” adapts her own controversial novel about a 14-year-old exploring her newfound sexuality. While the lead actress Charlotte Alexandra was age 20 during production, the film wasn’t released in theaters in the U.S. until 2000.

Breillat’s later film, “Romance,” was announced as the first European film with non-simulated sex scenes in 1999, according to Breillat.

“Actors are prostitutes because they’re asked to play other feelings,” Breillat exclusively told IndieWire. “This prostitution is not profane; it’s a sacred act that we give them.”

In contrast, John Cameron Mitchell set out to “honor” sex as a pastime for real people, much like art, music, or cuisine, in his second feature film, “Shortbus,” the 2006 film now rolling out a re-release restoration nationwide.

Mitchell told IndieWire about filming the cult classic, “Certainly, a lot of films had used sex, but they were pretty grim, and I wanted something more fun and funny, but still emotionally deep. And so I said, ‘I never want you to do anything you don’t want to do, but I do want you to challenge yourselves so we can challenge the audience.'”

Mitchell continued, “‘Shortbus’ isn’t about sex. It uses sex as a medium, as a delivery system for ideas and characters and emotions, just like ‘Hedwig [and the Angry Itch]’ uses music. Sex is our music in ‘Shortbus.’ We really only did one sexual rehearsal. I just went with what they wanted to do.”

And the depiction of unsimulated sex onscreen has taken many forms across decades and new political landscapes. “In terms of sex being presented on film, mainstream or even independent film has foresworn it,” Mitchell summarized. “They’ve given it up, because it’s too scary. There’s too many people saying someone’s being exploited and consent-based issues in intimacy. Imagine an intimacy counselor on the ‘Shortbus’ set. Imagine…a ‘Shortbus’ intimacy counselor would be like, ‘May he put his arm inside you now? Is that OK?'”

See the definitive list of unsimulated sex in film, directed by filmmakers from Lars von Trier to Vincent Gallo, William Friedkin and Abel Ferrera.

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