It may sound like cinematic blasphemy to suggest this, but one of the best movies of the year, the Sundance sensation Call Me by Your Name, has a whole lot in common with one of the most critically derided, Fifty Shades Darker. Both films are romantic stories about a sexual neophyte who falls for a wealthy, wary hunk, and even the way that Call Me by Your Name’s Oliver (Armie Hammer) exits every situation with a blithe “Later” recalls the impossibly dorky sign-off of Fifty Shades’ Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), “Laters baby.”
There’s one key difference, though. One of these films presents its coming-of-age story in a way that’s actually sensual, and the other is Fifty Shades Darker. Or, to put a finer point on it, Call Me by Your Name was made by a European and Fifty Shades Darker was directed by an American. The latter never stood a chance.
There has always been a gulf between how American directors present sex and how their ostensibly more liberated colleagues across the pond do it: At the end of the last century, when major studios still green-lit sexually forthright films, they were often directed by envelope-pushing Europeans like Adrian Lyne and Paul Verhoeven. Lately, though, that gap between American and foreign tastes has grown even wider. It isn’t just that American studios and directors seem less interested in sex these days, though the evidence would certainly bear that out. It’s also that when they do portray lovemaking, they’re not very good at it.
Call Me by Your Name puts forth a young protagonist, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), who hasn’t quite figured out yet which gender he’s more attracted to, so during one sexually significant summer, he samples both. We watch as he takes a comely local girl up to the attic of his parents’ Italian villa, an encounter where both parties are sussing out the other’s commitment up to and past Elio’s deflowering. It’s real, awkward, and more than a little sexy. Even hotter are the scenes where Elio and Oliver peacock for one another, which director Luca Guadagnino shoots with a seductive languor that lets the audience drink in their bodies and desire. Just like in the Fifty Shades movies, there’s a fantasy element at play here – we’re watching beautiful actors cavort in stunning Italian locations, after all – but Guadagnino doesn’t overdo it: The sexiest scenes often play out in long takes unencumbered by score, letting the viewer act as an invited voyeur.
Fifty Shades Darker, on the other hand, edits each encounter between Christian and his lover Anastasia into oblivion and slathers their sex scenes in so much oppressively loud music – the volume level increases so precipitously when they fuck that you’ll think Dakota Johnson just sat her pert behind on the remote control – that it’s like watching a commercial break instead of a sensual commingling. The first film, Fifty Shades of Grey, was no masterpiece, but at least British director Sam Taylor-Johnson understood the value of foreplay: There was real tension between Christian and Ana, and the film teased out their many firsts together in much the same way that a confident dominant might tease his submissive. Fifty Shades Darker hits those sexual beats more frequently but in a rote, obligatory way; the toys that make cameo appearances in Christian and Ana’s lovemaking are, by leaps and bounds, more memorable than the actual sex.
For further evidence of the continuing American downturn, just compare those encounters to the all-time great sex scene that Fifty Shades Darker director James Foley gave us two decades ago: In the thriller Fear, Mark Wahlberg fingered the virginal Reese Witherspoon on a well-edited roller coaster ride that beautifully simulated the cresting waves and giddy stomach-drops of a sexual deflowering. If Foley’s Fifty Shades Darker mimics the rhythms of a roller coaster, it’s one that’s comprised only of loops and a B-list pop star screaming at you while you ride it. That’s not hot.
I suspect the volume level is turned up so high on those encounters to mask the giggling that Fifty Shades Darker’s sex scenes are sure to provoke. It’s been a long time since mainstream movies offered sex on a regular basis, and Americans are now more used to watching sexual encounters – simulated or not – in the privacy of their own homes rather than as part of a communal experience. Even in this age of premium-cable boundary-pushing, the MPAA will slap a far harsher penalty on a stray nipple or thrust than an action movie full of graphic casualties.
But even beyond that, American directors just don’t seem keen on sex. International directors present sex very matter-of-factly, often incorporating it into films that don’t expressly deal with sex and romance simply because it’s an everyday part of life. American directors, on the other hand, very rarely make a consistent career motif out of sex, and when they do, it’s in a leering, juvenile way. (I once heard from someone in the know that in a draft of Suicide Squad, writer-director David Ayer referred to Harley Quinn as a “boner babe,” which exemplifies the kind of arrested development that typifies these projects.) It’s a problem common to our prestige films, too: The last five years of Best Picture nominees have offered nude scenes and sexual assault, but aside from the furtive hand job in Moonlight, nothing close to a satisfying consensual sex scene between two people.
So thank goodness for international directors like Luca Guadagnino, Andrea Arnold, and Pedro Almodovar, whose acclaimed films double as sex ed once they land on our shores. There’s a sensuality to their works, and a real interest in what sex can reveal about character, that American films can’t seem to match. I wish Fifty Shades heroine Anastasia all the best with her boring Seattle beau and dutiful American director but someday, I think she’ll see: Europeans just do it better.