Sex That Shares A Surname
A look at incest in the movies
By Grant Rosenberg
From Gadfly July/August 2000

When Angelina Jolie was announced as Best Supporting Actress at the 72nd Annual Academy Awards ceremony, she embraced her brother, a very beautiful boy who has Angelina's eyes, and then made her way to the podium. Looking like she had just come from a cauldron party, Angelina proceeded to gush about her intimate love for him, speaking in a manner that went beyond most viewers' notion of sibling love.

It's probably absurd to think that Angelina and her brother have a sexual relationship. But she made us feel that they do, and palpably.

With its intrinsic sense of taboo, incest is not typical multiplex fare. A bit like Francois Truffaut's quote that it is impossible to make a truly anti-war film, cinema seems to have difficulty seriously conveying the horror and disgust of incest. When I first saw Hotel New Hampshire, for instance, I didn't see Rob Lowe and Jodie Foster as brother and sister but as two attractive young actors in bed. If Angelica Huston had played the role of Evelyn Mulray in Chinatown, even without sharing any scenes with her father, perhaps the ending would've felt more sinister than it did. And if Nicolas Cage had played Vincent, the nephew of Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III, perhaps we would have a better sense of the real stakes in his romance with Corleone's daughter, played by Sophia Coppola, Cage's actual first cousin.

This is not to say that an actor's actual relatives are needed in a film to make incest appear real to us. But it seems a quixotic task of dramatically capturing horrific times and events (the scope of the Holocaust, slavery, etc.), and incest is on yet another plane. Dramatized incest isn't just the simple act of simulated sex, which we see onscreen daily. It's the psychological effect of that fake sex, based on relationships that have been explained, though it remains ultimately intangible to the viewer. Only a few films provide a real suspension of disbelief, and it is no coincidence that those films invariably feature little-known actors.

Why do we come back to this volatile subject in art time and again? In his book Forbidden Partners: The Incest Taboo in Modern Culture (1987), James B. Twitchell writes: "The shock and horror of incest have excited each new generation, none more so than our own—It has been a powerful stimulus to our individual and collective imagination. It has made us shiver and wonder. It has made us imagine and create." Aside from this almost jingoistic call to culture in the name of incest across the land, Twitchell does make the point that, implied if not explicit, incest has been a continuing muse in all forms of art and storytelling since the early days; for the Greeks, Shakespeare and even the Bible.

None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness: I am the LORD. LEVITICUS 18:6

The verses in Leviticus that follow are even more specific rulings on what defines sexual contact between family members. They go into detail, relative by relative, down to one's aunts. The people of Israel, in no uncertain terms, receive the Laws of Acceptable Intimacy, thereby distinguishing them from the surrounding pagans. Yet before the Commandments were handed down, generations lived as they could, measuring morality by standards not yet in placeÑall the way back to the very first couple, who engaged in sexual intercourse without the union of matrimony. And yet, could it not be said that Adam and Eve are not only our fore parents, but also the first brother and sister? Eve is born of Adam's rib, thus making her flesh of his flesh. Beyond that, they're like a mischievous bro & sis, running around the yard, frolicking during "naked time" as if the only thing missing is dad and his handy cam. The bewildering lack of an actual childhood must only add to the complications inherent in having your lover be the only other person with whom you can share your time and who stands beside you as you answer to the wrath of Father.

Often in films dealing with sibling incest, the romance is portrayed as almost a noble love that others simply don't understand. Unlike the love between parent and child, this is an "us-against-the-world" vibe, an insular club with its own patterns of communication, much like Angelina Jolie and her brother on that Sunday night in March.

The Cement Garden, directed by Andrew Birkin and starring Charlotte Gainsbourg (Andrew's niece and the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg, the French singer with whom she recorded the song "Lemon Incest"), has that quality in spades. It presents the older children of a family caring for the younger ones and even burying their deceased mother in the garden. The older children, Jack and Julie, face a growing intimacy over the course of the film. Julie's boyfriend is the audience's surrogate, discovering with disgust the "deviancy" going on behind closed doors. If one goes behind the curtain, thinking of Birkin directing his own niece in such a film, the film slides into a darker place. It's not quite Robert Carradine and his niece Martha Plimpton going at it hardcore, but it'll do.

The film Hotel New Hampshire stubbornly sets about creating an uncommon tone. The entire story is treated like a reveriea fantastic, awkwardly unfolding yarn that gets wackier as it progresses to an almost surreal conclusion. When the love between siblings Fanny and Jack (Jodie Foster and Rob Lowe) is finally consummated, it comes after nothing short of total sexual narrative exhaustion; May-December sex, pre-civil rights interracial romance, gang rape and homosexuality. In short, the film has covered so much that the "pure" love of the brother and sister seems a refuge from other immoral and/or socially unacceptable behavior. And still, the incestuous evening is presented comically, with a clock's hour hand making more laps than a typical workday to show time passing, taking us out of realityor perhaps saving us from it. It is, after all, pubescent Jodie and Rob, who never much acted like siblings in the first place. From the beginning, their love is treated like an itchy rash, as if it just needs some talcum powder to make it go away. And it does.

Having the same anagrammatical serendipity as Santa/Satan is Angels and Insects. This film presents sibling incest as a mystery, a con of sorts. Set in England in the 1860s, it is determined to use incest as a symbol for the hypocrisy and evils lurking under the surface of proper society. What makes the discovery scene so effective is the deception of loved ones. Essentially, there is no difference between this scene and the conclusion of Louis Malle's Damage, where Jeremy Irons' character is discovered, by his own son, having intercourse with the young man's fiance. Our sympathies lie with the deceived, regardless of the relationship between the carnal partners.

Angels and Insects is in keeping with the party line of "noble" sibling love; that it's an ineffable need, an unceasing affliction/addiction, the rest of us be damned. Any true sense of deviancy comes from the brother, an indecent, xenophobic, pompous sexual abuser (of other women). As in Damage, the offending member is itself on display, half-erect, caught red-handed, as it were. But are we truly revolted on a visceral level by the naked siblings? Not really, no more than we were at the brother forcing sex on a servant of the house. Again, as with Hotel New Hampshire, the incest is diffused, here by the immoral behavior of one character and the multiple scenes of matrimonial sex of the other.

Like Chinatown, The War Zone presents incest between a father and his daughter, though unlike the other film, it is shown graphically on-screen in the present. As with all relationships of this sort, even if the sex is consensual, it never really is. Early on we get a sense of something wrong, and the film is the most successful of the lot in setting up a completely fictional scenario and making us feel the impurity. This is because the film is claustrophobic from the beginning; the family trapped in a small house in the country, mom breastfeeding her infant child in plain view. The film sucks us into the hearth, and by the time we see the father putting himself into his naked teenage daughter, we are sickened. The act itself is not conducted in the missionary position but from behind, further communicating the discord and pain.

Yet dad is a good man most of the time. By not presenting him as sinister, not cueing the Darth Vader theme as dad enters stage left, it is more wrenching to see him committing such an act on his own daughter. Demonize him at the beginning, and the audience collectively becomes self-congratulatory for seething at him each available chance. In other words, he would get off easy because we're distracted by our pride in thinking ourselves morally superior. But by making the audience contend with a man who otherwise loves and cares for his family, the film pulls no punches. It therefore earns the disgust and bitterness it leaves behind.

If it were not inappropriate to put incest into a hierarchy, with cousins on the low end and parent-child on the other, it seems that mother-son intercourse finds itself at the top. Why is that? Perhaps, oddly enough, because it feels less like manipulation. Whereas a father-daughter union implies non-consensual sex and therefore a crime much like that of rape in general, mother-son sex seems to be a more "cerebral" and less "base" act and, paradoxically, more wrath-worthy. This entire train of thought is narrow-minded, but it does prove sometimes to be the case. It has been said that men, with each caress and suckle of a lover's breast, want to return to the bosom of their mothers. And for this "weakness" is reserved the strongest censure. James B. Twitchell also writes: "We reserve our linguistic wrath for the most abhorrent act: mother-son incest. The most obscene and ferocious curse in the English language is 'mother-fucker,' which with gnomic concision expresses both social and familial outrage at a fever pitch."

Three films about mother-son intercourse, Bertolucci's Luna, Malle's Murmur of the Heart and David O. Russell's Spanking the Monkey, all present the actions of the mother as somehow "saving" her misunderstood and socially retarded son.  Spanking the Monkey sees them taking refuge in one another, drowning out the mother's and son's missed opportunities, both social and professional. They need to be drunk for it to happen, and it does. Pitting the mother and son against the philandering father also increases its effectiveness. Unlike some of these other films, seeing the fathers onscreen reinforces the mothers as mothers and the sons as sons.

In Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet with Mel Gibson and Glenn Close, Gertrude kisses her son fully on the mouth to stop him from speaking the truth she does not want to hearthis, after he dry humps her in a fit of tortured anger and carnal confusion. As in The Grifters, incestuous flirtation is exploited for ulterior goals. It seems that both Hamlet and The Grifters, which are not about the carnal relationship between mother and son, is more effective because we are invested in the characters in a way that has nothing to do with sex. When these moments come, they play better, and they play to the gut.

In the dramatization of incest, many interesting ideas spring to mind, particularly about suspension of disbelief. To wit: If we accept John and Joan Cusack in the same film as siblings (Say Anything) and as non-siblings in others (Grosse Pointe Blank, High Fidelity), why can't they, by extension, play husband and wife? Shouldn't that "believability" work both ways? Why does that cross the invisible line of being dramatically unacceptable? Aside from how distasteful it is, would the depiction of real-life siblings as on-screen (unrelated) lovers be considered obscenity, or only if they played brother/sister lovers? From each question springs a new one. But it all comes down to the same essential one, that which has been asked since the beginning of Drama through Dogma 95: How authentic can dramatic reproduction be, and do its constraints lie with the presentation or with the spectator?

"For whatever reasons," Twitchell writes in his conclusion, "the human unease at contemplating, much less violating, this prohibition has inspired some of the most lasting works of modern literature and popular cultureas well as some of the most ephemeral."  Thus, it is to the Big '80s, a decade that has proven to be both culturally long lasting and ephemeral, that we turn for the final words on celluloid incest. Marty McFly is kissed by his mother in that reverse-oedipal comedy Back to the Future, a film wherein the hero's mission is to re-channel his mother's obsessive love to his fatherin the process rescuing his father and avoiding sleeping with his mother.  The kiss we do see is innocuous enough to be in a film that is a ride at a theme park. Admittedly, it's a bit pointless to seek out verite in a movie about a time-traveling DeLorean. And, oddly enough, the single film scene that best conveys the "eeww-grossness" of incest is found in none other than National Lampoon's Vacation. Vicki, the white trash cousin of the Griswolds, sits on a seesaw with Audrey and brags, "I French kiss."  Audrey is unimpressed by something so typical. "Yeah," continues Vicki, "but my daddy says I'm the best." The moment's humor may be sordid, it may not be trying to appeal to the best in each of us and it may fill us with moral superiority to this white trash family. But we're talking incest here; it does have an underneath. We laugh or we groan, but we don't forget.