Sensual Cinema

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).
Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).

From Hitchcock to Ducournau, filmmaker Isabel Sandoval takes us to the edge of pleasure in an examination of films that deliberately and artfully frustrate desire.

Listen to Isabel discuss Hiroshima Mon Amour and In the Mood for Love—among her other favorite films—on The Letterboxd Show, then browse her list of 25 films to get you started in the Sensual Cinema realm.

In 2012, Sight & Sound ran a critics’ poll: What is the greatest film of all time? The winner was Vertigo—a reflection, not so much of its aesthetic merits as a work of cinema, but of the tastes and predilections of the poll voters. Vertigo doesn’t ostensibly engage with loftier cinematic concerns like the philosophical and ontological ruminations of the likes of Tarkovsky or Kieslowski, but something baser, more primal.

The film that the most esteemed critics and scholars in the world voted the best of all time is—there is no other way to say this—about Hitchcock’s raging obsession with blondes.

For that reason it’s the most Hitchcockian of Hitchcock’s films, the purest (and most damning) incarnation of his thematic fixations. Sex sells? That’s old-hat. I say it’s desire—and the more repressed, taboo, unfulfilled that desire is, the more consuming it is, and the more it plays like gangbusters. In Vertigo, that desire has reached an extreme that feels like a (demonic) possession—and it’s not Madeleine (Kim Novak) I’m referring to. It’s John (Jimmy Stewart) who is possessed by a deep, raw, irrational need to possess Novak to the point of death.

To the voting critics, Vertigo had, if I may borrow Pauline Kael’s choice words on a now-maligned Bertolucci, “the same kind of hypnotic excitement as [Le Sacre du Printemps], the same primitive force, and the same thrusting, jabbing eroticism”. The films that attempt to exorcise that desire, and—this is key—deliberately and artfully frustrate it, make up what I consider Sensual Cinema.

Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, together-apart in In the Mood for Love (2000).
Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, together-apart in In the Mood for Love (2000).

The monster is scarier under the bed. So it is with desire in cinema. What’s sexy is not the sex, but the suggestion, followed by the expectation and anticipation of that desire being satiated. Desire, in effect, becomes a looming, ominous presence in the best of these films, suffusing each intoxicating frame and sound cue, ultimately possessing us. The more exquisitely and grandly this desire is courted and then thwarted, the more transcendent the film appears.

This is the trick (and genius) of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, keeping Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung apart forever. It’s the cinema about the ones that got away that we never forget. And the ones we almost lost: if Todd Haynes’ Carol lasted a single frame longer, its magic would diminish. The taboo aspect of queer desire in films set in less progressive milieus has much to do with them being sensuous.

Alongside sensuous films, there are also the directors whose sensibility is innately and irrepressibly sensuous, animating nearly every frame of their work. There’s Wong Kar Wai of course (who also has Happy Together and 2046), Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, The Beguiled), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk), Jean Cocteau (Orpheus), Jane Campion (The Piano, In The Cut), Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy), Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) and Andrea Arnold (American Honey).

In David Lynch films like Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, desire is at its most perverse and virulent in the realm of dreams and the subterranean. More than just desire being present in the film, it’s the filmmaker’s attitude towards it—whether desire is central, whether it’s considered beautiful or pleasurable or enriching—that determines the sensuality of their work.

Sakda Kaewbuadee and Banlop Lomnoi in Tropical Malady (2004).
Sakda Kaewbuadee and Banlop Lomnoi in Tropical Malady (2004).

Arthouse and experimental cinema is an even richer ground for sensuousness. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady situates (queer) desire in mythology and surrealism, while Claire Denis’ Beau Travail is both a ghost story and fever dream of that desire. Two of last year’s most ambitious and inspired works of sensuous cinema take on women desiring women: Shirley (directed by Josephine Decker) and Kajillionaire (written and directed by Miranda July).

Films about desire by women and queer filmmakers end up being more sensual than otherwise, especially when the expression of such desires is muzzled in patriarchal societies. The feeling of repression, of a yearning wanting to be unleashed, suffuses the imagery in these works. Eroticism is informed as much by the context (Nadine Labaki’s Caramel) and subtext (the Wachowskis’ Bound) as the text.

Then there are auteurs, like David Cronenberg, whose body of work features striking sex scenes that blur the line between sensual and carnal. The characters of sensual cinema pine and swoon. They yearn to make love. They don’t get to do it. In Cronenberg’s films, they fuck. There’s a perverse, animalistic, raw frankness to the sex in otherwise banal domestic settings like in A History of Violence. And of course there’s Crash, a masterpiece of extreme carnality—maybe the only feature that has Cronenberg committing entirely to sexual desire.

Deborah Kara Unger and James Spader waiting on Triple-A after a Crash (1996).
Deborah Kara Unger and James Spader waiting on Triple-A after a Crash (1996).

An argument could be made that a Cronenbergian sex scene could be pornography absent the idiosyncratic psychology of desire of his characters as context. The same thing could be said of Julia Ducournau, with Raw and especially 2021 Palme d’Or winner Titane. Desire in her films oozes and festers and ultimately annihilates, consuming not only the intended object but the protagonist.

Meanwhile, Paul Verhoeven is a master of impish titillation. While Elle, Black Book and now Benedetta touch on desire, they are ultimately about power—how sexually subjugated women reclaim theirs in his (provocative) feminist politics. On the other hand, Lars Von Trier’s sexually charged Nymphomaniac films and Breaking The Waves treat his female protagonists’ sexual voraciousness as pathological compulsion and spiritual extremism, respectively.

Isabel Sandoval and Eamon Farren in Lingua Franca (2019).
Isabel Sandoval and Eamon Farren in Lingua Franca (2019).

Shooting the sensual scenes of Lingua Franca

After a lifetime of pent-up desire from a Catholic upbringing prior to transitioning, it took me becoming comfortable with myself and my body to open up to desire and sensuality in my art. Lingua Franca is the first film where I embraced the (complicated) pleasure of sex, and features the first sex scene I directed (and had the audacity to act in). What’s more, I decided to get it out of the way by shooting it on the first day.

That’s not to say we rehearsed a lot, or at all. In fact, while we both had the scripts, I didn’t go over it in detail with Eamon Farren, my co-star in the scene, until he arrived in New York from London ten days before shooting. I’m not really into learning how other filmmakers shoot sex scenes and then imitating them. Every director has their unique process, and I decided I would have to figure out my own in the process of shooting sex scenes for Lingua Franca, and learn from my own mistakes, if any.

Here’s the sex scene between Olivia (who I played) and Alex (Eamon Farren) from the Lingua Franca script. I’ll discuss how I filmed it afterward.


Olivia lets Alex into her bedroom, turns on the bedside lamp. He pulls her close to him, wraps his arm around her waist, his hand hungrily exploring her back. Her own arm clutches his hard, sinewy body tight. They move backwards onto the bed, lips locking again. By the time their lips part, breathless, they’re fully laying in bed, he on top of her, their foreheads starting to glisten with sweat, the incident from earlier in the evening far from their minds.

Alex brings Olivia’s hand to his mouth, kisses it softly all over. Olivia looks up at his face, now moving closer to her again. Olivia lunges forward, the desire coursing through her body finding its vessel in her mouth. Her mouth sucks his lips, his tongue, with the violence of a woman buried alive clawing her way out of the earth, gasping for air. She touches him through his jeans, feels him come alive. Alex pulls back briefly, unsettled by her ardor, only to swoop in again, reciprocating her passion.

Alex’s hand wanders over to her supple breast and squeezes it. Now he wants more. He unbuttons her dress, peels it off of her. He pulls down the right cup of her bra, too impatient to clasp it. He cups her exposed breast, sucks on the nipple. He gets rid of his shirt then his lips continue exploring her body as she moans. When he pulls down her panties, Olivia hesitates until his tongue probes her wetness. Her eyes close, her body surrenders completely.

Alex takes off his boxers. His finger feels her warmth inside. Before she realizes it, he’s inside her. Pleasure overcomes her as she takes every pounding inch of him deep, the world outside them falling away.

What I needed the most from this scene was for it to feel real. It had to break through the artifice and obvious fiction of movie sex—glossy, airbrushed, too fussily choreographed. It needed to feel sweaty, pungent, where bodily fluids spurt and drip, short of being the real thing. One constraint I set myself is that I’m not actually going to show Olivia and Alex simulating sex, but merely suggest that they are.

Olivia sucking his finger, her moaning, the POV shot that simulates amateur porn (which I then subvert, and reclaim as transfemale gaze, as a character moment—as Olivia goes through a gamut of emotions). How hungrily they go at it versus their placid domestic lives, the decision to leave the rest of the steamy action to the viewer’s imagination—all these give the sex the texture and veener of reality.

Isabel Sandoval and Eamon Farren in Lingua Franca (2019).
Isabel Sandoval and Eamon Farren in Lingua Franca (2019).

The other constraint: do it, as much as possible, in long takes with minimal cutting. The long take to me feels closest to reality. For one, it adheres to real time after all and thus feels more immediate, more present. The camera observes, much like in the opening passage of daily rituals, though this time it’s handheld and pulsates, instead of being static.

We rehearsed the choreography [on the day] for 45 minutes as a long take, and I believe our performance benefited from it, feeling natural and unrushed. It was the final scene of an auspicious first day, and we closed the set. It was just me, Eamon, the cinematographer, the assistant director and the sound person. We finished the scene in 45 minutes, in four takes.

Perhaps my most radical aesthetic choice was to focus on the woman’s face and its cavalcade of emotions as the nexus of sexual pleasure, and therefore sensuality. This put the onus on me to sell the scene, and I’d like to think I was up to the task. Which brings us to the politics of desire: who gets to be the desirer, who is reduced to merely being its object.

I wanted two things: that we get to see Olivia desiring and satisfying that want; and that someone like me get to direct a scene exactly like it. A small step in American cinema, but a significant one.

Lingua Franca’ is streaming on US Netflix.

Further Reading


Share This Article