Welcome to Anatomy of a Queer Sex Scene, a series by Drew Burnett Gregory and Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya about queer sex scenes in film. Sometimes, we’ll tap writers we love to contribute to the series, and we’re thrilled to present the first of these guest appearances this week with Isle McElroy, author of the novels The Atmospherians and People Collide, writing about Dogtooth.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been telling anyone who would listen — and even those who would not — that Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things was an apology for Dogtooth, the director’s breakout film from 2009. While Dogtooth is a movie about endurance and containment, about the fascism of the family, Poor Things is about freedom — sexual and intellectual — and refuses to place a single insurmountable restriction on its heroine, Bella Baxter. In Dogtooth, the eldest daughter risks death by fleeing her childhood home; Bella gets to go on a cruise.
The most apparent difference is how Lanthimos treats his protagonists’ sexual freedom. Bella takes quickly to sex, which she calls “furious jumping,” and a large portion of the movie captures her sexual self-discovery: fucking men, women, Ruffalos, and everyone in between. The sex in Poor Things is fun, but is Bella queer? Is the sex in the film queer? Those questions seem beside the point. Rather, Bella seems unaware that sexuality even exists. She is a horny tabula rasa, the center of the venn diagram between nymphomaniac and nymphet (fwiw, I think Emma Stone does an excellent job).
I left Poor Things eager to rewatch Dogtooth, specifically the sex scenes between women in the film. Lanthimos has historically viewed sex as a perfunctory and cynical act. In Killing of a Sacred Deer, Nicole Kidman gives one of cinema’s most clinical hand jobs. The Lobster invites viewers into a world where masturbation is forbidden and guests are forcibly edged by housekeeping staff. The sex in Dogtooth, though, reveals Lanthimos at his most ruthless but quietly queer.
The film follows a family who lives on a secluded compound in Greece. While the patriarch leaves for work every morning, his wife and three adult children — a boy and two girls — remain at home. The children have never ventured beyond the walls surrounding their home. Their lexicon is potholed with intentionally misdefined words: “highway” is a “strong wind,” “pussy” is a “bright lamp.” The kids’ only contact with the outside world is a security guard named Cristina who works at the patriarch’s building. Occasionally, he pays her to come have sex with his son. Sex between the son and Cristina is dutifully heterosexual and about as erotic as an in-flight safety video.
Afterward, though, Cristina and the eldest daughter share a fleeting flirtation in the living room. The eldest sits cautiously close and gazes at Cristina with a swallowed, curious lust. Watching this scene, I was reminded of Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya’s essay about The Handmaiden for this series, where she defends the erotic power of glances and grazed hands when conveying sexual tension — acts often derided for not doing enough to explicitly showcase lesbian desire. It’s easy to feel the eldest daughter’s desire, here, a desire shaped by Cristina’s comparative worldliness. When the patriarch takes a video of Cristina with his daughters, the eldest practically glues herself to their guest, leaning her head on her shoulder, while her sister watches with impatient jealousy before asking their father for a chance to sit next to Cristina.
When Cristina next visits, she joins the eldest in her room after finishing with the son. There, she offers the eldest a present: a headband spotted with rhinestones that light up in the dark. The eldest offers what she can in exchange–first a pencil, then a tape measure–but Cristina doesn’t want an object. She wants the eldest to go down on her.
Before rewatching the movie, I misremembered how their connection developed. I assumed it was more organic than it was, full of passing glances and suppressed desire. What stood out most in this viewing was not the queerness of their encounter but how quickly Cristina chooses to take advantage of the eldest daughter. It’s impossible to ignore the coercion that appears in the film, and I don’t intend to valorize that element.
However, the movie draws a distinction between the potential of queer versus heterosexual sex. The latter keeps the son trapped at home, waiting in a state of semi-empowerment and unable to envision a life outside the compound. But after the initial encounter between the eldest and Cristina — regarded, with graphic simplicity, as “licking” — something changes for the protagonist. She doesn’t have a sexual awakening, per se, but more of an ethical awakening, wise to how she is being treated unfairly. She grows impatient with the rules her father imposes. When her brother steals one of her toys, she attacks him instead of conceding it was his. She becomes more curious about the outside world. It’s as if queer sex between her and Cristina gives voice to something she had never spoken before.
Unfortunately, the eldest’s awakening is largely modeled after Cristina’s abuses. To borrow from every Instagram therapist ever: She is reduced to using the tools she’s been given. She offers her younger sister the headband in exchange for own round of licking. This is one of the rare moments in the film that feels genuinely hot. The eldest asks her sister to lick her shoulder and, as the younger complies, the camera focuses closely on the two women’s faces. They are turned toward each other, the younger glancing at her sister between licks while the eldest gazes down with approval. There is something playful and sensual about this encounter, not innocent, considering the conditions they’re under, but it comes about as close as the movie can to untainted pleasure.
The next time Cristina asks the eldest to lick her, she refuses. She wants more than what Cristina offers, a tub of hair gel. She wants the video cassettes in her purse. Cristina is wary to part with the movies, but the eldest now understands the power she holds. She threatens to tell her father about their arrangement. Cristina relents, under the condition the eldest return the cassettes the following week. Agreed. The eldest kneels before her, and the camera lingers on the back of her head. Nary a moan can be heard.
Across these three scenes, queer sex is less about pleasure than power. One might suspect Cristina is queer; perhaps taking advantage of the eldest is the only way she knows how to pursue her latent desires. But I’m less interested in who is queer than in how queer sex, a clear counterpoint to repetitive heteronormative sex in the film, seems to direct the eldest toward liberation. It brings her closer to her power. That she abuses her power is beside the point; everyone in the film abuses power as soon as they have it.
Through sex, the eldest gains access to the outside world, first through a hairband, then through the American films she takes from Cristina. The sex gives her a sense of purpose, in a manner both similar and distinct from Bella in Poor Things. Bella’s sexual awakening rockets her out of containment; she laughs off her lover’s possessiveness, chases pleasure with unselfconscious thirst. Sex shows her that freedom is there for the taking. For the eldest, though, sex is a single fingernail attempting to scrape through a wall. Her awakening does not lead to immediate liberation; it merely whispers the word in her ear. Her journey toward that liberation is flawed and violent and, eventually, futile, but in a world where life is constructed in the image of heteropatriarchal subservience, queer sex shows the eldest there are other ways to exist.