Sundance 2023 movies were all about sex

From Fair Play to Cat Person, sex took center stage in this year’s most provocative films.

Moral outrage may be in vogue and the culture of abandonment is always lurking, but at this year’s Sundance, sex was everywhere. Last year’s edition featured some hot takes, from Emma Thompson’s empowering decision to show it all in the moving Good Luck to You, Leo Grande to Lena Dunham’s curious exploration of the horniness of a starved teen after a hysterectomy in Sharp Stick. This time around, Sundance films confronted sexuality through a darker, even tragic lens.

While mainstream American cinema still treats the subject as a taboo — apart from a fleeting sequence in Eternals, nobody gets down in a Marvel movie — our stellar cinematic vessel for marginalized perspectives offered some refreshing, dark alternatives, often with a touch of biting humor.

From the moment the hot couple at the heart of “Fair Play” sneaks into the bathroom for a quickie only to end up drenched in period blood, it’s clear that writer-director Chloe Domont isn’t here to to disinfect their subject. In their taut debut, power couple Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) can’t seem to agree on who has more power: both work at a cutthroat financial firm that dominates their lives. When Emily is promoted and becomes Luke’s manager, the dynamic is clear to everyone but him.

“Fair Play” portrays the elegant interiors of the high-stakes firm as a sort of tribal battleground, where Emily challenges the game’s gender bias: she’s ready to join forces with the hard-partying monkeys that swing through her office while Luke goes down to his cabin, beating his chest. Much later in the film, they find themselves in a different bathroom and there is no blood – just the violent deterioration of a physical bond that has been severed by the primal nature of male desire. It is a vivid illustration of a competitive ecosystem that requires work-life balance; If that barrier dissolves, they’re screwed.

Phoebe Dynevor (background) looks at Alden Ehrenreich (foreground) in a still image "fair play"

“Fair play”

Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival

Sex has a more liberating undercurrent in Ira Sachs’ “Passages,” though the veteran filmmaker uses a series of passionate encounters to illustrate romance’s decay. In the elegant, reduced story, Paris-based director Tomas (Franz Rogowski) cheats on his husband Martin (Ben Whishaw) with a young woman (Adele Exarchopoulos) whom he meets in a bar after his latest production. Tomas is so energized by the rendezvous that he immediately brags about it to Martin, who reacts with understandable frustration. Head spinning in confusion, Tomas plunges into another heated encounter with his new lover, but grows weary of the connection once the potential for bonding materializes.

Later, an extended sex scene with Martin shows how much Tomas feels most aroused by the person who offers him an escape from his most stable environment. It’s the most unnerving portrayal of sex as an escapist drug since Michael Fassbender’s downward spiral in Shame, as Tomas’ kink seems tied to some semblance of stability — it’s his kink, and he couldn’t escape it even if he tried.

In contrast to these men’s sloppiness and the way they meet their lowest needs, Cat Person, an adaptation of the viral New Yorker story, offers a sobering alternative. Director Susanna Fogel’s view of curious college girl Margot (Emilia Jones) who embarks on an awkward series of dates with Robert (Nicholas Braun) takes some disturbing turns when she ponders if he’s a psychopath. Reality and fiction blur in a series of unsettling scenes that teeter on the edge of a punchline until you wonder if maybe she’s up to something.

Cat Person stumbles into an odd third act that’s less sophisticated than the ambiguity that preceded it, but the film never gets better than a terrifying sex scene in which Margot constantly debates with herself. Should she end the uncomfortable encounter or give the guy what he wants? Does she care about his feelings or is she worried that he might freak out? The result is an unprecedented mix of awkwardness and slapstick comedy that is sure to spark debate and plenty of conversations about relationship building.

Meanwhile, nothing epitomizes the sexually altered dance between freedom and danger more than the graphic handjob that Gabby (Mia Goth) gives James (Alexander Skarsgard) in Infinity Pool. This madcap midnight film from sci-fi provocateur Brandon Cronenberg finds Skarsgard’s struggling writer on vacation in a fictional Eastern European country when Goth introduces him to a whole new world. It would take a lot more space to explain (or spoil) the intricacies of this innovative premise, but it’s all about watching your own clone be executed for crimes you’ve committed. James’ arousal amounts to a form of self-obsession and sets him up for humiliation. “Infinity Pool” functions as a kind of surrealistic class satire; like Fair Play, it integrates the power mechanisms of sex into the context of despair.

infinity pool

“infinity pool”


If any film approaches the subject from a sunnier perspective, it has to be the first half of Sebastian Silva’s hilarious Rotting in the Sun. Since the days of Nasty Baby, the Chilean director’s work has fluctuated between frivolous comedy and shockingly subversive twists; The one at the heart of this film rivals only Infinity Pool for the best WTF moment of this year’s festival.

There are plenty of penises in Rotting in the Sun, in which Silva plays a suicidal version of himself as he goes to a gay beach in Mexico to clear his head. There he meets real Instagram influencer Jordan Firstman, who won’t leave him alone. He wants them to write a show together, hang out and of course get naked. Firstman’s quest for sexual freedom coupled with upward mobility is the focus of a film that aims to deconstruct the danger of exposure online.

It’s a brilliant critique that grows more intriguing as time goes on, but never at the expense of the underlying punchline. People may be awful, Rotting in the Sun argues, and the online age only emphasizes our basest instincts, but the ruthless abandon of naked men prance through the frame dares you not to laugh.

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Lindsay Lowe

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