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The Stewardesses
Still from "The Stewardesses" (1969)via

The secret history of 3D sex in cinema

Gaspar Noé’s spunk-flinging sex flick is out today, joining a legacy of films that pioneered 3D lovemaking

An hour into “Gaspar Noé and chill” and the film gives you this look like 10cc of spunk is shooting over your 3D glasses. That’s the money shot in Love, a pornographic coming-of-age story in 3D, transforming the mantra of “sex sells” into a big popcorn event.

Let’s not pretend 3D isn’t annoying. It costs more, the images are darker, the glasses are uncomfortable, and statistically you’re probably at some goddamn superhero movie. The exception is Love, which you’ll want to catch in its preferred format, with erect penises and various fluids flying off the screen. (Slide on the glasses for protection.)

However, Noé hasn’t made the first 3D porno. Love just happens to be the natural progression for an artistic medium that holds a mirror up to an occasionally unclothed society. Here’s how cinema has been toying with 3D sex for ages.


Remember when Avatar came out and the 3D felt like such a novelty? Something similar occurred in 1969 for The Stewardesses, a softcore skin-flick that’s still proportionally the most profitable 3D film ever made – including Avatar. Shot in LA and set around a cockpit, The Stewardesses only cost $100,000 to make, but made $25 million because, well, it was 3D porn before the internet. No doubt the poster’s slogan helped: “SEE THE LUSTY STEWARDESSES LEAP FROM THE SCREEN ONTO YOUR LAP”.

Only select adult theatres played The Stewardesses before it expanded across America and eventually worldwide. For the ‘mainstream’ transition, the initial cut – basically just flight attendants joining the mile-high club – was bolstered with 20 minutes of dialogue to evade complaints that it was all sex, no story. Thus, the extended version ends its 90 minutes of randy action with a stewardess facing an existential crisis and committing suicide by jumping out of a bedroom window. While not arousing, it at least makes use of the 3D.


The Stewardesses was followed by other 3D pornos like The Lollipop Girls in Hard Candy (1976), The Disco Dolls in Hot Skin (1977) and Sexcalibur (1983) – all low in budget and subtlety, but overshadowed by the 2D-ness of Deep Throat. The next real landmark came in 2011 with 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy, a Hong Kong slice of erotica seeking to bring T&A to Imax auditoriums. The supposed selling point? It’s a 17th-century costume drama – a bit odd, considering how quickly those costumes come off.

There’s an actual story involving monks, marriage and someone or something called The Elder of Bliss. But how seriously can it be taken when it’s called 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy? Seriously, try saying it. Perhaps it’s the English translation, for the film was a hit in Hong Kong where its opening-day figures trounced Avatar. People even flew in from China to ensure they saw an uncensored cut – not in Imax, though, as the film was ultimately deemed too racy for giant screens.


Further evidence that Academy voters are dinosaurs with no sense of humour is that Kamasutra 3D made itself eligible for Best Picture, Best Song and Best Score at the 2014 Oscars, but couldn’t muster up a single sympathy nomination. The erotic Indian production tells the story of a princess and her 3D sexual odyssey, further entering James Cameron territory by setting it on a giant boat. As for the rest of it? Good luck deciphering a story from the trailer, in which the princess licks mud off a tree – and not even a particularly sexy tree, IMO.

Despite premiering a trailer at Cannes 2013, Kamasutra 3D hasn’t been screened and is possibly still unfinished – its IMDb message board is filled with conspiracy theorists questioning if the film is a hoax. What this means is a 3D sex flick is too niche to fund or market, or it’s considered enough of a pipedream to be the equivalent of receiving an email from a foreign prince offering free money in exchange for bank details.


Do you know anyone who owns a 3D Blu-ray player? Me neither. People must own them, though, and perhaps no one wants to admit the only disc they own is This Ain’t Avatar XXX 2: Escape From Pandwhora 3D, or one of the many others on sale. The appeal is obvious. Every argument for seeing something like Gravity in 3D applies to porn, minus the notion that films are best experienced in packed screenings.

Thus, 3D appeals to adults. Although it tends to be reserved for superhero dirge and low-budget horror sequels, raunchy comedies have flirted with the technique too. It’s no coincidence that A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas and Piranha 3D both feature visual gags of a penis swinging into the audience. So, there’s clearly space for a controversial arthouse director to make a sex movie. While Lars von Trier’s gimmick with Nymphomaniac was its gigantic, four-hour running time, Gaspar Noé wanted to show cinema is not about size but what you do with it.


Already a director with a habit of poking audiences with a stick to provoke a reaction, Noé would of course go 3D for Love and its many sex scenes – during a handjob with a boner aimed towards the camera, you know what’s about to come. But the 3D in Love is more than just a novelty factor; the immersive bed sessions emphasise Murphy’s heartbroken – and embellished – memories of the one that got away. In a surprisingly musical film, the 3D fucking behaves as a string of guitar solos, breaking off from conversational drama into freeform expressions.

So strong is Murphy’s desire to romanticise the past, he can close his eyes and see his ex-girlfriend in more vivid detail – in 3D quality – than how he views the present-day replacement with whom he’s raising a child. In the flashbacks, Noé and regular DP Benoît Debie treat the various beds as canvasses, lit with surrounding shadows to imply everything else disappears when the couple have sex. It’s an unexpected shade of pathos from Noé, even if his film’s ultimate message is that a wank bank is preferable to reality. Well, that’s the magic of 3D.

Love is out in cinemas from November 18