Sex Scenes, Stage Kisses, Post-MeToo Intimacy: From Catherine Breillat to Sarah Ruhl and Back

by Abigail Akavia

Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen in “Singin’ in the Rain”, as Hollywood stars selling their fans the fantasy of onscreen-turned-real love

When I was in my early twenties I watched Catherine Breillat’s 2002 film Sex Is Comedy. It tells the story of a female director struggling to shoot a sex scene between her two young leading actors, who clearly can’t stand each other. The film follows the director through a series of off-camera shenanigans, including fitting the male actor with a ridiculously large prosthetic penis. Ultimately, the scene is successfully shot; this success is presented as a triumph of the only two women on set, the director and the actress (played by Anne Parillaud and Roxane Mesquida respectively). It is a radically feminist feat, whose value may today be marred for reasons both universal and personal: first, the general changes to the film and television industries brought on especially by the MeToo movement have affected also how simulated sex scenes are produced; second, Breillat’s remarks against MeToo specifically may prompt us to reevaluate her avowedly feminist work. 

My initial impression of the film was not directly affected by its feminist import. I remember being absolutely stunned and deeply touched by the film’s ending, which zeroes in on the teenager’s naked body and face, depicting the simultaneous shame and pleasure she feels as she has sex for the first time. The embodied struggle, this bittersweetness of young sex, is also the struggle and bittersweetness of acting, of a surging yet somehow controlled creativity that stems from pain and demands a dangerous level of exposure. If up until that point the female protagonist is the film-within-a-film’s director, it now becomes the actress. Her courageous vulnerability positions her as a great artist, precisely through the act of “submissively” becoming a woman. The men around her, co-star and cameramen in particular, are awed by the trueness she revealed, by how unlike “acting” and entirely not-fake was what they witnessed. As the shooting ends, the sounds of the actress’s sobs make way for an awkward silence, one that hovers between uncomfortable and reverent, as if all those present have transgressed something entirely too personal. A few seconds afterwards, the director tenderly holds the actress in her arms. They share the frame, and we see the relief and pride they both feel at their joint acting-directing accomplishment. The tears of pain and delight of the simulated sexual act turn into an ecstatic release of the artistic energy needed to conjure that simulation.

I recently rewatched Sex Is Comedy, thinking it might shed light on how intimacy between actors is created and maintained, how it “works” (when it does). In this respect, Breillat’s film was a disappointment; it is not really concerned with the nuts and bolts of how actors work together, but instead offers a potent model of artistic directorial control (as I describe below). The questions that intimacy between actors raises have occupied me lately, both in practical pursuits as a theater actress and director, and in more cerebral pursuits, such as writing this essay. This last task I have abandoned and taken back up several times, and, to be honest, the more-forceful-than-usual pull of my procrastinatory tendency probably stemmed from the very same confusion that is inherent to onstage intimacy. An experience of radical vulnerability that can be thrilling, scary, gross or everything in between, it arouses in actors a complex emotional nexus. These emotions resist verbalization and intellectualization, but are also urgent—or rather, the need to own them (in all senses of the term) feels urgent. Sarah Ruhl’s 2011 play Stage Kiss is an honest and warm-hearted attempt to capture what she calls the “weirdest part of the actors’ job”—that is, to kiss strangers—and to articulate the messy boundaries between life and fiction that onstage intimacy may create. Most of the time, of course, actors don’t actually kiss strangers, but people who at the very least can be called their co-workers. Yet Ruhl sets up her theme by presenting us with the extreme case of onstage intimacy as kissing a literal stranger: at an audition. The hilarious opening scene of Stage Kiss exposes the awkward technicality of stage-kissing, which is magnified by the self-consciousness of the protagonist (“She”), an actress in her forties auditioning for the first time in years. Yet as the play progresses, the questions it deals with become more heavyweight. “She” and “He”, the lead actors of the play-within-the-play, are ex-lovers that play ex-lovers that reunite, and then they themselves (She and He, that is) rekindle their love. “When I kissed you just now, did it feel like an actor kissing an actor or a person kissing a person?”, She asks. Her question shows that as an actress she tries to compartmentalize kissing into two activities, onstage and real, but also that the divide between the two categories is fuzzy or even entirely contrived. Her very identity as an actress, one who can simultaneously desire someone onstage and have a separate offstage relationship—that is, remain “a person”—is called into question. 

Thus Stage Kiss uses the very real thrill of kissing a co-actor or “stranger” (thrill is the best case scenario, of course), to meditate on the fantasy of stepping out from our everyday life and into an alternative one. In both the play and the play-within-the-play the reunited lovers leave their partners, but this is ultimately shown to be an impractical diversion from the responsibilities (and sometimes drudgery) of their “real” lives. Indeed, at a round table discussion about Stage Kiss, Ruhl admits that marriage is the actual theme of the play, but also that it is an inherently non-dramatic subject. Her examination of marriage ties in with how Esther Perel—the relationship-guru and psychotherapist, and a participant of the same round-table—understands contemporary monogamous culture. According to Perel, monogamy in its current form instills in us an unrealistic expectation that the same person, our partner, provide us with both a sense of security and predictability and a constant sense of arousal and excitement. This is not to say that Ruhl asks her character to settle, to give up her passion for the boring stability of her marriage. Rather, she has her realize (with the help of a very considerate husband) that “you can’t live on champagne,” and choose the comfort of “the smell of toast in the morning.”

This clever dramatic detour into the anti-dramatic theme of marriage is rooted in the paradoxical real-ness of stage-kissing. Actors in a recent production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream describe a similar dynamic: to convincingly depict their characters falling in love onstage nightly, they allowed themselves to experience what they actually find attractive in their co-stars (rehearsing was like “a longer version of a first date”). They also used the long rehearsal process as a feature of their characters’ relationships—whether to practice kissing from early on and achieve a level of physical familiarity fitting the long-time couple Hermia and Lysander, or to hold off kissing until the last run-through to mimic the extended build-up between Helen and Demetrius. The honesty with which the actors talk about the process of “creating the chemistry” is refreshing in a field where kissing a hot guy onstage is considered simply a perk of the profession, or, more infamously in the last few years, where actors, especially women, are asked to cooperate with any intimate action explicitly or implicitly demanded of them. Both female actors from the Midsummer cast, as well as the male and female actors in the Stage Kiss round-table, describe how onstage intimacy can be awkward and traumatic, and speak of the importance of setting boundaries and expectations. As the recent vocal examples in Hollywood and beyond have made clear, there is often a continuum between abuse on- and off-camera, and on- and off-stage.

The realization that a culture of sexual violence and toxic masculinity has a particular effect in show biz, where a willingness to do things with your body is, to an extent, a definition of the job, has given rise to a heightened awareness to how intimate scenes are produced. In January, the New York Times ran an article on a newly popular profession on film and television sets: the intimacy coordinator. The job of the intimacy coordinator or choreographer is to help make scenes depicting erotic activity look believable, and assure that their rehearsing and filming (or performance, in theatrical productions) is a safe experience for the actors, emotionally and physically. The field is compared to that of fight choreography, whose necessity for the safety of actors has long been recognized. An intimacy coordinator makes sure everything is done with consent. The important and perhaps counter-intuitive notion presented in the NYT piece is that a detailed choreography of simulated sex aids in creating both artistic verisimilitude and an environment free of harassment and abuse, precisely because it puts everybody on the same page. Once the expectations are clear, whatever needs to be depicted can be done with precision, even if it’s the awkwardness of teenage sex (as in Netflix’s Sex Education, whose intimacy choreographer Ida O’Brien is profiled in the piece). Choreographing intimacy doesn’t turn it into a cerebral activity, for the actors’ foremost tool is still their bodies. On the contrary, O’Brien’s exercises are aimed at developing a depth and range of use of the body (asking actors to “breathe like a gorilla or swim like a fish”). Intimacy coordinators also describe the need to desensitize talk of the body, for example by using correct names for body-parts. Both kinds of training, the physical and the linguistic, de-mystify the body as the medium of intimacy and eroticism. By ensuring that actors are personally safe, their body can be used more freely to express their creativity.

This brings me back, finally, to Breillat’s Sex Is Comedy. There too, the body is a tool for expressivity; what is more, the process of filming sex becomes a metaphor for cinematic creativity. But as a representation of on-set dynamics, it shows simulated sex as a submission to radical vulnerability, lacking in intimacy between co-actors. While the official subject matter of Sex Is Comedy is the blurry lines between what is fake and what is real when portraying intimate or erotic scenes, upon re-watching it I realized it was a film not about acting but about directing. The film’s star is Breillat’s doppelgänger; its dramatic struggle is hers. Its crux, the conflict between the scripted intimacy and the off-camera lack of chemistry among her actors, is a way to examine the act of engineering eroticism. It presents the actors’ experiences, without lingering on their perspective(s). For it does depict the complicated, messy, and potentially abusive off-camera work that goes into filming a sex-scene, and it questions the need for emotional identification between actor and character. Sex Is Comedy reveals some of the many technical aspects of cinematic work, which are in principle invisible to the audience of the finished product, and which can have an alienating affect on the actors. But the difficulties are presented as problems of producing a believable sex-scene more than acting in it. The director’s choreography of the sex-scene, for example, is one she does herself with her assistant, not in collaboration with her actors. 

If the work of intimacy coordinators in the Anglo-American world emphasizes consent and respect for the body and represents a reckoning with the history of abuse in filmmaking, it is perhaps unsurprising that Breillat’s “behind-the-scenes” film has a different feel. Breillat has been notoriously opposed to the MeToo movement, for reasons that have perhaps most to do with a cultural difference between the French and the Americans (though that is obviously a gross simplification). At the same time, she has been studied and touted as a feminist artist whose films are living examples, or enactments, of a philosophy of female desire. Sex Is Comedy is Breillat’s seemingly light-hearted approach to themes she takes very seriously and that have occupied her throughout her career, namely the limits—social, political, emotional, technical—of female creativity and sexuality. Specifically, it was intended as a humorous and not entirely fictional look at the process of shooting her own film of the year prior, Fat Girl (À Ma Sœur). Breillat is perhaps most famous for representing sexuality in graphic and disturbing ways and in destabilizing boundaries between explicit and simulated sex, a practice that is so on the fringe of cinematic work (and feminism) that it seems miles away from the post-MeToo world of mainstream entertainment.

What Breillat’s fictional set shows is how un-sexy it is to shoot a sex-scene—something that is also borne out by more mainstream practitioners, like virtually all those interviewed in the sources linked above. Breillat, however, chooses to hold on to some of the mystery of the process. The eventual success of the shoot in Sex Is Comedy is gained through the powerful emotional connection that is forged between the actress and the director, a bond of trust whose exact structure and operations remain relatively undecipherable, certainly relative to the explicitly exposed choreography or the manipulations the director employs on her male lead. Breillat captures, or rather retains, the magical quality of both acting and (female) sexual desire even as she positions herself, via her onscreen double, as the architect of both. There is a dual feminist act here, for the female director at once takes control of and liberates the artistic and erotic force of her female protagonist—an onscreen dynamic that also represents Breillat’s real-life work behind the camera. Should we disown these feats because of her later statements against MeToo, or the allegations of her abusive behavior that consequently surfaced? To my mind, even if her own sense of feminism did not align with MeToo, we should still recognize that her project of destabilizing male authority and liberating the female body was one of many important precursors to it.