The year's most powerful nudity in film

From Emma Thompson's liberation to Viking confrontations, cinema revealed skin in artful, deliberate ways in 2022

Published December 30, 2022 3:00PM (EST)

Emma Thompson in "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande", Alexander Skarsgård in "The Northman" and Rory Kinnear in "Men" (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/A24/Focus Features/Hulu/Searchlight Pictures)
Emma Thompson in "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande", Alexander Skarsgård in "The Northman" and Rory Kinnear in "Men" (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/A24/Focus Features/Hulu/Searchlight Pictures)

The following contains spoilers for the films examined that feature nude characters.

Two documentaries that played only on the festival circuit this year crystalized some of the attitudes about nudity on display in films in 2022. The immersive, observational film, "Naked Gardens," set in a Florida naturist community, featured subjects of all ages and sizes unclothed almost all the time doing everything from cooking to using power tools. It celebrated being naked in a safe space where people weren't eroticized. It also considered issues about body image.

In contrast, "Body Parts," was a cogent, eye-opening analysis of how women's bodies are presented in Hollywood films and television. The documentary shows how nudity was often expected from actresses, and getting naked on screen was often done as a way of "paying their dues" as performers. However, even with contracts and nudity riders, women had to lobby for intimacy coordinators and protection against harassment. Many subjects in the film discuss having to "disassociate" from their bodies to "get through" having to perform a nude or sex scene. The film made viewers feel for the actresses having to be vulnerable on screen.

These two insightful points of view influence reactions to actors who dared to bare all on screen in 2022. There has always been a fascination at seeing performers unclothed. But sometimes it can feel exploitative. 

Full nudity can be used for comic effect — Simon Rex's bare-assed run in "Red Rocket," which opened late last year, proved that. But nudity can also make audiences uncomfortable. "Blonde" was hardly sexy as Norma Jeane/Marilyn Monroe (Ana de Armas) was sexually abused by a number of men.  

Nudity in cinema this year ranged from empowering to discomfiting. What made a handful of films that featured full nude scenes so impactful in 2022 was how they were used to prompt audiences to react emotionally and think about what the nudity meant and represented. It was integral for each character. These six films below were not exploitative, but rather, they implicated the viewer into sharing the characters' experiences and forced them to think and feel something that could be either pleasurable, empowering or shocking. 

Let's take a look.

"Good Luck to You, Leo Grande" (Hulu)
Good Luck To You, Leo GrandeDaryl McCormack and Emma Thompson in "Good Luck To You, Leo Grande" (Hulu/Searchlight Pictures)
In this poignant drama, Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson) and the titular Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) meet for sex in a hotel room. Nancy, a prim religious education teacher, has hired Leo, a sex worker, to help her achieve an orgasm. (She has never had one.) Leo is as confident as Nancy is insecure, and before their first of four encounters, Nancy looks at herself in the hotel room's full-length mirror questioning everything about herself, as well as her decision to hire Leo. But for Leo, sex is about pleasure, and he always seeks consent, as when he asks to kiss Nancy. She wonders if he feels exploited, demeaned or degraded by his work, and he redirects by asking Nancy about her fantasies.
"Good Luck to You, Leo Grande" is about letting go of shame and judgment — about sex as well as bodies — which is why the film is more charming than prurient. Both characters in this talky film express ideas about sex and body image — especially when Nancy touches Leo's shirtless chest. The film addresses the power of sexual fulfillment as the characters bare their souls before their skin. That they have a "real" moment of connection makes viewers feel satisfied and gratified as well. While Leo does briefly appear fully nude, he is not objectified or idolized. However, the strongest emotional moment comes as the film closes and Nancy stands at the room's full-length mirror once again, fully naked this time, feeling powerful. While the nude scene is considered "daring" for Thompson — because of her age, her stardom and her body — that is precisely the film's point. Her smile expresses all the pleasure and self-worth Nancy feels — and had never felt until she met Leo. And Thompson has no reason to be ashamed about who she is, what she looks like or being nude. She is challenging viewers to accept what she looks like, and by extension, what viewers see and how they feel about themselves when completely naked.
Lady Chatterley's LoverEmma Corrin as Lady Chatterley and Jack O'Connell as Oliver Mellors in "Lady Chatterley's Lover" (Courtesy of Netflix)
The latest version of D.H. Lawrence's erotic novel also explores class differences and female sexual pleasure as Lady Constance Chatterley (Emma Corrin) has an adulterous affair with Oliver Mellors (Jack O'Connell), the gamekeeper on the country estate she shares with her husband, Lord Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett). Connie's sexual relations with her husband are fraught — especially after he returns from war and is paralyzed from the waist down. Lady Constance soon falls for Mellors after spying him bathing one afternoon. Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre's classy retelling has Corrin's Constance smiling mischievously at seeing Mellors naked, unlike the overheated 1981 Sylvia Kristal/Nicholas Clay version. But Lady Constance's attraction is ignited, and she masturbates thinking of Mellors. When she kisses his hand hungrily one afternoon, it is a prelude to sex. She returns again and again, to give into her lustful impulses. There is real passion in their heated lovemaking. "I want you to f**k me," she commands at one point, insatiable. Things grow more intense as Lady Chatterley opens herself up to desire despite all warnings. "Some people go through their whole lives never having that feeling," Mellors observes, but he also does not want to feel "used" by Constance.
What makes their romance so enthralling, and what viewers feel is that the characters find strength and freedom in ecstasy. Viewers may very well be turned on by the couple's frequent sex scenes, which are graphic without being explicit. (An intimacy coordinator was used to protect the actors.) By doing as they please — such as frolicking naked in the rain in one of the film's more impulsive, sensual episodes — the characters express their pleasure with naked abandon. They, and viewers, feel their joy and comfort with their bodies which also provides a release from the confinement of class and social expectations. The characters' uninhibited nature is as appealing as the attractive actors.
"Men" (Available on digital)
MenMen (Kevin Baker/A24)
Alex Garland's folk horror film has Harper (Jessie Buckley) coping with the recent loss of her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), whom she was in the process of divorcing. Holing up in a country estate for a fortnight, Harper is haunted by the trauma. The vengeful spirit of James is embodied by various characters — all of whom are played by Rory Kinnear. As the film opens, Harper takes a bite of an apple in the garden of the Edenic property, a symbol of Eve, of course.
"Adam" may be the naked man Harper first sees when she stops to take a photo while out on a walk, but he is far more sinister. (She later examines the man's image in closeup on her phone while taking a bath as if trying to understand it.) The nude man is soon seen stalking Harper, prompting her to call the police, who arrest him. But the man, who is never identified, does not stay imprisoned for long. He reappears as the Green Man, a folkloric symbol come to life. It is disturbing, and "Men" gets even weirder as the Green Man returns to torment Harper. He later gives birth to a blood-covered man, who then gives birth to another blood-covered man, and then another in front of Harper. The nudity here is strange, fascinating and unsettling. Like some of Harper's verbal encounters with the local Vicar (Kinnear) these episodes are inappropriate and emphasize the victimization of women by toxic men. The "shocking" multiple birth sequence is also addressing the iconography of the sheela na gig, which is a woman opening her vulva and holding a gaze — an image that can be quite confrontational. Viewers, as well as Harper, are forced to confront this and with it, their own feelings which is where the film's power and horror lie. 

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"Mothering Sunday" (Available on digital)
Mothering SundayMothering Sunday (Sony Pictures Classics)
Eva Husson's superb, underseen film featured a triptych narrative, with one story depicting the clandestine affair between Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young), a maid, and the upper-class Paul Sheringham (Josh O'Connor, of "The Crown"). Jane and Paul meet on Mother's Day, 1924 before he heads off to lunch with his fiancée Emma (Emma D'Arcy) and her family. Their sex, however, isn't the focus here; it is their bodies. Both Young and O'Connor are unself-conscious while naked, which lets the viewers appreciate their nudity. Their nudity makes them equals, despite class differences. The characters enjoy touching each other's bodies, but the looks they give each other are also freighted with meaning. Viewers can feel the unspoken emotions amid their desire and longing.
After Paul leaves, Jane roams fully naked through the luxurious house. It's an empowering scene; she imagines being born into this life she does not have. She strokes the spines of books in the library with both casualness and care. Significantly, the full nudity on display is not sexualized, which is why it is so captivating. It is natural, liberating, and without shame. Jane's comfort in her own skin is what makes this sequence magic — and viewers feel that watching her. Moreover, her self-confidence, even in the shadow of heartbreak — this may be her last tryst with Paul — is what toughens the character, her skin is armor against oppression.
"Pleasure" (Showtime, Available on digital)
PleasurePleasure (Neon)
Sex work is also the subject of "Pleasure," director/cowriter Ninja Thyberg's terrific and explicit drama set the adult film industry. Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel in a bravura performance) is looking to break into the business; her ambitions are such that she will do almost anything on camera (and pretty much does). She frequently poses provocatively for selfies when not on set to build her "brand." Bella shows herself to be fearless from her first "scene," where she must perform an explicit sex act on camera; she does it after some initial jitters. But the nudity in "Pleasure" is all business. Bella is seen nude only when working or primping — from shaving herself in the shower to douching. The penises on display are, more often than not, fraught. One performer uses drugs to help sustain his erection, another guy asks if he can lick Bella's feet so he can get hard for their scene. (Men are weak, the film shrewdly suggests in these moments, even if they have more power.)
Bella also must navigate a challenging scene where two naked actors (Bill Bailey and Nathan Bronson) rough her up during a film shoot. The episode is shot and edited in a chaotic, threatening, fragmented way to emphasize the cruelty and abuse; these d**ks are dangerous. (To be fair, both guys comfort Bella during pauses in filming when things get too intense). In contrast, two extreme fetish scenes Bella participates in are shot almost lovingly, with little nudity. For all the skin on display, "Pleasure" makes sex work unerotic. The film, which emphasizes consent and never feels exploitative, will likely prompt viewers to have empathy towards Bella as she strives, suffers, and survives. The film also demystifies how sex scenes are filmed (much like "Body Parts") and how actors endure them.
"The Northman" (Peacock)
The NorthmanAlexander Skarsgård in "The Northman" (Focus Features)
In the climax of Robert Eggers' epic, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) and his uncle, Fjölnir the Brotherless (Claes Bang), fight to the death while naked on the edge of volcano. ("The gates of Hel" as they call it.) Their spectacular nude bodies — sweaty, muscular, pulsating with energy and intensity — are shadows seen in silhouette illuminated by the fire. Why they are naked is inexplicable, but that is less of an issue than who will defend his honor and survive. (This isn't quite the famous homoerotic Alan Bates-Oliver Reed nude wrestling scene in "Women in Love.")
Eggers is emphasizing the masculinity here and viewers will feel that in every frame of this tough film. Fjölnir even has a nude scene in front of a crowd before going into battle displaying his ferocity and might as well as his beefy backside. Similarly, Skarsgard's Amleth resembles a Tom of Finland image made flesh. His brawny physique is easy to appreciate, even when it is covered in blood or mud. One scene where Amleth is hung up in a barn, lets Eggars fetishize Skarsgard's strapping body, turning him into a literal pinup as if articulating an idealized image of masculinity. It would be swoon-inducing if it wasn't so gritty. Women, in contrast are treated more crudely. One fully naked female character is chased during a celebration, while Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) lifts her skirt to prove she is menstruating to avoid having to have sex with Fjölnir. Olga does, however, make love to Amleth (twice), and their sexualized encounters are the coziest scenes in this savage Viking drama. "The Northman" doesn't explain or defend its nudity, it just lets viewers feel its raw, invigorating power.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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