Few filmmakers have taken an interest in female pleasure on screen like Lilly and Lana Wachowski. Contributing Writer Lillian looks back on the orgasmic cake of The Matrix Reloaded, 20 years on, and the Wachowskis' impact on sex on screen.
“Choice is an illusion created between those with power and those without.” Midway through 2003’s The Matrix Reloaded, the sequel to the hit 1999 blockbuster The Matrix directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski which turns 20 this year, our heroes Neo (Keanu Reeves), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) meet a strange figure called The Merovingian (Lambert Wilson). It is one of the wordiest scenes in the franchise, as the action stops to allow this bizarre philosopher to wax lyrical on matters of free will and causality, within the confines of the illusory computer-programmed Matrix.
To illustrate the power he has over the will of others, the Merovingian performs a bizarre non-consensual trick on a woman in the restaurant where the characters meet. He points to a chocolate dessert being brought to her, saying he has programmed the cake to induce an orgasm for the consumer. We watch as she takes a bite and, after trying to fight the sensation, must give in to the climax as it flows through her body. The scene illustrates the distinction between seeking the answer to the cause of the Matrix’s existence, and simply giving in and embracing its pleasurable effects. There’s temptation to gaze upon the cake-eater, and acquiesce to have what she’s having. It is a scene which, given present debate around the necessity of sex in cinema, would unlikely be seen in a blockbuster two decades later.
The power of sex to override philosophy is at the heart of the Matrix franchise, perhaps the only pleasure to exist both in the real world and the false one. At the start of The Matrix Reloaded, the crew of Morpheus’s ship Nebuchadnezzar return to Zion, the last human city on Earth, after receiving an emergency message from Captain Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) warning that robotic Sentinels are about to launch an attack. Upon arrival, the crew members are incredibly horny following their lengthy mission away from home, with Trinity and Neo making out in an elevator only to be interrupted by civilians asking for their help. A huge party is then held in the city, full of scantily-clad bodies grinding together, with Trinity and Neo finally finding a room to be alone.
The parallels between the Zion rave and the private sex scene establish a connection between our heroes and the people they are trying to save. The sequence feels like a precursor to several sequences in the Wachowskis’ Netflix series Sense8, the last project the sisters worked on together, in which the central Sensates appear to have sex en masse. The characters in the series are part of a ‘cluster’, a group of individuals sensorially connected across the globe, which allows them to adopt each other’s singular skills, but also to connect to their sexualities. The result sees a number of extended orgies taking place over time and space, similarly cutting between couples and throuples with the broader group shown together. It is a vision of unrestricted lust.
The cluster orgies in Sense8 feel like the apotheosis of the radical open horniness the Wachowskis introduced in their first feature, the 1996 crime thriller Bound. The film stars Gina Gershon as ex-con Corky and Jennifer Tilly as Violet, whose partner is the mobster Caesar, played by Joe Pantoliano. The two women meet and instantly form an intense erotic attachment, peaking in an extended one-shot sex scene. At the time of shooting, both directors were pre-transition and wanted to ensure that the intimate moments felt as authentically lesbian as possible.
The Wachowskis hired the writer Susie Bright as a script advisor, and then asked her to choreograph these scenes in the capacity of what today would be an intimacy coordinator. Bright worked closely with Gershon and Tilly, telling them that, “Women have a sex organ. It’s called a hand!” Like the sex scene at the start of The Matrix Reloaded, the camera draws close to the women’s sweaty bodies as they move together in rhythmic gyrations, with close-ups of their faces succumbing to their pleasure of the other.
However unlike The Matrix Reloaded – rated R – Bound was given an NC-17 age rating when it was submitted to the MPAA for classification, despite featuring less nudity than the Wachowskis’ later film. The filmmakers contested the decision on the grounds of homophobia, arguing that a sexual act between two women rather than a man and woman was seen by the ratings board as being more explicit and unsuitable for a broader audience. According to the MPAA, the scene had been too realistic.
There is currently an online obsession, particularly amongst younger audiences, with sex in cinema only being permissible if it serves the narrative of the film. This is something the Wachowskis vehemently oppose – it is remarkable to see a sex scene as long and visceral as the one in The Matrix Reloaded within the context of an action blockbuster. It was not well-received at the time, and when in 2003 The Guardian polled readers for the worst sex scenes of all time, The Matrix Reloaded came out on top. The published results reveal voters described it as “pointlessly extended” and “pushed my nauseometer off the scale”. It even managed to beat the rampant swimming pool fucking between Elizabeth Berekely and Kyle MacLachlan in Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls.
In Bound, the steaminess of the sex between Corky and Violet is the driving force for their actions, which is replicated between Neo and Trinity in The Matrix trilogy. Their love and attraction pushes them to fight to save Zion, especially as Neo is having visions foreseeing the death of his lover. It also makes the scene which follows the one with the cake and the Merovingian, in which Monica Bellucci’s Persephone demands a kiss from Neo in exchange for the location of the Keymaker, all the more disturbing. She rejects a simple peck on the lips, but needs Neo to make her feel the same force of attraction he has for Trinity. Held in extreme close-up with their mouths moving together, Neo affords Persephone the same longing tenderness he shares with Trinity earlier in the film.
The eroticism between Neo and Persephone is as much of an illusion as the orgasm-inducing chocolate cake. If free will is an illusion, then it is possible to convince someone of love without that love being real, especially within the imaginary confines of the Matrix itself. Perhaps the love that exists between Neo and Trinity is the only thing which is real. When the woman who eats the dessert comes, we see between her legs through the luminous green binary glyphs of the Matrix code which explode in her fabricated clitoris – it creates a disruption and sends the formula out of control.In the years after the release of The Matrix Reloaded, both Lana and Lilly Wachowski made their identities as lesbian women public knowledge, and have talked about their sexualities and gender identities in relation to their films. The building of sexuality from Bound through to Sense8 feels like an extension of this, of moving from closeted desire between two women to sensational international orgies embracing a form of radical freedom which the Matrix and its creators seek to repress. That control is even extended to physical pleasure, as shown in the orgasmic cake, whereas in the real world sex does have the power to be disruptive. 20 years later, such an expression of sexuality is almost unfathomable in a contemporary blockbuster. Maybe you can’t have your cake and eat it after all.