How the ‘Normal People’ Sex Scenes Direct the Audience’s Attention

Normal People (2020) follows the relationship between Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones). Charting their relationship through their high school and college, the series became noted for its depiction of sexual activity. It is based on the novel by Irish author Sally Rooney, who co-wrote many of the episodes.

Throughout the series, characters engage in many sexual activities. The approach to sex scenes changes based on the characters involved. With the main couple, the audience learns to empathize and understand the sexuality of the characters. However, the series presents the other characters as unrelatable and even questionable at best.

Press surrounding Series

Normal People received mostly positive reception in its initial release.

During its initial release, the sex scenes received lots of press. Multiple articles (including ones from Marie Claire and Vulture) dissected them and their groundbreaking nature. Vulture’s Rachel Handler also praised the sex scenes for their frank and realistic portrayal of sex. In addition, the producers took a more vigilant nature to make sure the sex scenes could only be seen with the rest of the program. They sent a cease and desist to the porn site Pornhub to get a compilation of sex scenes removed.

Besides the nature of the scenes, many articles also pointed out the series’ intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien. Over the past few years, O’Brien became known in the industry for coordinating intimacy scenes in other British productions, such as Sex Education (2019-).

However, the series and its sex scenes did not come without some controversy. Many in the religious community of Ireland condemned the sex scenes. In a rebuttal, director Lenny Abrahamson said that there would always be a part of the community that would object to such portrayals. Rolling Stone also criticized the portrayal of BDSM in the story. Specifically, the periodical found that the story conflated a dominate-submissive sexual relationship with an abusive relationship. All of these controversies were considered relatively mild.

The Main Couple

Like all love stories, Normal People revolves around the dramatic question of whether or not the lead couple will end up together. In their storyline, Marianne and Connell complement each other. Marianne raises up the unsure Connell, who decides to get an English degree and follow his dreams because of her. On the flip side of this, Connell grounds the more troubled Marianne, who often finds herself in abusive situations over and over again.

Throughout the series, the filmmaking makes sure that the audience relates visually to Connell and Marianne. The filmmaking emphasizes the faces and bodies. The lighting focuses on their faces and skin. This makes the actors look appealing and relate to their face.

The storytelling and writing also favor Marianne and Connell’s perspective. The audience sees how the couple starts having sex most of the time, so they relate to their sex in story terms rather than just visual terms. In addition, the series films their sex scenes in a conversational manner, complete with a shot reverse shot style that emphasizes and lights their faces. Finally, Connell and Marianne also talk to talk during sex. The conversations they have tend to focus on their insecurities and problems. In all of the scenes, the most important thing is that the audience understands where the insecurities fit in the story.

Episode 2

After a buildup of the relationship in the first episode, episode 2 has multiple sex scenes and follows much of their sexual relationship in high school.

Lighting also plays a key factor throughout the series. The first sex scene clearly lights Marianne’s face throughout, while keeping Connell more in the shadows before they have sex. As the sex scenes go on throughout the episode, the room gets lighter, allowing the audience to see both their faces clearly.

First sex scene

The scene spends two minutes building up to the actual sex. During this time, the characters both describe their physical and social insecurities to eachother.

The sex scene emphasizes that the characters really care about each other having wonderful consensual sex. It also has Connell asking Marianne about condoms and what is and is not okay. Connell also offers to stop if she does not feel like continuing. When they actually go in and have sex, the scenes cuts between them in a shot reverse shot manner, as though the sex is conversational.

Second Sex Scene

Marianne has sex on top of Connell before he turns her over. As he does so, the camera rack focuses on them.

Afterwards, Marianne brings up that she wanted to watch Connell have sex after seeing him play rugby at school. She asks Connell if he thinks she is weird for wanting to see that. His response reassures her that it is okay. The concept of “weirdness” in sexuality will come back again in episode 11.

Third sex scene

Then comes a montage of Connell’s private relationship and public life. The private relationship features the characters having In between sex scenes, the audience sees Connell and Marianne seeing and ignoring each other at school. The camera covers these scenes in tracking shots that follow the actors from behind. They smile at each other in the hallway.

Fourth Sex scene

The final sex scene features Marianne sitting on Connell’s lap in profile. During sex, she asks him if there is anybody he likes at school and brings up classmate Rachel (Leah McNamara). Marianne says Rachel has a nice face to which Connell replies, “so do you.” Throughout the series, Connell reassures her that she does to.

Episode 5

In episode 5, Connell and Marianne reconnect sexually in college. This happens after Connell meets Marianne’s new boyfriend. Connell makes tea in the kitchen while Marianne heads back to take a shower. The series covers this exchange in a static wide shot. This choice contrasts the rest of the sequence, which mostly takes place in close ups.

The sex happens after Marianne gets out of the shower. She is dressed in a black bathrobe with red flowers. This makes her seem more exotic. She walks over to him where he undoes her robe and kisses her stomach. The scene focuses on close ups of him kissing her stomach and her lit face. Both these suggest the pleasure she gets from the experience.

The lovers then proceed back to the bedroom. The sex scene starts with Connell putting Marianne down on the bed. The scene proceeds with them kissing each other, taking off each other, and so on. This all happens in close ups, putting the audience closer to the actions of the characters. Marianne does not take off the bathrobe until she climbs on top of him.

Throughout the scene, there is a warm light that comes from the window and shines on them, making the sex seem even more special compared to the darker atmosphere of the episode.

The scene ends with Marianne and Connell lying completely naked together. The audience sees Connell’s penis and Marianne’s breasts. The scene returns to a wide shot here. At the end of this scene she says that the sex is not like this with other people.

Episode 6

Episode 6 features much of Connell and Marianne’s most of romantic and sexual relationship in college. It begins and ends with them breaking up.

The episode opens with a flashback to a sex scene. The flashback sees her silhouetted against a window. When Connell picks her up and puts her on the counter to have sex, the audience sees her face clearly lit. Before doing this, Connell also calls Marianne his best friend. He takes off her top and the scene ends.

In the second sex scene, Marianne and Connell lie in bed together naked. Connell tells Marianne he really loves her after some awkwardness about what happened last night. The scene eventually leads to Connell masturbating Marianne. The emphasis primarily focuses on the faces of the actors, which the series covers in shot reverse shot. Connell then climbs on top of her for some more sex. Afterwards, they joke about having feelings for each other.

Shortly after, Connell gets dressed coming out of the shower. He asks for a sexy picture of Marianne. She agrees, but asks for a dick pic in return. He seems less sure about it. She says he’d never delete it and take it to her grave. He puts her down on the bed. It is a light and playful scene in the middle of more serious scenes.

The third potential sex scene is a brief scene where the couple kiss, but Marianne tells Connell that she is not in the mood. This is also one of the few scenes like this where the film draws attention to the fact that they are in a room with artificial lighting. Most of the sex scenes between the main couple are lit by what the filmmakers want the audience to think are naturalistic light sources (such as light coming from the outside in through a window).

Episode 8

Marianne invites Connell to stay with her in the Italian countryside. After a fight with her boyfriend, Connell ends up spending the night sleeping in the same bed with her. Here he learns about Marianne’s abusive family, relationships, and her own feelings of self-loathing. He leans over and hugs her, which leads to them kissing, but Marianne stops it before it can go any further. He apologizes.

This is also the darkest scene in the series like this. An impasse in their relationship, it contrasts heavily with the rest of the series.

Episode 11

In Episode 11, Connell and Marianne reconnect sexually, but it does not go well. In relation to this, the scene has a colder color palette than the previous sex scenes with Connell and Marianne.

Like the first sex scene, this scene has a long build up where the characters discuss insecurities. Many of the same sentiments are repeated (“it’s not like this with other people”). Unlike the first sex scene, Connell does not have condoms, but Marianne is on the pill now, so she consents.

The actual scene mostly features Connell having sex with Marianne from behind. The primary focus of the scene becomes a shot of Marianne’s face. The audience knows that this is an integral part of her story, so the scene focuses on her.

The scene feels awkward until Marianne asks Connell if he would hit her, which causes him to stop. He says the idea seems weird, which Marianne responds by saying, “you are saying I am weird.” She then leaves. Connell offers to drive her, but she refuses.

Episode 12

In Episode 12, Marianne and Connell have sex one last time.

Marianne has sex with Connell on top at first before they turn over. During the entire scene, her face is lit, making it clear that it is something that the audience should focus on. While covering most of this scene in profile, the scene also makes sure to get a clear shot of her face. A light acoustic song plays in the background.

Like their first sex scene in college (episode 5), the scene portrays Connell lying on Marianne’s lap. Like before, the audience sees Connell’s penis and Marianne’s breasts. He asks her if she liked it. She responds in the affirmative.

Other Lovers

Unlike the main couple, the audience is not supposed to relate visually or dramatically to the other lovers in the story. They tend to be arrogant, abusive, or unwilling to help the protagonists.

They also tend to be people of color. Both the book and series focus on a predominantly heterosexual white cast of characters (the series removes any reference to the one homosexual character in the book’s sexuality). In an article for gal-dem, Maz Do analyzes the narratives of privilege and Eurocentric storytelling present throughout the series. In the article, Do finds that the creators cast these roles with diverse cast members without much understanding about what it means to be a part of these groups in a Eurocentric society.

Sex scenes

With the other sex scenes, the series chooses to visually obscure the other lovers. The filmmaking tends to obscure their faces by filming them in profile or casting shadows across their face. On top of that, the lighting in the scenes tends to light other parts of the room rather than the actors.

The plot and story also push the sex scenes with other characters into the background. The audience rarely sees any lead in to their sex scenes, which often are covered in montages rather than in actual scenes. This causes the audience to see them as less important than Marianne and Connell’s sex scenes.

Connell’s Lovers

Connell tends to have more practical down to earth love interests. They come from a similar background to him. Connell also experiences many fewer abusive relationships than Marianne throughout the story.

Ms. Neary

A former teacher of Connell’s, Ms. Neary (Liz Fitzgibbon) comes onto Connell outside a bar and grabs his penis. The lighting of the scene comes from the multi-colored lights coming from the bar and street lights. It gives it a sickly blue look.

In the book, this develops into another part of the story, where Connell tells Marianne about it, causing her to get really angry at Ms. Neary. Here it serves mainly as just a scene.

Helen Brophy

Connell’s only other real lover is Helen Brophy (Aoife Hinds), an Asian Irish woman. A college classmate of Connell’s, she has a relationship with Connell later in college.

Even before the sex scene, the visual and narrative style makes Helen more unrelatable. Most of their romantic scenes take place at night and the lighting often does not light their faces as well as it does with Marianne and Connell. When Helen fixes up Connell’s face after a fight, the audience sees her face covered in shadow. In addition, the conversation they have before the sex scene focuses partially on Connell’s relationship with Marianne. Helen exists primarily as the “other woman” of the story.

In their sex scene, the director lights the characters against a light, causing them to be silhouetted. The clearest face in the scene is Connell’s, while Helen is seen in profile. The scene then cuts to Marianne’s sex scene with another love.

Marianne’s Lovers

Marianne has a lack of self-confidence and a need to punish herself. Because of this, Marianne tends to have more abusive extreme male lovers. This causes to develop an interest in BDSM sex. Almost all of the scenes with them emphasize them more as menacing presences than complex relatable characters.

Gareth

A classmate of Connell’s, Gareth (Sebastian de Souza, an actor of Indian and Portuguese descent), becomes Marianne’s first college boyfriend. The series presents Gareth as an outspoken proponent for free speech, even with actual Nazis. He provides Connell with another introduction to Marianne. In the book, this is the extent of his character, but the series adds more of a relationship between them.

Marianne’s sex scene with Gareth happens during a montage of scenes where Connell and Marianne being dissatisfied. The camera films them from in an extreme wide shot with a lot of headroom. The lighting lights the walls and not the lovers or their faces. In the post-coital overhead shot, Gareth lies asleep, while Marianne stares at the phone (which the lighting emphasizes by having a lamp light it). Both face away from each other. All of these choices visually suggest that the two do not work together.

Marianne’s sex scene with Gareth contrasts sharply with her sex scene with Connell later in the episode. In this one, Marianne is covered up by a blanket after the unsatisfying sex. In the later scene in the episode, she lies completely uncovered.

Jamie

Jamie (Fionn O’Shea) becomes Marianne’s second boyfriend in college. The series portrays him as arrogant and jealous. Like many of Marianne’s relationship, the series portrays the results rather than the buildup. The reason that their relationship falls apart seems to be his jealousy towards Connell and bringing him to an Italian villa she’s renting for the summer. Their one argument happens largely off screen. The main visual cue of the scene is Jamie pouring a glass of wine until it overflows to infuriate Marianne. The person who ends up calming her down is Connell.

In a later conversation, Marianne says that she sometimes thinks she must deserve the terrible way people treat her. This figures into her current relationship and foreshadows her next boyfriend.

With Jamie, Marianne gets into rougher sex and BDSM. In their one sex scene, Jamie has sex with her from behind. The filming presents Marianne’s face clearly, while only presenting Jamie’s face in a close profile shot. Besides sex, the only other main action in the scene is Jamie grabbing the back of Marianne’s hair. The scene also has both of them mostly clothed with no nudity shown.

Lukas

A photographer, Lukas (Zimbabwean Lancelot Ncube) is an abusive lover that Marianne meets in Sweden. The first time she sees him, the series does not light his face, making it apparent that he is a more menacing presence. In contrast, the scene clearly lights Marianne’s face.

Lukas also bares little physical resemblance to the character in the book, which describes him as so blonde that some of his hair is white. In the series, he is a black man.

Sex Scenes

The film presents three scenes of sex and nudity in their episode. In each one, the audience sees the results of the sex more than the buildup. Throughout the entire Swedish sequence, the color palette has cooler color palette (blues, white, greys, blacks).

First scene

The first sex scene happens right after Connell has sex with Helen. Both scenes feature the other lover physically dominating the main character. In the scene, Lukas has sex on top of Marianne, who has her hands tied above her head. It consists of a wide shot where the audience sees the lovers in profile and close up of Marianne’s bound hands. Lukas grabs her hands here too.

Afterwards the audience sees a silhouetted Lukas from behind as he gets dressed. Marianne asks to take a shower, but Lukas refuses to allow her to and denigrates her. Marianne later sends a text to Connell that says that she does not feel like herself.

Second scene

The second scene has Marianne and Lukas lying together after having sex. The film focuses on shot reverse shot. The main cutaway is a shot of Marianne’s bruised arm. All of these choices make the audience realize the extent of Lukas’s abusive behavior.

Third Scene

The third scene features Marianne having her picture taken by Lukas in a very compromising position by tying her hands in front of her.

The scene quite literally focuses on lighting Marianne as a subject. Marianne’s face remains lit throughout, while Lukas’s face remains in the shadows behind the camera. The audience relates to Marianne at the center of an uncomfortable situation.

Over this, the audience hears Connell reading a letter that tells Marianne that she is good enough and that she matters. This realization causes her to leave Lukas, thus ending the episode.

The scene also utilizes a more abstract jarring style that cuts the scene out of order. Shots of her leaving come before she actually does in the scene. Many jump cuts occur. This gives the audience a more uncomfortable feeling as it does not follow the smooth linear editing that the audience is used to.

Conclusion

With the sex scenes, Normal People focuses on a specific couple, while presenting other couplings as unrelatable through a mixture of storytelling techniques. By doing this, the filmmakers ensure that the audience relates to a certain story.