A History of Unsimulated Sex Scenes in 17 Cannes Films, from ‘Mektoub’ to ‘Antichrist’ to ‘Caligula’

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in May 2019 and has been updated several times since.

Deserved or not, French cinema has a reputation for being a little racy. From classics like “Belle de Jour” to controversial modern films like “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” French film has consistently pushed the boundaries of sexuality and sensuality onscreen. So it’s perhaps no surprise that the country’s premier film festival Cannes is such an oasis for sexually explicit films, ones that have frequently generated controversy over its history — especially when these films feature unsimulated sexual acts.

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Unsimulated sex onscreen at Cannes dates back to at least 1973, when the film “Thriller — a Cruel Picture,” featuring several acts of hardcore unsimulated porn, played at the festival. In the years afterwards, particularly provocative and avant-garde works like “Sweet Movie” and “The Idiots” caused shock at Cannes by presenting audiences with real, unvarnished sexual content.

As the festival has grown in prestige and the internet has made its premieres more visible, the controversy has only grown. Likely the most infamous unsimulated sex scene in Cannes history came in 2003, when Chloë Sevigny performed oral sex on actor/director Vincent Gallo in the now-notorious “The Brown Bunny.” The film has ultimately gained its defenders, but at the time, it was viewed as exploitative, leading to a bitter feud between Gallo and his harshest critic Roger Ebert and a massive debate over the ethics of real sex on screen.

The most recent kerfuffle over unsimulated sex at Cannes came in 2019 when “Blue Is the Warmest Colour” director Abdellatif Kechiche released his four-hour-long film “Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo,” a graphic and, as some argued, blatantly misogynist epic of young people having all the sex in the world. The film has never been seen stateside and remains the subject of ongoing legal entanglements due to Kechiche’s alleged treatment of lead actress Ophélie Bau, who claimed he denied her permission to see the film’s most graphic scene prior to the premiere. Kechiche had a slightly warmer reception in 2013, when the simulated but realistic acts in “Blue” helped power it, and leads Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, all the way to the Palme.

Is unsimulated sex at Cannes now a thing of the past? Since “Mektoub,” the films to feature authentic sex onscreen at the festival have been noticeably scarcer. At the 2024 festival, the steamiest film is perhaps “Motel Destino,” an erotic thriller from director Karim Aïnouz set in a Brazilian sex motel. The film is explicit in a way that would make American movie theaters blush, but still, all the acts on screen are simulated and faked for the camera. More importantly — and in a sign of just how much the industry has changed — the film was made with intimacy coordinators, a still relatively new position from the post-#MeToo era that has since become the standard. Does that mean unsimulated sex is now gone forever? Never say never. But at the very least, we’ve hopefully left the era where disasters like “Mektoub” could be allowed to happen.

With the festival still ongoing, IndieWire compiled a list of notable films to feature unsimulated sex across Cannes history. Read on for a brief timeline of Cannes premieres to feature unsimulated sexual acts.

Tambay Obenson, Ryan Lattanzio, and Samantha Bergeson contributed to this story.

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