The woman at the screening was blond, German, in her 50s. "Stevie!" she called across the room to a friend, in an accent thick as icing on strudel. "I just saw Shame. It's very naked! Full frontal. Michael Fassbender is so vell-eqvipped."
She put it more baldly than I would, but we agree on one thing: TIFF 2011 is a very naked festival indeed. There are more unabashedly nude people on screen than there are in a communal shower at the YMCA after an aqua-aerobics class – including one scene in Sarah Polley's film, Take This Waltz, that's actually set in a communal shower at the YMCA after an aqua-aerobics class. And there's a new frankness, not only in the sex scenes, but also about sexuality in general. These movies aren't coy, and they're asking some big questions.
Shame, directed by Steve McQueen ( Hunger), is the prime example. It's a raw, unadorned look at a man (Fassbender, who just received the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival) who is in thrall to sex, but only as long as it's not attached to any emotion. To me, it's the most socially relevant film at the Toronto International Film Festival because it confronts a phenomenon new to this generation – the ease of access to pornography and zipless sex through the Internet, with effects on sexuality and relationships that are only beginning to be felt and could be profound.
"Access to sexual content is everywhere and that access has an influence on us every day, whether we're aware of it or not," said McQueen at a press conference on Monday. Fassbender added, "Sex is being sold to you with your soda, even with your breakfast cereal."
Shame's many sex scenes are presented in a way that feels new. Typically, sex scenes have been delicately lit and highly choreographed – "Put your arm here, your leg there, we'll do a close-up on this part only, and it will all be according to your contract."
But this year's sex scenes are different. Perhaps they're commenting on the down-and-dirty nature of Internet sex, or maybe aping it. Either way, they're much more "take off your clothes, turn on the lights, every movement you make and every part of your body are fair game, and, Action."
There are myriad other films at TIFF that are also more frank about sex – both the subject of it and the shooting of it – than ever. Fernando Meirelles's series of interconnected vignettes about people all around the world, 360, opens with a topless girl posing for an Internet site advertising prostitutes. The nudity of Gina Gershon, Juno Temple and Matthew McConaughey is used to startling effect in William Friedkin's black comedy Killer Joe. The early scenes of W.E., co-written and directed by Madonna, toggle back and forth between two women naked in the bath. Burning Man, about a rakish widower (Matthew Goode) who seeks solace in casual sex, opens with a scene of male masturbation.
"It's funny this has happened, because it's not like we've all had a word with each other," Goode said over coffee on Sunday morning. He's a fast-talking, funny guy, and was bubbly despite a slight hangover. "You imagine people going, 'Okay, we're going to do one like that, too. Is he going to shave the derrière? No, neither are we, we're gonna show the whole thing! Brilliant!' "
Goode also filled me in on a male-nudity rule I'd never heard of before. Referring to how, um, full a full-frontal penis shot can be, he said, "It can't be anywhere above the Mull of Kintyre." Pardon me? "Honestly, that's a rule in England," he replied. "The Mull of Kintyre is a little outcrop of land in the west of Scotland. If you see it on a map, it's at an angle, and the penis cannot rise above that. I kid you not." I immediately looked up the Mull on a map. He kids us not.
To continue with my list: In Sleeping Beauty, a naked prostitute drugs herself into unconsciousness so that her high-paying clients can manhandle her at will. As she's flipped from front to back, side to side, on an off the bed, the camera lingers on her breasts and bum – both embodying and commenting on the feminist concept of the uninterrupted male gaze.
Whit Stillman's urban comedy Damsels in Distress includes a scene in which a young man proposes sex "from the other side," and his female lover complies. Afterward, there's a shot following her from behind, as she walks with the slightest hitch in her step. And in Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst has aggressive al fresco sex on her wedding night with a man who's not her husband, and also lolls lushly naked on the ground.
"I knew how it was going to be shot – it's like a painting – and I felt comfortable with it," Dunst said in an interview on Saturday. "It shows my character's connection with the planet in such a beautiful, intimate way." She sighed. "I know if I do nudity in a film it's going to be online all over the place. But I did it, it looks beautiful, and it's a Lars von Trier film, so fine. What I don't like is the kind of nudity that's cavalier and doesn't make any sense. If I was in some comedy showing my boobs, I'd be pretty bummed. I don't think actresses should show their boobs in a comedy. Boobs aren't funny. They're just not."
It's true that much of mainstream North American culture has been both square and immature about sexuality; perhaps now we're simply catching up. In Take This Waltz, the heroine (Michelle Williams) has lots of vigorous sex with her boyfriend, then with her boyfriend and another woman, then with her boyfriend and another man.
"I wanted it to represent experimentation, her throwing out all preconceived notions, and just trying everything," Polley said last week. She laughed. "It's funny, when I show it to Europeans, they're like [shrugging], 'Eh.' And every North American is like, 'What's with the threesomes?' I find that hilarious."
It's also true that in most of these films, the frank sex and nudity are genuinely integral to their impact. Martha Marcy May Marlene, about a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) who escapes from a cult on a Catskills farm, includes scenes of nude swimming, group sex and less-than-consensual sex. "Having the nudity in there is so important to telling our story," Olsen said on Friday. "Because it's not sensationalized, it feels like voyeurism. The audience feels like they're watching something they're not supposed to be watching. And that has this huge effect on you."
Film-going has always been a kind of voyeurism, but these filmmakers are redrawing (and sometimes erasing) the boundaries. Whether it's a refraction of Internet culture or merely a desire to keep up with it, the new frankness is here, daring us to look, and daring us to look away.