PARK CITY, Utah — In 1989, “sex, lies and videotape,” Steven Soderbergh’s candid look at infidelity and voyeurism, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and told a story that mainstream TV and movies wouldn’t touch.
Nearly a quarter-century later, sexually frank content is readily available across cable television, in R-rated studio comedies, on YouTube and even on Kindle readers. So one might expect maverick filmmakers to turn their attention elsewhere.
But a peek into the screening rooms of this year’s Sundance Film Festival shows that many directors still have sex on the brain. A lot of it.
The 1970s porn icons Linda Lovelace and Paul Raymond are being feted with features — “Lovelace,” from Oscar-winning documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, and “The Look of Love,” from British director Michael Winterbottom.
Porn itself is receiving the feature treatment in “Don Jon’s Addiction” (a comedy that marks Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut), “Kink” (an S&M; documentary produced by James Franco), and “Interior. Leather Bar.” (a meta-documentary about William Friedkin’s explicit 1980 film “Cruising” that was directed by — who else? — Franco).
On screens around this charming, snow-dappled town, teachers are sleeping with students (in Hannah Fidell’s “A Teacher”), older women are sleeping with teenagers (Liz W. Garcia’s “The Lifeguard”), mothers are sleeping with their friends’ sons (Anne Fontaine’s “Two Mothers”) and suburban moms are turning to lesbian prostitution (Stacie Passon’s “Concussion”).
And then there’s Daniel Radcliffe as a young Allen Ginsberg in “Kill Your Darlings,” in which the former Harry Potter is a long way from Hogwarts as he finds himself on the receiving end of sexual acts from both men and women.
Sundance has long been a place for edgy fare. But movies about sexual taboos have been rare in recent years as the transgressive subjects independent filmmakers once trafficked in have gone mainstream. Instead, Sundance filmmakers have told stories about revenge, drugs, poverty, music.
So what’s prompting the sexual renaissance? And is it even possible for a director to say something new about sex when so much has been said by predecessors?
“I think there’s something happening with all these sex movies,” said Franco, 34. “We’ve been using violence as a storytelling device for decades but we’ve only just begun to use sex that way instead of as simply something to shock.” He compared the current moment to the violence that began in Westerns more than a half-century ago, saying he thought we were at a comparable moment with sex.
There is no single explanation for what’s prompted the flowering of sex-themed movies. But in interviews around Sundance, many of the people responsible for the films agreed with Franco that we’ve entered a new era. Now that the taboos have been broken, it’s about character and storytelling.
An abundance of female directors at Sundance — fully half of the U.S. dramatic competition lineup comprises films made by women — may also be animating the trend.
“For a long time, movies about sex were directed by men,” said “Kink” director Christina Voros. “Now that there are so many great female independent filmmakers, there’s a chance for sex to be told from our point of view.”
Fidell said she’s been struck by how responses to “A Teacher” seem to be splitting along gender lines, with women relating more to the female teacher’s internal struggle over sleeping with a male student, while men have found her more plain crazy or stay hung up on the salacious “Hot for Teacher” scenario. Those kinds of provocative ambiguities were just what Fidell set out to explore.
“I realized those were the kinds of stories I personally like watching,” Fidell said, “so why not make a movie I would want to see?”
Some say the crop of movies may be a reaction to the prevalence of sex in today’s pop culture, as filmmakers look to break down what’s all around us. “I don’t think it’s harkening back,” said Keri Putnam, who runs the Sundance Institute, which oversees the festival. “This is people with authentic voices looking forward.”
But if sex can be a way to propel new stories, some filmmakers say they feel a need to document what’s past. The sexual revolution may have been fought long ago, they say, but, as with any conflict, understanding it requires a certain distance.
“We both lived through the sexual revolution and don’t think it’s all it’s cracked up to be,” said Epstein about himself and his co-director on “Lovelace.” “There were people who benefited and people who suffered. Linda Lovelace may have helped start the sexual revolution, but the story was not as wonderful for her, and we wanted to tell that.”
Needless to say, not everyone has been happy with the sex-themed fare.
Derek Monson, policy director of the conservative Utah think tank Sutherland Institute, has called for the state to revoke its funding for Sundance in part because of the festival’s proliferation of sex-themed movies.
“We’re questioning whether these films reflect the values that Utahans hold dear,” Monson said.
Indeed, some say the battle to bust taboos isn’t over. Though a show such as HBO’s “Girls” may depict sexual doings that mainstream Emmy winners had never shown before, filmmmakers say there’s still a larger cultural battle to fight; they recall an NC-17 rating for “Blue Valentine” several years ago because of an oral sex scene that showed no nudity and lasted barely a minute.
Fontaine, the director of “Two Mothers,” says she was motivated to make her movie because, as much sex as there is on the screen, little of it engages with taboos. “There’s a real conservatism to what we see even in movies about love and sex,” she said. “I wanted to show a relationship that can happen but that we never see because people think it’s too forbidden.”
Meanwhile, just because the audience is ready to see sex doesn’t mean it’s easy to satisfy its appetite.
“You read explicit material on the page and it seems very simple,” said Franco, who is planning to direct a movie based on the writings of a young Charles Bukowski. “And then you get on a set with actors and crew and you think, ‘How am I going to do this?’”
Staff writers Amy Kaufman and Mark Olsen contributed to this report.