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Joaquin Phoenix Getty 1.jpg

Joaquin Phoenix Stars in The Two Weirdest Sex Scenes of 2023

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | November 27, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | November 27, 2023 |

Joaquin Phoenix Getty 1.jpg

The common consensus among audiences and critics alike is that Joaquin Phoenix is weird. How could he not be, right? He’s a famously talented and dedicated actor who hates attention, was briefly raised in a cult, dealt with immense tragedy at a young age, and faked retirement to star in a self-destructive performance piece where he pretended to become a rapper. Marry all of that with his performances, which are known for their intensity and eschewing of traditional Hollywood conventions, and he seems doomed to be known as an oddball for the rest of his life.

It’s worked out for him so far, as the shelf of awards can attest to, but reducing him to a weirdo doesn’t do justice to a performer whose work is far more unexpected than the definition of ‘bizarre’ can explain. In particular, it overlooks how funny he can be. Phoenix is a gifted comic performer with more than his fair share of great roles to demonstrate it. Just look at the drunken waster cowboy in The Sisters Brothers, the charming army schemer of Buffalo Soldiers, and the bro of Signs. I could write a thesis on his turn as Doc Sportello, the perennially stoned PI in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, which is not only his best comedic performance but one of his all-time greatest performances. The slapstick alone in that film is worthy of an Oscar. So, it didn’t surprise me when Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, which Phoenix headlines, was called out for its unexpected jokes. Of course Phoenix would play Bonaparte as a short loser who nobody likes being around! What was a little more surprising was its sex scenes and how it created a brief but fascinating 2023 trend: Joaquin Phoenix being the lead in a pair of hilarious, strange, and terrifying sex scenes.

Before we get to Napoleon, let’s jump into Beau Is Afraid, Ari Aster’s nightmare comedy that spent three hours putting a balding Phoenix with distended testicles into a series of life-ruining scenarios. I loved it. A ton of people hated it. It flopped hard for A24. Phoenix’s Beau Wasserman is a snivelling runt of a man, stuck in a state of arrested development and besieged by a world that is 100% out to get him. Deadly afraid of sex since his father knocking up Patti LuPone was what allegedly killed him, he’s a middle-aged virgin with a deadly fear of cumming. He gets laid towards the end of the film when Parker Posey, his childhood crush all grown up, indulges in some fury-grief f*cking. Her mood music for the occasion? ‘Always Be My Baby’ by Mariah Carey.

Beau’s reaction to being ridden by Posey is to whine and panic like someone’s pushing him on a large swing against his will. It certainly seems like the first time Beau has ever, uh, had a rubdown, so to speak, and he has no idea how to act about something that feels so good but might kill him. Then he cums and he’s fine. The curse is broken! But nope, Posey is dead, frozen atop him like a sex shop mannequin. See, everything your mother told you about f*cking being dangerous was true.

It’s hysterical, in large part because Phoenix goes for broke as a broken little man who has never made a decision for himself once in his life getting ridden like he’s going into battle. Hearing one of Carey’s most beloved songs playing in the background only adds to the nightmare surrealism of it all, like a ’90s rom-com possessed by the guy who made The Strange Thing About the Johnsons. The climax - heh - is every anti-sex PSA come true, the perfect ending to a story about leading the worst life ever. Well, until you find out what’s in the attic.

In Napoleon, Phoenix’s take on the eponymous general is pitched somewhere between a petulant toddler and horned-up despot. It’s hysterical, and a fascinating piece of cinematic iconoclasm that is sure to infuriate historians, weird Redditors, and the French. The most nourishing segments of the film come when Napoleon is with his first wife, the endlessly magnetic Josephine (played by Vanessa Kirby.) He’s obsessed with this former aristocrat, and she needs regal protection in the post-terror age of Paris. It’s a match made in, well, not heaven but certainly co-dependent curiosity.

It’s no surprise that this Napoleon, a man with an emotional support hat, is crap at sex. The first time we see him rushing through the act with an evidently dissatisfied Josephine, he refers to the act as ‘cock work,’ a phrase that will never leave my head. Well, something got worked. Later, his attempt at seduction, driven by his hunger for an heir, involves crawling under the long dining table and whinnying like a randy horse. The footmen and servants are all standing to the sides, trying not to notice what their bosses are up to. No wonder Josephine gets a lover who seems to know that women are capable of pleasure during the act of copulation.

Napoleon sees it as his duty to procure a male heir for the good of France, so it makes sense that he views sex as an act akin to a stallion mounting a broodmare. He knows men who use foreplay and he thinks they’re all cowards. The look of absolute tedium on Josephine’s face during most of these scenes is the most relatable thing in the entire movie. This is a man who views love as just another battleground to conquer, and it doesn’t work when your opponent has no desire to relent. So, the act of trying to make a baby becomes a bare-bones (heh) moment of utilitarianism, which cannot help but be hilarious when combined with a guy who also wants to be the best at everything. And he’s so not!

We’ve been stuck in a ceaseless cycle of bad-faith online discourse about sex scenes in cinema, with a weird strain of Puritanism dominating the landscape and declaring that there’s no such thing as a necessary sex scene. This rhetoric is exhausting and categorically false, but that’s a discussion for another day. To keep it short, sex scenes can and do function as crucial narrative devices and we should be able to harness the vast and often enigmatic spectrum of human sexuality to further explore what it means to be human through art. That also means talking about what happens when the sex is bad, as it so often is. I doubt Phoenix made the conscious decision to star in two films that examine weakness, terror, and diverging ideas of toxic maleness via sex, but it’s nice and neat that we got this package in 2023. Ahem.