Amber Heard is currently facing a a $10 million lawsuit from the producers of her film London Fields, after allegations that she and director Mathew Cullen removed some of her sex scenes from the final edit.
Whatever the reason for the omissions might be (according to the lawsuit, the actress and former wife of Johnny Depp should have realised that the film would be "salacious" and "provocative" after reading the screenplay), it's doubtful whether the scenes in question will be any great loss to cinema.
Early reviews of the Martin Amis adaptation were poor, with critics describing it as confusing and misogynistic in tone.
But while the cutting room floor may be the best place for ill-judged sex scenes, other movies, from the Thirties onwards, have managed to pull things (and clothes) off with surprising erotic panache.
Here are 11 of cinema's best sex scenes:
1. Ecstasy (Gustav Machaty, 1933)
Most of the scenes on this list are relatively recent, for what should be obvious reasons. But here’s a real skin-prickler that squeaked in just before the introduction of the Hays Code made explicit screen sex a no-no.
In this erotic romance from 1933, a pre-fame Hedy Lamarr plays a married but unsatisfied young woman who seeks solace in the arms of a strapping mechanic.
Towards the end of the film, there’s a scene in which he performs oral sex on her, with Machaty cutting between the increasingly breathless Lamarr’s face, her fingers as they fondle the sheepskin rug by her bed, and a warmly throbbing oil lamp overhead.
The scene may be more than 80 years old, but it’s lost none of its sensual charge, easily matching the similar, far more recent sequence in Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine which won that film an NC-17 certificate in the USA. In its day, Ecstasy was infamous enough for the print to be confiscated when it first arrived in the US.
The problem wasn’t the nudity, but the orgasm: female sexual pleasure was, and remains, one of cinema’s most weirdly enduring taboos.
2. Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
The legendary clinch between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 psychological thriller about a married couple coming to terms with the death of their young daughter might be the greatest sex scene of them all – it’s a masterclass in making sex on screen dramatically meaningful as well as passionate.
The sex is so hungry and honest that a myth quickly sprung up that it was all for real (Nicolas Roeg, the director, has always insisted it was just very convincingly acted).
But what makes the scene itself so sexy are its intercut flash-forwards to the aftermath: the pulling on and straightening of clothes; the affectionate pats and glances that serve as echoes of the earlier lovemaking. It’s passion and afterglow and lingering sadness all at once – sensual overload from all sides.
3. In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima, 1976)
The first of three films on this list to contain unsimulated sex, Nagisa Oshima’s dark erotic drama had to perform various international contortions in order to bypass censorship laws: it was shot in Japan but edited in France, and had to be screened under special "private club" conditions on its UK release.
In more than one way, the sex in Oshima’s film is a rejection of the social order. In 1936, a maid and former prostitute has a passionate affair with her married employer: they lose themselves in lust as the world around them prepares for war.
There are many, let’s say, memorable sequences, including one humdinger involving a hard-boiled egg. But the one that tells you the film means business comes early on, when Sada (Eiko Matsuda) gives her lover Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji) oral sex while he lies back, nonchalantly smoking a cigarette.
Oshima wanted his film to defuse, not inflame, taboos: “When we feel that everything has been revealed, ‘obscenity’ disappears and there is a certain liberation”, he wrote. He died in 2013. The film has yet to be screened uncut in his home country.
4. The Postman Always Rings Twice (Bob Rafelson, 1981)
James M. Cain’s noirish romance novel has been adapted into a film four times. The first version in English was made in 1946, and could hardly be described as sexless: Lana Turner’s big entrance, in a blazing-white crop top and high-waisted shorts, saw to that single-handedly.
But it’s the 1981 version, with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, that amped up the passion to pulverising levels.
The centrepiece is the tabletop tryst. Nicholson’s drifter makes a move on Lange’s desperate housewife, and there’s a flicker of resistance, but then she reciprocates his kiss, and the struggle becomes playful.
She goes to the table, sweeps the bread and flour onto the floor, and goads him into giving it, and her, his best shot. It’s the wildly swinging power dynamic before total, mutual surrender to pleasure that gives the scene its legendary bite.
5. 9½ Weeks (Adrian Lyne, 1986)
And speaking of bites … Of all the glistening, dewy sex scenes shot in Eighties Hollywood – we’re surely talking about a list of thousands here – none bettered the fridge-door foreplay between Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke in Adrian Lyne’s much-imitated (and spoofed) 1986 erotic drama.
The appetite for glossy screen sex meant big stars were showing, and doing, more than ever before, but it’s the playfulness of this sequence that makes it it stand out, from the corny backing music to Basinger’s incredible fast-slow mouth movements, lingering for a second while Rourke rests an olive or glacé cherry on her lips before bobbing forward to devour it the next.
6. The Idiots (Lars von Trier, 1998)
A list of great sex scenes without Lars von Trier on it wouldn’t be much of a list. He’s one of the few filmmakers working today who’s utterly unfazed by human sexuality: von Trier films use sex to challenge rather than just scandalise us, and there’s often real profundity behind the mischief.
For all Nymphomaniac’s noodly sexual metaphysics and the scalding transgressions of Antichrist, it’s in The Idiots, his 1998 Cannes-rocking drama, where that comes across most clearly.
The film follows a band of hip young Danes who feign severe mental disability for kicks – but come to a creeping, partial understanding that nothing separates them from the people they patronisingly mimic.
The realisation dawns through experiences of intense anger and grief, but also through pleasure, most notably during an unsimulated orgy at the group’s mansion. Besides death, sex is the great leveller – von Trier wants to restore the shockingness of that idea, and dazzlingly succeeds.
7. Wild Things (John McNaughton, 1998)
Wild Things knows what you like. John McNaughton’s 1998 Florida-set thriller is junkyard noir polished to a hot chrome sheen: there’s a teacher (Matt Dillon), two hot young students (Denise Richards and Neve Campbell), sexual tension, treachery, and alligators bobbing through the murk.
The glaze on this particular doughnut are the sex scenes, which are gloriously lurid softcore wish fulfilment, and know it. Most famous is the topless, swimming-pool clinch between Richards and Campbell, but better still is the conspiratorial threesome earlier in the film, where Dillon also joins in the fun.
It’s a film in which a line like “guidance counsellors get to find out all sorts of interesting things” doesn’t spoil the mood, and nor does pouring champagne, completely unbidden, over someone else’s breasts before they’re even fully undressed. Try this stuff out in real life and you’ll end up in hospital or prison, but hey: isn’t that why we have cinema?
8. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
Sex is a discovery of self in David Lynch’s indelible dreamlike mystery from 2001, and Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), a pretty young ingénue who’s just arrived in Los Angeles with hopes of making it as an artist, still has much to learn.
“Have you ever done this before?” she asks Rita (Laura Elena Harring), the mysterious femme fatale who’s just slipped into bed beside her, naked, and kissed her on the brow and lips. “I don’t know, have you?” comes the reply – words that will later take on a strange new significance.
As the women kiss each other, the music swells and soars: “I want to – with you,” whispers Betty, surprised at herself. “I’m in love with you … I’m in love with you.” Afterwards the two women seem to be fused together, fingers entwined, faces overlapping. It’s a moment of dreamlike bliss before the coming rude awakening.
9. Team America: World Police (Trey Parker and Matt Stone, 2004)
Sex can be hilarious, awkward and absurd: this we know from personal experience rather than the movies, where things tend to be a little more polished. But the bedroom scene in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s scorching satire from 2004 must be the funniest and most ludicrous ever filmed, and for the most part that’s purely because it’s puppets, rather than humans, who are taking part.
Most of what ace anti-terrorist warriors Gary and Lisa get up to together with the lights down low is reasonably familiar, either from the Eighties erotic thriller boom and/or modern pornography (although there are a few more, let’s say, "adventurous" activities in the unrated cut). The dissolves, the close-ups, the progressively acrobatic tableaux underscored by a soft-rock soundtrack: it’s all been seen, let alone done, before.
The difference, of course, is that you haven’t seen it done by puppets, which instantly makes everything look a) obscene (because puppets are for kids, right?) and b) completely preposterous. But then you notice the accuracy with which it’s all been staged, and the laugh doubles back on itself, along with the cringing realisation that this actually is what sex looks like.
10. Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007)
Across five films to date, the library encounter from Joe Wright’s 2007 Bafta-winning romantic drama remains the best thing he’s ever shot and cut. Watch the way the camera follows Keira Knightley towards the bookcase while James McAvoy hangs back – it’s as if the film’s so desperate for them to get it on it can’t help itself – and then the sudden, unexpected jump cut to close-up when their lips meet, intensifying the moment.
Crucial moments are captured in the urgency: the way that green silk dress just slides down Knightley’s back and over her knee, as if it’s been waiting all night for McAvoy to remove it – and then, at the point of no return, the way Knightley’s foot slips upwards out of her shoe, as if the charge between them has somehow reversed gravity. It’s a moment that sends ripples to the edges of both characters’ lives – but what a moment.
11. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, 2013)
In the past, when directors couldn’t simply show us sex, they had to use other things to tell us about it, which could entail anything from Sister Ruth’s pointed transition from a nun’s habit to a red dress in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus to Alfred Hitchcock’s cheeky cut to a train going into a tunnel at the end of North by Northwest.
Nowadays, the game has turned upside down: since even real sex can be shown with relative frankness on screen, films can use it to tell us about other aspects of their characters’ inner lives.
In Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour (which could easily have appeared in this spot) the way in which Adèle and Emma have sex reflects the state of their relationship at large – from blissed-out and light-bathed to anxious, tearful and urgent.
But perhaps sex is even more smartly deployed in Alain Guiraudie’s Hitchcockian thriller Stranger by the Lake, in which Franck, a habitual visitor to a gay nude bathing spot, witnesses a terrible crime before becoming sexually involved with the perpetrator. The crime itself happens in the context of (both real and simulated) sex.
Beforehand, Franck and another bather caress each other in the undergrowth until he orgasms, foreshadowing another release of pent-up tension that’s just around the corner. Then later, Franck and the culprit have sex, setting up an unspoken covenant between the two.
The explicit nature of the scenes compounds the tension in a way soft focus and tasteful pans upwards simply couldn’t. Blood may be thicker than water, but there are other things thicker than blood.