To make a more recent comparison, My Policeman’s approach to same-sex intimacy, specifically, feels similar to Carol, Todd Haynes’ 2015 romantic period drama starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Carol was also set in the conservative 1950s and its passionate sex scenes portrayed two characters who were only able to fully express themselves behind closed doors, with their bodies entwined. “In My Policeman, we’re dealing with a period in England where gay sex was illegal,” Grandage tells BBC Culture. “I wanted to make sure that you were able to see these two men have total freedom during intimacy, because they couldn’t elsewhere.” And as a viewer in 2022, there is still a sense of liberation to be felt in seeing that intimacy candidly expressed in a starry, relatively commercial movie like My Policeman.
Queer cinema has come a long way since 1964, when Brock Peters played one of the first openly homosexual characters in the US film Pawn Broker. Back then, same-sex intimacy and nudity on screen would have seemed unthinkable. But today, whether it’s the lusciousness of My Policeman, Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams characters’ voracious lovemaking in 2017 drama Disobedience, or the gay orgies in Andrew Ahn’s Jane Austen-inspired gay rom-com Fire Island, queer sex scenes are gradually becoming more frequent and varied. Alongside My Policeman, another mainstream LGBTQ+ film that has been making waves in recent weeks is the studio gay rom-com Bros, which has been heralded by its comedian writer-star Billy Eichner as a historic moment for gay representation in film – although its supposed radicalness has been disputed by some critics. The film casually drops in several sex scenes, from disappointing hook-ups described as “weird sex with strangers that you don’t like”, to group sex scenes which explore relationships beyond monogamy. Some of the sex offers comedic value, while other scenes are more sentimental as the protagonists fall in love.
The ‘purpose’ of sex scenes
If the simultaneous release of these two glossy, mainstream films with an upfront approach to gay male sexuality is heartening, debate over Styles’ comments has highlighted that gay sex on screen remains a contentious issue. Some feel that progress is being made, with more films depicting it with relative openness, but others remain frustrated that mainstream cinema still shies away from it too often. In some ways, this is an offshoot of a wider debate that has been going on more recently, about the purpose and validity of sex scenes in films full stop. For Grandage, the sex scenes in My Policeman were primarily about narrative. “I wanted the intimacy to move the story forward, and you can’t do that if you get too coy with it, or move the camera away from it,” he says. Clarisse Loughrey, film critic at The Independent, agrees that intimate scenes should ideally further the story. “Sex scenes work best when they’re rightfully serving the characters, the narrative and the tone of the film,” she says.
Yet Richard Lawson, chief critic at Vanity Fair, also thinks we need to be careful not to become too prescriptive about sex scenes in film, or puritanical about their reason for being. “Right now we’re in this period where sex scenes have to drive forward the narrative. But really, they can also be there because they’re sexy,” he says. “It’s nice when they serve the narrative, but it’s not always a problem if they don’t.”