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Unsexy Sex: A Valentine

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By Michelle Orange, Matt Singer, R. Emmet Sweeney and Alison Willmore

[Photo: “Killing Me Softly,” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 2002]

On-screen chemistry’s a funny thing. Some actors come together and click; others might as well be staring out at each other from separate screens across the multiplex. When it comes to romance, good chemistry can mark the difference between a sense of believably heated liaison and a sense that you’re just watching two famous people smash their faces together. Nowhere is this clearer than in love scenes — whether extravagantly staged or staunchly naturalistic, movie sex without a spark can range from boring to downright ludicrous. In honor of Valentine’s Day, we’re taking a closer look at the ludicrous side of the spectrum with some of our favorite examples of unsexy sex.

Body of Evidence (1993)

Directed by Uli Edel

There are at least four lengthy sex scenes (plus a sequence where Willem Dafoe strokes a cat while watching Madonna get acupuncture needles stuck in her butt) in “Body of Evidence,” but the funniest has to be the last one. By this point in the film, Dafoe, a shady defense attorney, has grown fed up of his client (that’d be Madonna) and her devious feminine trickery. He barges into her home and accuses her of telling his wife that he’s been cheating on her. Madonna denies it and Dafoe throws her to the floor, but since Madonna’s character is into rough sex, that’s basically like slipping her some Spanish fly. In short order, the two are in the midst of a wild and wildly ridiculous lovemaking session that includes masturbation, bondage, biting, strangulation and anal
sex. Most of “Body of Evidence”‘s sex scenes are far funnier than they are erotic — I’m also quite fond of the one where Madonna ties up Dafoe with his own belt and then pours hot candle wax and champagne on his chest after announcing they’re going to do it “My Way” like she’s Frank Sinatra or something — but that fetish potpourri really exemplifies why they all don’t work. One kink might have been sexy; but six all at once within a two and a half minute span? The scene’s so jam-packed that the characters don’t even have time to enjoy themselves before they’re on to their next wacky indiscretion. Madonna and Dafoe look like they’re working their way through a checklist of deviancy as quickly as possible so they can put their clothes back on. —Matt Singer

In The Cut (2003)

Directed by Jane Campion

There are some actresses who shouldn’t have sex. Something strange happens in my brain when I see Cate Blanchett, for instance, in bed; neurons misfire, it just doesn’t work. It’s not a matter of being a roaring femme fatale or innocuous honey pot, it’s a certain switch, and they can flick it or they can’t. I don’t necessarily think Meg Ryan can’t, but in 2003’s “In the Cut,” Jane Campion’s moody serial killer thriller, much of the hype around the movie was derived from the question of whether she can. As a mousey New York teacher, Ryan gets caught up in a murder investigation being conducted by a bowl of hot tamales (Mark Ruffalo and his formidable moustache). Rumors of their graphic sex scenes abounded, and while it’s true that the two are naked a great deal, the dark, libidinal abandon of it all failed to kicked in. In fact at the end of the film, when Ruffalo is cuffed to some sort of radiator, encouraging the demure Ryan to have her nasty way with him, the dreaded giggle impulse is triggered. Campion fails her actors in these scenes — you can see that they are game and able, though Ryan generates more heat, in one particular scene, on her own than with her dirty-talking detective — in capturing all the flesh and none of the fun. —Michelle Orange

Killing Me Softly (2002)

Directed by Chen Kaige

Neither Joseph Fiennes nor Heather Graham really found a place for themselves in Hollywood. I place the blame on 2002’s “Killing Me Softly,” the only English-language effort to date from revered Fifth Generation Chinese director Chen Kaige (of such irreproachable arthouse fare as “Farewell My Concubine”). After the film was dropped directly to video, Graham was left with a guest-star spot on “Scrubs” and a quickly canceled show of her own, Fiennes slunk off to act in a slew of middling period dramas no one’s heard of, and Chen returned to China to make the sentimental “Together” and the ridiculous fantasy epic “The Promise.” What could possibly be so mojo-killing? “Killing Me Softly” is an erotic thriller about a British mountain climber and a comically naïve Midwestern expat — I’ll leave you to divine which actor fits into which role — who meet cute at a London crosswalk and wordlessly rush off to bang. Believably portraying such reckless passion, particularly only a scarce few minutes into a film, would be a challenge for any actor. To say that Graham and Fiennes fail is too generous — they manage to make the film’s frequent, panting displays of their famous flesh actively boring. Graham’s Bambi-eyed ingénue begins to suspect her brooding boy-toy of murdering his last two girlfriends, but marries him nevertheless, and the film’s plodding poor-man’s Hitchcock themes of lust and danger cumulate with a howler of a kinky love scene involving a silk scarf and a fireplace that could earn “Killing Me Softly” a place on the cult classic pantheon. —Alison Willmore

Miami Vice (2006)

Directed by Michael Mann

As much as Michael Mann is an expert of the impenetrable chatter of cops ‘n robbers, he’s clueless when it comes to the allusive game-playing of flirtation. There’s no starker reminder of this than in “Miami Vice,” a visually ravishing film that screeches to a halt with every intimation of intimacy. After a tense sit-down with coke supplier José Yero (John Ortiz), Crockett (Colin Farrell) ambles off to speak with the operation’s second-in-command, Isabella (Gong Li), whence comes the soon to be legendary line that he’s a “fiend for mojitos.” This inexplicably charms Gong (visibly uncomfortable speaking English), and so begins another grueling male rescue fantasy. They whisk each other away to Havana on speedboat fumes, gropingly do the salsa, and (cue the angsty Chris Cornell ballad) furtively hump under latticed shadows at a seedy hotel. It’s all Hollywood handbook seduction — lots of dead-eyed stares and sensitive cheek grazing, but no hint of idiosyncrasy or humor — that is, nothing identifiably human. At least Tubbs (Jaimie Foxx) gets a cute premature ejaculation joke in his scene of amor. —R. Emmet Sweeney

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

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Disaster Hut

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Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

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Lane 33: Twins

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Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

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Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

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Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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