1. Laurel Canyon (2002)
In most American stories, sex (or at least the romantic hookup that implies sex to come) is the culmination and goal of the story, not the beginning. So opening sex scenes tend to either say something specific about the participants’ compatibility (usually “Look at this happy couple! It’s all downhill from here!”), or their lack thereof. A perfect example: Lisa Cholodenko’s drama Laurel Canyon, which begins with Christian Bale going down on fiancée Kate Beckinsale, then stopping to seek approval, and frustrating her in the process. Then a call from his mom interrupts them, and Beckinsale finishes up while Bale is distracted. He selflessly (and none too convincingly) insists he’s fine without his own orgasm, and Beckinsale more or less shrugs and starts a casual conversation about scheduling. Every issue that will attack their relationship in the rest of the film is right there in that two-minute microcosm of neediness, selfishness, self-denial, and miscommunication, right down to the way his mom is about to unintentionally get in the way of their future.
2. Away We Go (2009)
It’s perfectly logical that a movie about pregnancy—and the accompanying anxiety over parenting philosophies and preparedness—would start with a sex act. But the indie drama/comedy Away We Go puts a slightly new (and more than slightly excruciating) twist on the trope: The sex sets the plot in motion by revealing rather than generating the pregnancy. The film begins with shaggy hipster John Krasinski going down on his less-than-willing wife, Maya Rudolph; she tells him to stop because she’d rather kiss him, and when he persists, she gives him advice that almost turns into a fight. Then he stops and slowly lifts his head under the covers—which eerily evokes Michael Myers under the bedsheet in the original Halloween—and says “You taste different. Did you know that?” The conversation just gets more uncomfortable from there. It’s a strange, sour, thoroughly unsexy beginning to what aspires to be a wry comedy about a loving couple making some significant decisions.
3 Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
When Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead opens with Philip Seymour Hoffman staring at his pale, pillowy naked body in the mirror as he humps girlfriend Marisa Tomei from behind, director Sidney Lumet seems to be going for shock—the moment is graphic, intense, and uncompromising. But it’s also another “It’s all downhill from here” moment, as it’s just about Hoffman’s only happy moment in the film. From there on, it’s discovery of embezzlement, an ill-advised robbery, the tragic death of a relative, betrayal, violence, a lot of increasingly terrible decisions, and a whole lot of angst. Maybe Lumet launched the film with a sex scene because there was no possible higher note to hit before the massive plummet into well-earned misery.
4. Betty Blue (1986)
Director Jean-Jacques Beineix sets up the whole of his third feature, Betty Blue, with its first shot. In fact, the film’s opening makes the rest of Betty Blue look like a postscript. Two lovers (Béatrice Dalle and Jean-Hugues Anglade) make love beneath a print of the Mona Lisa. The impossible beauty of great art looks on impassively as the couple engages in the sweaty, athletic coupling of real-world desire. It appears intense, and intensely satisfying, but the passion comes at a price, as Anglade will spend the rest of the film discovering, when his lover goes mad and destroys herself and the peripatetic life they create. The sex scene seems to go on forever, particularly in the director’s cut, but the purple voiceover sums up their mad love better than any subsequent scene: “We made love every night. The forecast was for storms.”
5. Antichrist (2009)
Stunningly rendered in black and white, the opening scene (labeled “Prologue”) of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist barely waits 60 seconds before showing Willem Dafoe’s penis slow-motion driving into Charlotte Gainsbourg’s vagina (or those of their body-double stand-ins, at least). With the faint-of-heart already substantially appalled, the scene continues through the climax while simultaneously tracking the couple’s untended infant son falling to his death. Though beautifully shot and scored with an aria from Handel’s opera Rinaldo, it’s a thoroughly gut-wrenching scene nonetheless, particularly for parents who still like to get down. But those who find the prologue too grueling might as well stop before von Trier and cast break out the scissors and blunt objects.
6. The Wayward Cloud (2005)
Known for such deadpan, languorous portraits of urban alienation as Vive L’Amour and What Time Is It There?, Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang is about as austere as filmmakers come. So it was no surprise when he opened 2005’s The Wayward Cloud with a brief establishing shot of some ominously empty underground structure—business as usual, really. Then a woman dressed as a nurse walks into frame, carrying a watermelon. She lies on a bed, naked from the waist down, with half the watermelon positioned between her legs. What follows is one of the most inexplicably outré “sex scenes” of all time, as Tsai’s usual lead actor, Lee Kang-sheng, proceeds to lick, finger, and otherwise molest the woman via the watermelon, as if she actually had a giant fruit for genitalia. (Even when he finally screws her, he’s wearing the watermelon rind as a hat.) It’s eventually revealed that Taiwan is in the midst of a crippling drought, and that watermelons have become a cheap, life-sustaining source of hydration, but that still doesn’t exactly explain the hilarious incongruity of this sequence, which serves as fair warning for jaw-dropping (and much uglier) sexual moments later in the movie, as well as a reminder that food and sex is a combination requiring many, many towels.
7-8. Basic Instinct (1992) and Basic Instinct 2 (2006)
Sure, Basic Instinct was a thriller, but when it hit theaters in March 1992, the buzz around it focused on all the banging, not the killing. Director Paul Verhoeven linked the two from the start, beginning with an opening scene of a man and a blonde woman—Sharon Stone, but you never see her face—having sex that escalates to light bondage, then to repeated stabbing.
Basic Instinct’s late-arriving sequel opts for ridiculousness instead of titillation, as Stone drives a speeding sports car through London with a drugged-up soccer star in the passenger seat. She grabs her passenger’s hand and shoves his fingers inside her, climaxing just as the car breaks through a plate-glass window and launches into the river. Her friend doesn’t make it, which makes the police suspicious. “You don’t seem too upset by what’s happened,” says one cop. “Of course I am,” Stone responds. “I’m traumatized. Who knows if I’ll ever come again?”
9. Blow Out (1981)
Brian De Palma makes movies that frequently reflect on other movies, whether he’s staging self-consciously ornate setpieces in the Hitchcock style or convincing the audience to accept one cinematic reality, only to pull the rug out from under them. Two years after John Carpenter’s Halloween, De Palma cheekily opened his brilliant Blow Out with a parody of lurid, exploitative slasher movies and the first-person camera technique they drove into the ground. Outside a sorority house, a killer prowls from one window and room to another as a horny co-eds do what horny co-eds do—dance around in see-through negligees, hump their boyfriends, masturbate on the couch, and of course, lather up in the shower. The sequence ends with a scream—a bad, unusable, laughable scream—and De Palma cuts to the sound man (John Travolta) in charge of re-recording it. It’s a classic De Palma sequence—voyeuristic, gratuitous, and slyly satirical. And it takes on a surprisingly haunting resonance later, when movie-screams become real ones, and vice versa.
10. Dressed To Kill (1980)
On the surface, Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill is about a maniacal, cross-dressing serial killer wreaking havoc on Nancy Allen. Look beyond all the Hitchcock homages, and Dressed To Kill (for a while, anyway) is actually about an attractive fortysomething (Angie Dickinson) whose lack of sexual fulfillment leads her down some dangerous avenues. Never one to shy away from audacious provocation, De Palma lays it all out in the controversial opening sequence, which depicts Dickinson masturbating in the shower while her husband shaves just a few feet away. Suddenly, a man appears and begins to rape her, while her husband appears oblivious. Turns out he’s even more oblivious than initially suggested—De Palma reveals that the rape is just a fantasy that Dickinson has while her husband thoughtlessly gives one of his “wham-bang specials” before heading off to work. It’s shocking, but it foreshadows even more ominous fireworks on the horizon.
11. Naked (1993)
Mike Leigh’s Naked begins with a challenge to viewers: Will you follow—and even come to care about, or at least be compelled to understand—a lead character after witnessing him doing something atrocious? A shaky handheld-camera opening explores a dank Manchester alleyway, where David Thewlis has a woman pinned against a brick wall as a rough romantic encounter quickly morphs into rape. The session ends with Thewlis stealing a car and high-tailing it out of town to escape the woman’s husband and the authorities, but the scene lingers in complex ways—as part of a movie concerned with power and sexual abuse, as an ironic comment on the rat-like aggression of its hyper-articulate hero, and as a shocking affront to our instinct to empathize with protagonists.
12. Eastbound & Down, “Chapter Eight” (2010)
When Danny McBride fled his friends and family in disgrace for exile in Mexico in season two of Eastbound & Down, the change of scenery understandably entailed leaving behind characters introduced in season one. But one wouldn’t let that happen: the slow-witted sycophant played by Steve Little. Little tracks McBride like a bounty hunter, to the point of sleeping with the same prostitute who serviced McBride. The second episode of season two opens with Little doing her doggy-style, boasting that he could go all night. She gently reminds him he only paid for an hour—not that it matters, because it’s over moments later anyway.
13. Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
Mexico’s Alfonso Cuarón begins his giant crossover movie hit with not one, but two sex scenes—Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna saying a very personal farewell to each of their girlfriends, who are soon off to Italy together. Their wayward libidos—not to mention their boredom at home alone, with nothing to keep them company but each other (and, poolside, thoughts of Salma Hayek)—lead them to the picture’s defining road trip with the older, newly single Maribel Verdú, a lark that turns serious, like the movie itself.
14. Citizen Ruth (1996)
The title character of Citizen Ruth, played by Laura Dern, spends the entire movie being used by others for their own purposes—a scenario that director Alexander Payne and his co-writer, Jim Taylor, establish via blunt metaphor in the first shot. Lying on her back, staring at the ceiling, jostling back and forth to the rhythm of the burly dude pumping away on top of her, Dern looks as if she’s waiting for her number to called at the deli. The only sign that she’s even conscious comes when she emits a single feeble “ow,” which prompts no response whatsoever in her partner. Sex doesn’t come any more joyless or passive than this, and Dern’s function as a handy receptacle to be discarded when no longer needed is immediately, abundantly clear. She’ll never stop getting fucked, but she will learn to say more than “Ow.”
15. Dexter, “That Night, A Forest Grew” (2007)
Throughout the first season of Dexter, the titular sociopathic serial killer (Michael C. Hall) struggled to blend in with the supposedly normal people around him. A large part of the process was figuring out how to mask his nature from his girlfriend Rita (Julie Benz), a needy, judgmental woman whose abusive husband left her sexually timid, but deeply determined to take a strong hand in dealing with her current relationship—in other words, by meddling, nagging, and generally being a pain in his cringing ass. Then, in the second season, he met a fellow sociopath (Jaime Murray) who actively encouraged his “dark side,” particularly in the bedroom. Inevitably, since Dexter isn’t a show about comfortable status quos or healthy, well-balanced people, things between them eventually went wrong, but the mid-season episode “That Night, A Forest Grew” (a line adapted from Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are) sees them at the height of their compatibility. In the smoky-but-jokey opening sequence, the camera slowly travels across Murray’s studio, lingering on her artwork, as she huskily instructs Dexter offscreen: “Use the entire canvas. Start from the top, work your way down. Light, feathery strokes. Perfect! Stunning! Try longer strokes now. Perfect!” Clearly, the familiar old double-entendre gag is that they sound like they’re fucking, but when the camera finds them, she’ll just be teaching him to paint… Oh wait, no, they are fucking.
16. Buffy The Vampire Slayer, “Dead Things” (2002)
The sixth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer went in a similarly dark erotic direction, as Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) launched a consciously self-destructive sexual relationship with her vampire adversary Spike (James Marsters). Like so much about the series, the relationship was played simultaneously for drama, sexual charge, and wry humor, particularly at the beginning of the mid-season episode “Dead Things.” The situation is ugly: After repeatedly swearing she would never have sex with the smitten Marsters again, Gellar has returned to him in an effort to “feel something” after her death and resurrection. (That phrasing deliberately makes their liaisons the equivalent of a clinically depressed teenager cutting herself.) But the execution is deliberately goofy. The episode opens with the sounds of violent activity: panting, gasps, grunts, furniture getting pushed around, wood smashing, glass shattering. From the noise, it could be a fight or a typical Buffy/Spike snog, but again, the wandering camera makes the joke, as it finds the neatly made, undisturbed bed first, then goes searching through the room like a puppy after its owner. Instead, it finds various other perfectly serviceable surfaces that the couple apparently rejected—pillows, chairs, tables, a coffin—before finally finding them on the floor, just finishing up and rolling away from each other. “We missed the bed again,” she chuckles, still gasping for breath. “Lucky for the bed,” he smirks. Then, of course, they have to go back to actually talking to each other, and the humor and the moment are both lost.
17. Treme, “Right Place, Wrong Time” (2010)
There may be no bolder opening shot on television this year than a tight close-up of Wendell Pierce’s thrusting ass at the beginning of Treme’s third episode. As the chronically philandering musician Antoine Batiste, Pierce is unsurprisingly sticking it to someone other than his wife—this time it’s a stripper/likely prostitute from a club where he performs. With her hunched over a counter, Pierce takes her from behind, boastfully mumbling about his prowess. She looks thoroughly bored, but putting out has clearly helped her out: “How you get a FEMA trailer so quick?” Pierce asks as he leaves. “Baby, how do you think I got one so quick?” she replies, glancing down at the blanket covering her otherwise naked body.
18. Crash (1996)
David Cronenberg’s Crash is structured like a porn film: Characters pair off one by one until each potential pairing has been fulfilled. It’s mechanical, impersonal, and rote, which is of course the point. While pornography uses the inevitability of its structure to encourage fantasy (anybody on the screen can and will be fucked!), Crash’s sexual encounters demonstrate the hollowness of its leads’ lives. Penetration isn’t enough, so they seek technology, and the connection of vehicular collisions, to give them something approaching happiness. It’s only fitting, then, that in the movie’s opening scene, Deborah Kara Unger strips off her shirt and presses one breast to an airplane wing. When a random male approaches her and starts screwing her from behind, Unger shows the most emotion she ever really displays in the movie, a kind of desperate irritation at being blocked from what she really wants. The whole sequence is about as erotic as an oil change.
19. True Blood, “Burning House Of Love” (2008)
Viewers definitely saw it coming from the not-so-cliffhangery ending of the preceding episode, but that doesn’t take away from the blushingly graphic cold open of “Burning House Of Love” from season one of True Blood: Southern protagonist/moral compass Anna Paquin lies naked on the floor with her undead boyfriend gently positioned over her. In a gratuitous display of romance-novel cliché, the pair is encircled by blood-red velvet pillows and backlit by a roaring, cracking fire. With a knowing thrust, he takes her virginity, then further ravages her with a bite. He sucks, she whimpers, and the title sequence rolls.