What Art Can Learn From Porn

This photo released by courtesy of Sundance Selects shows Adele Exarchopoulos, left, as Adele, and Lea Seydoux, as Emma, in t
This photo released by courtesy of Sundance Selects shows Adele Exarchopoulos, left, as Adele, and Lea Seydoux, as Emma, in the film, "Blue Is the Warmest Color," directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. (AP Photo/Courtesy Sundance Selects)

A few months ago, I caught wind of a bit of media flak surrounding the 2013 film Blue is the Warmest Color, a lesbian love story based on the novel by Julie Maroh. While most critics agreed the movie was exceptional (it won the Cannes Film Festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or), the controversy stemmed from director Abdellatif Kechiche's decision to include a love scene so sexually explicit that Maroh herself had publicly denounced it as porn. This set off a tumid media debate as to whether the scene had a legitimate place in the film or was simply "jerk-off material" in disguise.

As a director of lesbian porn, I was intrigued -- and curious. I wondered how a mainstream filmmaker would go about shooting an explicit sex scene compared to how I shoot mine. I also worried that viewing sex filmed by a "real" director would expose me as a crude amateur -- or in layman's terms: a hack. Like most pornographers, I have no formal background in cinematography and I don't consider myself anywhere near Kechiche's class of filmmaker. As I took my seat in the theater, I braced myself for a humbling reminder of the many ways my industry and I continue to fall short.

At first, my humility seemed justified. The first half of Blue struck me as so emotionally authentic it was almost uncomfortable to watch. Lead actress Adele Exarchopoulos ("Adele") expertly portrayed the confusion of a young woman confronting her true sexuality while falling for the more experienced "Emma" (played by Lea Seydoux). After a few awkward but charming dates, the women share a tentative first kiss. From there, the film quickly cuts to the controversial sex scene, already in progress.

What followed was shocking, but not due to its explicit content, nor to Kechiche's bold decision to include it in his movie. Rather, it was the scene's lack of emotional nuance, its absence of depth and artistry that set it apart from the rest of the film. Sex between Emma and Adele was urgent and frenzied, yet strangely deprived of erotic intensity. Their long-awaited first encounter was presented in quick, disjointed clips; a stylistic decision that destroyed any natural rhythm or cadence. The scene had more in common with a sports highlight reel than with a meaningful sexual experience.

I was puzzled. What was the narrative purpose of the sex? What was I, the viewer, supposed to glean about the women and their relationship from seeing them make love? Kacheche's masterful command of emotional complexity had been harshly displaced by what seemed to be artistic bewilderment, if not indifference.

Was it possible the director didn't consider that sex could be an integral part of the film's storyline and character development? That sex could -- and should -- be given the same attention to detail as any dramatic sequence? Or are certain artistic truths reserved for the lowly pornographer?

Several years ago, I shot a film about a soldier who falls in love with his best friend's widow. In a moment of shared loneliness and grief, they have sex. Before we rolled the cameras, performers Joey Brass, Samantha Ryan and I discussed the importance of maintaining the emotional integrity of the storyline throughout the sex scene. The question was whether it would be possible to convey complex emotions during so primal an act, without the benefit of dialogue.

Joey and Samantha's sex scene began with a fully clothed, awkward kissing sequence that lasted nearly 20 minutes (the length of most entire sex scenes). While they kissed, Joey didn't attempt to remove Samantha's clothes or touch her in any kind of sexual way. The swaggering porn star had disappeared; in his place was an awkward, lovesick young man too excited to stop, but too wracked by guilt to go any further. After several minutes of watching the scene go nowhere, I wondered if we were going a bit overboard with the "authenticity." Then I noticed Samantha's hips slowly, almost imperceptibly, rise to meet Joey's timid gyrations. As their passion suddenly (finally!) intensified, a burst of sexual energy filled the room. The iambic, fervent lovemaking that followed was infused with a strange, haunted meaning. It was Porn in C Minor; the tension between lust and turmoil left unresolved until the final moments of the scene.

Samantha and Joey's performance convinced me that not only was it possible to capture emotionally meaningful sex on film, but that to accept anything less was tantamount to artistic failure.

While filming explicit sex continues to bear the damning label of pornography, its narrative value becomes obvious when a "serious" film ventures to include it, yet fails to consider its meaning -- or to share that meaning with its audience. And while adult cinema may have much to learn from mainstream film, directors like Kechiche might learn a thing or two about the value of narrative sex from the black sheep of cinema, otherwise known as porn.