March 19, 2024

Gothic (1986)
Return to Desire
Essay by Gabrielle Sicam

Somewhere between Barthes and the Bible is a theoretical outline to an aesthetics of lust. I encountered desire sometime after encountering the Bible and sometime before encountering Barthes. I understood it to be a strictly occasional feeling, spurred most often (in a rather introverted, quiet youth) during encounters with strangers on summer holidays. It makes sense looking back; everything is sticky then.

A Catholic upbringing in an otherwise atheistic town ensured a latent obsession with desire. I understood that you could want, and that you shouldn’t. But I made the mistake of becoming enamored with the could. I can recall multiple awkward Bible study afternoons watching pimply, sexless volunteers stumble their way through explanations of what exactly was going on in the claymation retelling of Sodom and Gomorrah they had just shown to a class of ten-year-olds. Firstly, Desire is a bad thing; secondly, here’s a two hours narrative of humans enthralled by it. The hypocrisy was badly-handled, more than anything, and easy to pick out. I understood quickly that parents, teachers, priests were generally as confused as the children they fed dogma to. Leaving Catholic school in my early teens effectively uncloistered that world. Disbelieving became easier and easier. Religion became nothing more than an ambiguous residue, figuring in Christmas carols and the occasional plasticine night terror.

Film taught me the lexicon to a belief system I could get behind, one that was far more accessible: that of desire. My parents loved films more than books or paintings, and my childhood was full of them. So my initial understanding of aesthetics was highly digital, dependent on late-capitalist cultures, and had a certain Hollywood bent. Beauty was what could fit into the black box and translate easily out of it — faces, breasts, sunsets. Cinema constricted what could be beautiful in my eyes, made it simple, flat. Cinematic depictions of sex were largely subject to the same kind of treatment, compressed to its bare connotations, little more than heterosexual friction in three-point lighting, closer to the non-erotics of advertising.

Naturally, that doesn’t apply to every film. But eroticism’s tendency towards subtle  slow burn and away from the explicit makes it a non-priority for your typical mainstream blockbuster, aside from, say, the odd erotic thriller. Nuanced treatments of lust are typically only afforded to films that want to have something to say about it; often films that are on the margins, that are independent, low-budget, and queer. A look back to My Own Private Idaho (1991) may recall the Pietà-like stills of a pallid River Phoenix in Keanu Reeves’ arms; a similar, quiet piety, non-religious but nonetheless entirely gentle and spiritual, is evoked in the folk and soft pinks of the sex scene in But I’m a Cheerleader (1999). Desire is not impossible to recreate in film. It is supposedly even making its return now. But really, conveying desire involves more than just a sex scene: it is a complex, permeating energy, a constant thread — to present it properly is to let it come through in full.

Lust can be present even in films that are not necessarily trying to say anything about lust — it can still figure  in the unconscious, because that is where desire is, always living, ready. The maximalist, sexual golden glaze of sun in Top Gun (2022) looms godlike on its characters, beats on backs and shoulders. Desire can be the backdrop, the omnipresent thing, implicit but retaining a distance. It is a phenomenon that finds its religious associations in the noetic: the pure, immaterial, intellectual aspects of a thought-system. Lust is noetic because it calls for transcendence — it is just as potent in flickers of light, or in a simmering crescendo, as it is in direct portrayals of sex. It can suggest something higher without being fanciful, without being concrete. In film, lust is a force that can certainly be directly depicted in form or language, but just as easily can be found in the margins. 

Mainstream porn, on the other side of the trick-mirror that is filmed desire, is comparatively accessible, consumer-driven, devoid of suggestion, decidedly lacking in the ambiguous, and by association, the erotic. More than ever, much contemporary porn has dug further into its own eddy, hyper-performing instant gratification.  It shapes itself around a fetishization of stimulus, a tendency that has become increasingly stark with the rise of AI generated porn. Amia Srinivasan writes in her 2021 book The Right to Sex of porn’s ability to “form[ing] powerful associations between arousal and selected stimuli, bypassing that part of us which pauses, considers, thinks.”  The mise-en-scène is clean, harsh, cuts quick. Images are repetitive, rife with stereotypes, rarely edging too far away from the expected and familiar. Its lack of eroticism can perhaps be tied down to a lack of ambition, or even interest, in wanting to depict a higher form of desire. Porn’s reliance on scripted familiarity makes it devoid of suspense. Erotic desire deals with, at least in some part, the unknown, and the ever-distant — porn lacks its shudders, its feeling in the dark.

This kind of rote visual lexicon is the most immediate expression of sexual desire that many of us have grown up with in recent decades. It mixes sex and pain, and, somehow, makes both entirely boring. Like mainstream film, it has been and continues to be shaped by the demands of capital. Eroticism, crucially, pays no mind to money, will always call for visual representations that are unconventional, transcendent.

In the past few years, marked by superhero films and moralistic cash grabs, there have been countless pieces of mainstream film criticism that largely tie up to the same point: where did sex go? According to The Guardian and Playboy, “sex in cinema in the 2010s was at its lowest point (1.21%) since the 1960s.” When there is sex on-screen, the general understanding is that it will be short, straight and conventional.

Film-sex of the recent past is a dull spectacle of cis, white, conventionally attractive bodies. It shows little more than friction until climax. Its central logic seems to be that desire is not interesting enough to linger upon, to afford more time to its depiction, and that it is a simple want that must be fulfilled quickly. It is colored by a general embarrassment, an adversity towards expressions of lushness and pleasure. The anticipatory buzz around the infamous Oppenheimer sex scenes largely centered around their being the first in Nolan’s filmography. Still, unsurprisingly, their inclusion seemed flat and auxiliary; while understandably not the focus of the film, they suffered a fate comparable to that afforded to women in the Nolan oeuvre. Mere nakedness does not a sex scene make. But in Nolan’s — and many others’ — Hollywood, sex is not necessity. It is not part-of-life. It is framed to be excess, masturbatory, never enjoyable in itself. 

At the heart of film-sex is a tired push-and-pull between viewer repression and release. It works to gratify voyeuristic desires, offers a commodified understanding of sex and relationships.  Though film, as a medium, has the language and capacity for far more transgressive depictions of sex, the conditions and demands of filmmaking often call for banal and bland explication. But the erotic is not always, in fact rarely is, explicit. In place of explicit sex scenes, eroticism in film is often channeled through formal aspects that can make way for close reading: lush mise-en-scène, haunting scores, choice transitions. It is conjured through carefully constructed images, ones that don’t completely play into the hand of the viewer, that confuse or confront instead of looking to please.

Mainstream sex scenes often perform transgression. But really they constrict and work to subdue anything suggestive; they are still bound to certain norms and limits that our repressive culture dictates. Those limits mine at the erotic potential of film-sex, but also the erotics of film as a whole. The repression of eroticism seeks to erode everything sensual, everything that takes it past the boundaries of the market. Porn is often concerned with commodifying its immediacy; a simple Twitter search of the keyword, thanks to all the bots, will easily come up with thousands of results to do with AI girlfriends and encouragements to “keep gooning.” Cinema, though constantly veering closer, retains an almost holy distance of observer-observed. It is still aware that it is an art.

The erotic is concerned with the distant, the near, the suspended, the ephemeral as much as it is with depictions of sex. But even these immaterial aspects can easily be lost. Directors like Lynch, Jarman and Araki have a deft hold over the style of eroticism. They understand the art of suggestion; the incisiveness required, the natural mystique, evoked in the current zombie “revival” of sex in film. The recent success of Poor Things (2023), May December (2023), and Passages (2023) points to a bright future for those bemoaning prudish cinema. Sex is crawling back onto the mainstream screen as a vehicle for self-discovery, as a catalyst for working through trauma, and as sex, in all of its frenzied, tumultuous glory. It is being recognized as valuable to art and equally a mode of art in itself.

But it is a revival. And sometimes things are dug up wrong.

One might expect shock value to be at the cross-section of cinema, porn and religion. In his essay “Looking at Images,” medievalist Bill Burgwinkle delineates similarities between pornography and hagiography, one of which is a shared intent to incite a bodily reaction within the viewer. Medieval paintings of saints often depict extreme bodily states, incorporating nakedness, torture, wound openings; think of statues of the Virgin Mary, their upward gazes, the stretches of tears that fall from them, their ever-open mouths. Burgwinkle describes Linda William’s notion of “the frenzy of the visible,” the “elusive something,” the task of porn to imitate “what can only ever be suggested through rhetoric and gesture” (p.22, Sanctity and Pornography in Medieval Culture). Often this results in a kind of “hyper-performance,” toeing the line between transcendence and parody, sublimating the expected reaction of the viewer into a higher representation.

Saltburn (2023) sets an anticipatory tone for the return of the erotic thriller. It is full of moments that should conjure a material reaction: naked dancing, post-orgasm bathwater drinking, grave-fucking. But much of the criticism written about it rightly points to an empty core. A Guardian review refers to it as “Brideshead soup, […] nobility without the Catholicism or the pathos or the wartime regret.” Saltburn is certainly beautiful, but it is so conscious of itself, and its own performance of the shocking, that it lacks a certain sensuality, an aspect key to representations of the erotic.

When I was ten or eleven-years-old, my parents decided we should switch churches. The one in our hometown was decidedly not somber enough, full of local family politics and gossip and noise. My local priest, who liked me because I was a working-class kid who had been blessed with the god-given quality of “good reading” (alongside other potentially more worrying reasons), had expressed his disappointment when I chose to go to a non-Catholic secondary school. I had privately denounced my faith long ago, and didn’t mind any of this very much, but my mum found such a notion petty and, never quite resolving her Paris syndrome for central London, had wanted to start going somewhere classier anyway. This largely boiled down to a church with choir boys. 

So we began our weekly drive up from Croydon to Westminster. The journey, from neglected estates to leafy suburbs to cloistered townhouses, was sobering enough — practically a topography of our attempt at assimilation. But entering the cathedral, immersing myself in the interior, was what made me truly realize how small I was. I felt less than a body, more a tangle of sensations reacting to the overload of luminous images that met me at every corner. The most fantastical of all (of course, this is really an inclusive experience for the majority of Catholic churches) was the enormous crucifix, the Rood Cross, suspended at the end of the nave. I had seen so many iterations of Jesus’ wounded body: hanging from rear-view mirrors; up on acquaintances’ walls; in churches just as fanciful. But there was something about reckoning this body, this specific depiction of Christ mortified, knowing that this would be looming over me every Sunday for the entirety of my teenagehood. It was the purest experience of holy distance, of observer-observed. The blood on his hands, feet, round his crown of thorns, seeped into the structure, melding foreground and background. The stark, contrasting red of the cross illuminated his stigmata, made his emaciation and endurance viciously palpable, even to a young viewer.

Blood is inherently sensual, violent, erotic. Its presence suggests that a body has been opened, marked in some way; the appearance of a scar can connote pleasure as much as it can ruin. In the Ballard novel Crash, a character has a long scar that resembles a vagina running down her thigh; a particularly perverse moment sees the narrator attempt to simulate sex with it. Ballard talked openly about the pornographic logic of the novel. The scene alarms because it confronts the central voyeurism of porn head-on, destroys any notion of beautiful distance, exposes only the grotesque terror-impulse.

In Saltburn, the protagonist Oliver performs oral sex on another character, Venetia, while she is on her period. When she initially, vulnerably, warns him about it, he tells her that she’s lucky he’s a vampire. Oliver ingests Venetia’s blood and invites her to do the same. In an interview with TIME, director Emerald Fennell described it as “an incredibly effective sex scene because he’s worshiping her body, and everything that her body produces.”

But the scene happens in the dark. The pair seem immaterial. As if reluctant to show the act at work, the camera remains largely on their faces; the blood appears on Oliver’s fingers between cuts as though he’s primed himself for finger-painting off-screen. The dialogue hits like a dirge. The lighting misses its chance for something just a little more chiaroscuro. Oliver is supposedly “worshiping” her body, but there is little tantalizing about a sex scene that seems embarrassed by the act it’s depicting.

Released thirty-seven years before Saltburn, a similar scene takes place in Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986), a dramatization of a night of storytelling that took place at Villa Diodati within a circle of British Romantics, including Lord Byron and Percy and Mary Shelley. Lord Byron, played by Gabriel Byrne, performs oral sex on his lover Claire Clairmont, covering her face with a bedsheet as he does; the image draws resemblance to one of Magritte’s Lovers. Claire is pregnant — the blood on Byron’s face is not from her period but from her miscarriage. John William Polidori, another writer, ever the voyeur, listens from another room, pleasuring himself by self-mortifying with a nail on which a crucifix has been hanging onto. 

As previously stated, film has the capacity for eroticism. In fact, it probably has the most capacity out of any visual medium today. It is immediate; it is flexible; it is necessarily reliant on a relationship with the viewer. Like Ballard, Russell makes use of pastiche, reference, analogy. The sequences are clearly thought-out and composed; editing is crucial to bolster the analogous relationship Russell articulates between self-mortification and climax. Referring, otherwise making like, contributes to the sensuality of a work, as it makes it bigger than simply its viewer, locates the art in a nexus of similar feelings and sensations. It forces the viewer to work to understand what is being depicted for them, true to the noetic aspect of the erotic.

Shock is nothing if the content is not that shocking, and crucially if the makers do not think deeply about the emotion they wish to incite. Saltburn’s visuals are beautiful but do not necessarily compel. They do not linger. By attaching a sexual act to something bigger — by framing it in its wider contexts, of religious trauma, psychological taboos, and otherworldly mysticism, Russell expands the otherwise stringent and familiar connotations of sex from which Fennell seems loath to stray.

Prop from Crash (1996). Photo by Rene Passet.
The aesthetics of lust today must keep striving to articulate what cannot be articulated, to stretch expected meanings. Art may never be able to perfectly recreate what attraction, lust, desire feels like — but it can represent it, and in doing so, push it further. It’s a matter of imagination and will. The erotic is around us in abundance, but is so often compartmentalized, pulled from without real thought. Perhaps cinema’s problem is that it takes the erotic for granted, or that it has lost interest with it. Mainstream film lacks a certain luster, a richness to complement the technological rigor that has pushed it so far. For example, Richard Brody’s New Yorker review of Dune (2021) criticized the film’s “rigid and hermetic imagery,” its perceived lack of “visceral impact” or an “unconscious.” The review calls the film a “failure of imagination.” Instead Brody looks to Lynch’s 1984 version, particularly praising its production design, citing its “phantasmagorical and nearly fetishistic relationship to the material world.”

Dune (1984) flopped commercially and critically, and, though I do have a soft spot for it, I feel inclined to agree with the general consensus around the film, pugs or no pugs. But Brody’s criticism articulates something that permeates deep in discussions surrounding cinematic sensuality; he mourns a loss of style, and of heart. Lynch’s sweeping shots, minute detail and referential idiosyncrasy — pulling from everything from futurism to art deco to Belle Epoque — color the film with an unmistakable richness that enjoys itself. In comparison, the 2021 version seems entirely cold, ascetic, militaristic.

Lynch’s Dune begins with a pan out from the eyes of Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen), explicator in both novel and film, superimposed over a background of stars. At once she is futuristic royal, femme fatale, Hitchcock blonde, prelapsarian Eve. The intimacy of the opening may recall Vertigo (1958), but shares equal resemblance to Star Wars in its beginning explication, even to the chorus of Greek drama. The language of film has a unique capacity for paradox, and Lynch uses it, layering the scene with references yet somehow allowing itself to stretch past the space of the referent. Irulan provides the viewer with information, predicts the earth tones of court, should be, by all accounts, in a defined position; yet she is not located. She fades into the stars. She is identified by the viewer, but her gaze cuts so deep that, for a moment, we wonder: has she identified us? Her unwavering eye contact turns the voyeur’s gaze on itself, cuts the performance, suspends any expectation of familiarity. The narrative function and connotations of the scene may suggest that Irulan, as the beheld, is subject to the viewer. But Lynch introduces play. He makes introduction its own surrealist challenge. He channels the erotic by suspending the expectations of the viewer to feel immediately at ease, immediately gratified.

Lynch’s Dune may and often has been dismissed as drivel, too fantastical, too camp. But it is this attention paid to its world, to the matter of it, that allows for the erotic to shine through. It could be said that much of eroticism is to do with attention — desiring it, having it, not having it. 

In my eyes, much of institutional Catholicism relies on that kind of desire. I grew up believing that God was out there, that he was watching. The soft purpose of this, of course, is to encourage one to do good. But it’s so easily appropriated for surveillance and punishment and repression. However: taking this on, acknowledging the watcher, acknowledging indeed that one is watched, opens up an entire world of erotic possibilities. We can take pleasure in the noetics of watching — the intellectual game it becomes between the observer and the observed. Lynch’s Dune plays that game, invites the viewer, then confuses. Eroticism is, after all, about the could, the reach towards. 

Return to Seoul (2022) similarly plays with erotic distance. It follows a French-Korean woman, Freddie, visiting South Korea for the first time to seek out her birth parents. The ambitious narrative, spanning years, follows the changes she undergoes as she stays in Seoul. Two years in, she has foregone any attempt at a relationship with her birth parents (aside from ignored letters to her mother). But her desire for connection, however temporary, permeates the lexicon of desires in the film. She is a character performing her overarching desires through modes of fulfillment that are easier to bear. Sex is that, just sex. How do desires figure when a protagonist avoids them? This is a question that Return to Seoul is not afraid of exploring, even if the answer is messy, even if “I” does not exist.

So — two years in. Freddie’s friends throw her a surprise birthday rave. She spends it dancing to Schwefelgelb, getting drunk, getting high, kissing her partner and making him kiss her co-worker. Then she falls silent, lies back and reveals that her mother has answered one of her letters. Throughout this entire scene, she is all impulse, but modulates it through a muted, careful nonchalance. She moves through a series of distractors, little pockets of easily-fulfilled lust. But when it comes close to the reckoning, the film slows to an imperceptible narrative beat. We slow. All we have is the pulsing music and the slivers of emotion Freddie allows herself to show. They secrete, slowly, as she spills open. Desire lies between the lines until it can no longer.

Return to Seoul lets light move over Freddie in swathes. Her face barely flinches, but its engagement with the picture is unmistakable. Every moment of her yearning is realized in association with the environment around her. The erotic is abundant. We are constantly moving within it, through it.

 We have been trained to expect images that are concrete, rigid, commodified. But eroticism requires movement, dynamism, transgression. It is no wonder that it figures so succinctly in genre and outsider art, in horror, in foreign films, in queer films; the creators of such are already at the margins of Hollywood. The truth is that, though eroticism is “making its return,” it likely never left — it is simply that the films that do address certain spiritual, sensual elements with sensitivity are not often the ones that have money behind them. Still, it is a visual energy that permeates, far past the screen that will live on in readings, in analyses, in feelings brought about by the viewer. It will outlive the concrete and the demands of capital. Desire can be the overhanging thing.

Return to Seoul (2022)

Gabrielle Sicam is a writer and bookseller from South London.