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2024: Making Movies Sweat Again



Written By: Connor Lightbody


We all do it. Well, unless you’re Prince Andrew. Hollywood, however, seems to think otherwise. Since the turn of the millennium, and what can possibly be attributed to the rise of the Disney conglomerate and a sense of literal sanitation, there has been a distinct disappearance of perspiring people on the silver screen. The filmmakers of 2024 seem to be turning that funky tide with the likes of Hoard, Monkey Man and Love Lies Bleeding, while Josh O’Connor glistens on centre stage with sweaty turns in both La Chimera and Challengers.

Throughout film history, sweat has been a vital component in visual storytelling. Ranging from representing symptoms of drug withdrawal in Trainspotting (1996), alcoholism in Apocalypse Now (1979), to showing rising political tensions in Do The Right Thing (1989) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975). It shows the flop-sweaty nerves of a first-time newsreader in Broadcast News (1987) or the stress put on a jury member making a life or death decision about a potentially innocent young man in 12 Angry Men (1957). Think how tense that steady inevitable drop of sweat that falls from Tom Cruise’s brow in Mission Impossible (1996) as he dangles precariously above the CIA’s pressure sensitive apparatus makes you feel.

Away from drugs and tension, sweat is intrinsic in showing passion and sex. The likes of Body Heat (1981), in which a character sensually rubs ice over a sweaty chest before asking their partner to lick the melted sweat, have strong sexuality linked to sweat. You have to move out of films within western culture to work up a good sweat in recent years. Shoplifters (2018) features an all-time great sweat, when the married protagonists lie together post-sex, their bodies intertwined in mutual clamminess. Sweat also adds a tangible sensory texture to these steamy scenes. The sex in Bound (1996) occurs on a mattress on the floor, as sweat stains the sheets underneath the two lovers. You know that bedroom is ripe with the sweet musk of sex because you see their bodies flushed and their necks lathered in sweat. Great cinema is immersive, and it relies on evoking the senses.

Sweat is imperative within many different narratives, and the lack of it is indicative of a more puritanical mentality around sex and sexuality being represented on screen. Friends With Benefits (2011) utilises sex for comedic purposes, but the faces and bodies of Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake are never far from pristine even when they’re supposed to be ravaging each other like wild animals. The rise of the superhero movie, particularly within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has contributed to this. The Disney product has brought about an idea that their heroes must nearly always be ready for a money shot: Captain America: Civil War (2016) has the muscles of Chris Evans’ Captain America straining under the enormous weight of pulling a helicopter backwards but he himself is sweat-free.

There’s a case to be made that the super serum that gave him power neutralises his sweat glands but no one who has left their mother’s basement is looking at pit stains and yelling NO! here. The same can be applied to costuming for the world’s greatest heroes. Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther is nearly forever donned in their CGI suit. It’s a refusal to engage with the perspiration that occurs under stress. This wasn’t an issue with earlier superhero movies, one’s made prior to Disney’s control. For example, Iron Man (2008) understood the necessity of sweat under duress. Its titular character, trapped in a desert cave, sweats while saving themselves from the boiling hot prison he was held captive in. 

It’s not just superhero movies that have found themselves deodorised in recent years. The Rocky franchise, known for its triumphant glaze of perspiration, continued in 2015 with Sylvester Stallone leaving the fighting to Michael B Jordan. The fights in Creed (2015), Creed 2 (2018) and Creed 3 (2023) are enjoyable through the dynamic shooting style employed within them, but they lack those greasy pheromones that enrich Rocky (1976) and the sequels. Michael B Jordan’s performance is extraordinary as Adonis in the Creed trilogy, due to his commanding physical presence, but he appears to fight each match slathered in baby oil, shining under the arena spotlights.

But 2024, so far, has already worked up a solid sweat. Rose Glass’s Love Lies Bleeding follows Jackie, a bisexual bodybuilder who gets into a queer relationship with Lou, a reclusive gym manager. Jackie’s work-out scenes get more and more visceral as the film progresses, with sweat playing a major part in showcasing Jackie’s descent into obsession amidst steroid use. The sex between Jackie and Lou is sticky and gross from their perspiration but passionate as a result. Kristen Stewart (who plays Lou) told People that the New Mexico heat was the cause for how damp the two are during their sex scenes, rather than anyone spritzing them with fake sweat. No wonder the sweat looked and felt so real.

Luna Carmoon’s brilliantly repulsive Hoard, a bold anti-romance where a young girl’s interactions with literal trash help her process trauma, has its characters revel in their own sweaty stench. The grimness of the characters hygiene is the film’s point, where the sexual contact that Maria (Saura Lightfoot-Leon) has with Michael (Joseph Quinn) is untamed and feral, much like the rat infestation permeating Maria’s mothers trash mountain. 

The jaundiced colour palette of Dev Patel’s action-thriller Monkey Man’s serves to highlight just how much the protagonist sweats during the action sequences even when helmed in his monkey mask. The sweat highlights the physicality of the protagonist, where violent carnality is suggested by his perspiration before you even see him throw a punch.

But it is Josh O’Connor whose crown is slipping off his scalp as 2024’s finest, sweatiest sweater. Firstly in Alice Rohrwacher’s archeological drama, La Chimera, where the Italian sun beats down on O’Connor and his white suit, causing his slimy ex-con Arthur character to sweat profusely. The white suit turns steadily more dishevelled as Arthur, a lost soul searching for divinity, delves deep into the earth itself. Joining in with a group of criminals, the gang run as sweaty parallels to Arthur. 

While they are the kind of sun-baked reprobates who are searching for treasures for profit, their sweatiness is from fear of being caught; Arthur is the opposite, where his sweaty foray down into various tombs is not done for profit nor is his sweat the result of fear. It is instead his redemption, a sweaty impugning of his own self. The more Arthur sweats, the more self-defeating and exasperated he becomes, in the hope that one day, with enough suffering, he can forgive himself.

And secondly, in Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers, which sees him as a bisexual man in a ménage à trois of (t)horny, sexy sweaty tennis stars. The common adage surrounding Challengers, and it is a prominent metaphor within the text itself, is that everything is tennis, except tennis, which is sex. So it stands to reason that each exuberant, high-octane tennis match that occurs between O’Connor’s Patrick Zweig and Mike Faist’s Art Donaldson is laden with sweat: they’re fucking. The other sixty degrees of their love triangle is Tashi Donaldson (Zendaya), the wife of Art and former lover of Patrick. We often find her omitted from sweating, until the final moments of the boys’ match when she releases a piercing orgasmic scream and a bead of perspiration appears to drip from her normally imperturbable disposition. The two men, who both spend time lusting after Tashi, barely break a sweat when they’re together in a sauna. This is an argument, but most importantly, it’s not tennis and therefore not sex. For Guadagnino, tennis is a conversation about sex and the sweat dripping from the muscles of the sport stars during tennis is intrinsically linked to passionate love making. So while the two flex their ego’s, the lack of vivid sweat in the sauna, a location that would normally have them dripping wet, reinforces that link between sex and tennis. 

The films of 2024 so far have been gloriously sweaty, with films like Jane Schoenbrun’s I Saw The TV Glow using it to underpin the human element in experiencing dysphoria, Sasha Nathwani’s Last Swim placing his cast into a London heatwave to sweat their youth away, while the sweatiness of Sebastian Stan in A Different Man play a vital tool in showing his characters mental spiral. The notion of sweat has faded with the rise of superhero sanitation, so to be witnessing a resurgence for the visual language of sweat is sweet relief from puritanical purification practices.

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