How Queer Films Learned to Put Sex Front and Center

A new French film, 'Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo,' kicks things off with 18 minutes of straight-up gay sex. It's part of a wave of new eroticism, and it's a more radical act than you might think.
January 27, 2017, 7:59pm
A still from the trailer for Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo

Were it not so beautifully shot, you'd be forgiven for thinking the first sequence of Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau's film Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo, out yesterday on limited release, was ripped from a gay softcore porn flick. Set in a Parisian sex club, audiences follow an unnamed man as he undresses and joins the throngs of naked and writhing men already enjoying themselves. Some are fucking. Others are sucking. Plenty are gawking. Eventually, the focus centers on two young men who lock eyes and seemingly tune out everything and everyone around them. The camera never obsesses over specifics, avoiding needless or gratuitous close-ups, but it also never shies away from what's taking place: hot and steamy gay sex. The sequence goes on for 18 minutes. It's as unabashed example of queer sexual desire as you're likely to find in a contemporary LGBTQ film.


What follows this sex-charged opening sequence is much more demure—mostly a breezy, modern gay take on Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise that tackles sexual health and same-sex intimacy in real time. But those images at the sex club linger. They serve, almost, as an affront to its audience, daring it to stick with the film past the hard-ons and the blowjobs. In that sense, Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo defies one of the unwritten rules of gay cinema: Tell, don't show.

Even as more and more queer stories flood our screens, gay sex remains mostly off-camera. Take Moonlight, the latest LGBTQ film to break through the festival circuit into the mainstream, earning no fewer than eight Oscar nominations on Tuesday. Barry Jenkins's film follows Chiron, a young black kid growing up in Miami who wonders aloud whether he's a faggot. When we meet him later as an introverted teen, and later still as a brooding adult, he teeters on the edge of same-sex intimacy, always curious but wary about that handsome friend who seems as eager to break their sexual tension as he is.

Focused on Chiron's anxiety over his homosexual impulses, it's not surprising that Moonlight ends in a tender embrace. The film carries us to the bedroom but resists the impulse to show us what's about to happen there. Jenkins's masterful film is at its most dazzling when visualizing Chiron's aching desires, catching how his first kiss both electrifies and disarms him, how his eyes linger on that "friend" at a diner, how his wet dreams turn again and again to that one night at the beach where he had that first kiss—the last time he was touched by a man. It's this titillation that makes Moonlight's narrative so powerful. But it's also what keeps it a buttoned-up affair. The film is sensual but not sexual.

While Moonlight's refusal to offer audiences the sex scene it's so obviously teasing is an appropriate and well-earned aesthetic choice, it nevertheless speaks to a long history of gay dramas that downplay or outright sidestep the issue of sex. For many years, an emphasis on identity (it's who we are, not what we do) in depictions of gay life was a politically strategic maneuver, allowing society to talk about and see gay people without having to see, let alone think, about gay sex. But as the politics of LGBTQ media visibility and representation continue to shift, explicitly sexual stories about gay men have remained a niche market, as if the more frank or explicit the depiction of gay male intimacy the less likely its mainstream embrace becomes. This might partially explain why Brokeback Mountain's romanticized and shrouded image of two closeted cowboys having sex in a tent is more widely known than the playful sexual acrobatics found in John Cameron Mitchell's sex-driven dramedy Shortbus.

Fortunately, that seems to be changing. Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo's opening sequence is clearly a limit case (as European in spirit as it can get), but its embrace of unabashed sex-positivity may be indicative of a new wave of queer storytelling. One need only look to group sex scenes in the Wachowski's sci-fi Netflix show Sense8, the neon-bathed porn-scene tapings in Sean Kelly's true-crime drama King Cobra, or even in porn studio Cockyboys's latest raunchy web series, Meet the Morecocks, to find queer content that's unafraid to place gay sex at the center of its narrative. And this year's Sundance Film Festival looks to have added a couple of titles that promise to heat up the queer cinematic canon; Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name, based on the sexy coming-of-age novel by André Aciman, and Francis Lee's autobiographical British coming out tale, God's Own Country, both feature blush-inducing scenes that pointedly put queer sexual desire front and center.

To confront viewers, gay and straight alike, with images of two (or more) men having sex remains an act of defiance. Where much of the activism that drives LGBTQ politics continues to privilege the sense that sexuality is a private affair, one that need not concern our politicians or our neighbors, these attempts at shamelessly grappling with gay sex are a welcome step forward. While there's much to be said about gains the LGBTQ community has made when it comes to media representation in the past couple of decades, there's something quite refreshing in the way Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo demands that its audience deal with full-frontal erections before it offers its more romantic storyline. It's as if it were making clear the very hypocrisy that still runs through many squirming viewers, perfectly content with a gay storyline so long as it doesn't shove gay sex, as it were, in their faces.

In a 1980 essay on homosexuality in films for Forum magazine, particularly those that spoke almost exclusively to a heterosexual audience, writer John Rechy spoke of the perils of downplaying the more lurid details of gay life in the service of acceptance. The City of Night author, who built a career out of writing frankly about the types of sexual encounters witnessed in Ducastel and Martineau's opening sequence, cautioned that in doing so, "We may mistake liberation for surrender to what heterosexuals restrict us to." What we needed then, he wrote, "is a presentation of homosexual reality that doesn't apologize for its rich sensuality or splendid variety." We might finally be fulfilling that promise.