The 2023 Sundance Film Festival Was Horny as Hell
At this year’s Sundance, the hills were alive with the sound of fucking.
Though mainstream movies have devolved into a sex-free enterprise, where superheroes and Xenu’s chosen one vie for maximum profit, the premier showcase for independent cinema is still letting its freak flag fly. Yes, the 2023 Sundance Film Festival — running from Jan. 19 to Jan. 29 — was delightfully horny, serving as a rebuke to an industry that has for years treated onscreen sex as a sin more damning than all matter of corporal violence; one dominated by striking Marvel and DC world savers in tight spandex who absolutely refuse to get it on, or even so much as kiss.
As the great Steven Soderbergh once said, “Nobody’s fucking! Like, I don’t know how to tell people to behave in a world in which that is not a thing … the fantasy-spectacle universe, as far as I can tell, typically doesn’t involve a lot of fucking.”
Sundance would have none of that. About 20 minutes into Infinity Pool, filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg’s pitch-black satire of one-percenter rapaciousness, and one of the most anticipated titles at the fest, the seductive Gabi Bauer (Mia Goth) sneaks up on married novelist James Foster (Alexander Skarsgard) while he takes a piss behind a tree, grabs his cock, and furiously jacks him off. The camera then captures her hand stroking him away in close-up as he ejaculates all over the ground. It is but one of several scenes that earned the film an NC-17 rating from the puritanical MPAA. In another, we’re treated to a hallucinogenic orgy sequence replete with all manner of sexual positions, including a nude goth riding Skarsgard’s character like a steed. The bloody finale even features some light breastfeeding.
The hottest ticket prior to Sundance 2023 was Cat Person, director Susanna Fogel’s adaptation of Kristen Roupenian’s viral New Yorker story of the same name. It follows Margot (Emilia Jones, star of CODA), a 20-year-old college sophomore who works as a ticket taker at the local cinema. There, she meets Robert (Nicholas Braun, a.k.a. Succession’s Cousin Greg), a thirtysomething loner who seems charming enough, at least at first. After some textual tension, the two embark on a particularly uninspired date to the very movie theater where she works to catch a screening of The Empire Strikes Back, followed by some drinks. They kiss on the sidewalk, and, though his technique resembles Lloyd Christmas in Dumb and Dumber, she decides to go home with him. What transpires is one of the more gag-inducing sex scenes ever put to film, as Braun’s Robert ignores every one of Margot’s social cues and clear sense of discomfort, instead jackhammering away on top of her. It prompts Margot to have an out-of-body experience, her reflection looking back at her in this moment of coital calamity and wondering how she can put a stop to it.
It’s too bad, then, that the rest of the proceedings devolve into a dreadfully on-the-nose spin on a social-justice horror flick, as Margot finds herself the victim of cruel unhinged texts and stalking by Robert en route to a fist-and-furniture-flying showdown.
A far more convincing exploration of sexual and power dynamics was Fair Play, the feature directorial debut of Chloe Domont and the fest’s breakout hit, scooped up by Netflix in a splashy $20 million deal.
The erotic thriller centers on a young couple, Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) who work together at a high-intensity hedge fund. When Emily is given the promotion that Luke thought was his — even though she is the clear finance wiz here — he transforms into a resentful, accusatory, emasculated shell of his former self, and lashes out.
Luke’s mojo is still intact at the film’s open, navigating his brother’s wedding. Emily looks stunning. Everyone keeps telling Luke as much, which makes him feel mighty, virile. So, he pulls her into a bathroom, locks the door, and performs oral sex on her while she’s seated on the counter, only to realize that she’s having her period. He got so lost in the heat of the moment that he didn’t even realize his mouth, and her dress, are covered in blood. The scene contrasts with another, more disturbing one later on in the film, but to describe it further would ruin the surprise.
A pair of buzzy films out of the fest documented two young females’ sexual coming-of-age. In filmmaker Laurel Parmet’s The Starling Girl, Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen, extraordinary) is a 17-year-old trapped in a strict Christian-fundamentalist community in rural Kentucky. Though her über-religious parents push her to court Ben (Austin Abrams), a deeply awkward kid who gives the impression that he’s eaten dirt, she’s more interested in Owen (Lewis Pullman), the new twentysomething youth pastor who’s taken a keen interest in her. She begins pleasuring herself thinking about him, and before long, the teen and the predatory pastor are sneaking off at night to have sex in his truck, or in his house when his wife isn’t home. The sexual encounters of Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie), the titular character of director William Oldroyd’s 1960s Massachusetts-set mystery Eileen, never leave the realm of her imagination. We first see her manually pleasuring herself in a car while observing another couple kissing; later, the lost-in-her-thoughts young woman masturbates repeatedly in the prison she works, fantasizing about the guards and inmates — before setting her sights on Dr. Rebecca Saint John (Anne Hathaway), the prison’s alluring psychologist.
If there was a prize for full-frontal nudity at Sundance, it would surely go to Rotting in the Sun, director Sebastian Silva’s meta-mockery of influencer culture. The film boasts more penis shots than the entire first season of Euphoria. Ira Sachs’ Passages, meanwhile, contain a pair of sex scenes that were the fest’s rawest and emotionally authentic. Tomas (Franz Rogowski), a demanding German filmmaker in Paris, marches to the beat of his own drummer. His devil-may-care attitude leads him to occasionally cheat on his doting English husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw), especially when he’s in a celebratory mood after wrapping on a film. This time, he pulls a French woman, Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), into his personal mess. The two begin an affair — one that commences with Tomas and Agathe banging away first on a table, then the couch. They’re in such heat she’s neglected to remove her black combat boots.
Later on, however, Tomas returns to Martin. He misses “being with a man,” and the two engage in several minutes of passionate sex. While Tomas was a top with Agathe, he’s a bottom here, with Martin’s body swallowing him up in the shot.
As our critic K. Austin Collins wrote, “Sachs’ sex scenes are never reductively symbolic. They are filled with pleasure and, more pressingly, genuine knowingness, the kind that only long-term partners can share. Yet we never forget the immediacy of the sex as sex, never mistake it for sex being wielded purely for its dramatic import. Even when it’s awkward; even when we’re not even sure that the sex is good.”
Audiences are clearly starved for more movie sex after many years of drought, not to mention a global pandemic that discouraged human-to-human contact. It’s something that the streaming world is all too aware of, with even banal fare like Sex/Life and 365 Days burning up the charts. Now indie filmmakers have taken notice, delivering a bevy of sexed-up films. It would be nice if Hollywood followed suit. There are only so many sexless superheroes we can handle.