About 17 minutes into The Souvenir: Part II, a lover comes a-knocking. Our protagonist, Julie – wearing white silk pyjamas, no less – opens the door and lets him in. The atmosphere is sexually charged and before long they are kissing and manoeuvring in the direction of the bedroom, when she stops him.
"I’m on my period."
Completely unfazed, Jim smiles: "I don’t mind."
The next few minutes are a whirlwind. Trousers are yanked down. Belts whipped off. It happens so quickly that not even a towel is laid down (the sheets!). While they’re having sex, Jim looks at himself in the mirror opposite. Then he goes down on her. When he comes up, they kiss, and we see blood smeared on Julie's lips and chin. Jim stares into the mirror, almost marvelling at the blood on his face. After he leaves, Julie goes back and looks at the bloodied sheets, then we cut to the next scene. It doesn’t receive any acknowledgement later in the film and it isn’t pivotal to the plot. It’s a hot and heavy one-night stand, slotted in to show that Julie is slowly embracing being single again. The fact she is on her period is purely circumstantial. It might be a short, three-minute scene but it’s important nonetheless for showing that periods are a normal part of everyday life – convenient or not – and this extends to whatever we do in the bedroom.
When it comes to taboo subjects on screen, menstruation in general has long been either a Hollywood horror tool or a hammed up, comedy source of ick – portrayed as dirty or shameful rather than what it is: a regular biological occurrence that happens to half the people in the world. This negative sentiment is embedded in film history. Let’s not forget the intentionally gory – and frankly, probably the most traumatic ever – period scene in the original 1976 Carrie (and the remake), where blood gushes down Carrie's leg while her classmates jeer, chanting "plug it up" while throwing tampons at her. Or 2000 supernatural film Ginger Snaps, where a teen girl is mauled by a werewolf on the first night she has her period, or "curse" as she calls it. And that’s not even taking into consideration period sex, when we’re confronted with a double whammy of stigma. Film and TV portrayals have just about come round to not period shaming every time we see it on screen – no doubt a result of years of ingrained societal misogyny. But pleasure and menstruation? For the longest time, it has rarely been given air time at all.
That’s not to say we haven’t made progress in the last couple of years. Michaela Coel’s groundbreaking BBC One series, I May Destroy You, won acclaim back in lockdown #1 for tackling a myriad of sensitive topics including sexual assault, consent, trauma and indeed period sex. In episode three Coel’s character, Arabella, has sex with Biagio (Marouane Zotti) while she’s on her period. They lay down a towel and then he sensitively asks for permission to "take this thing out" (aka her blood-soaked tampon). He spots a blood clot on her bedsheet and, without an ounce of repulsion, curiously plays with it while asking her questions. The scene is not only strangely tender but also educational, and spurred widespread social media discourse as well as praise for breaking down taboos around period sex.
This scene in The Souvenir: Part II joins these rankings, giving us yet another authentic and realistic period sex scene, and not only normalising it but hammering home that it can be kind of hot. Through close-up shots of Julie’s (played by Honor Swinton Byrne) face, contorted in ecstasy, we see her acute pleasure. Just as importantly, we also see Jim’s (Stranger Things star Charlie Heaton) pleasure and the maturity of his initial reaction. When told that Julie is on her period, he is completely undeterred by the news and not only do they have passionate sex but they do all the things they would otherwise do were she not on her period – foreplay included. It’s pleasurable, certainly not shameful, and speaks volumes about how far we’ve come, especially considering the high profile nature of the film.
Already receiving rave reviews from critics across the board, Part II is the sequel to Joanna Hogg’s 2019 indie gem, The Souvenir, which became an unexpected breakout success and received such acclaim that the sequel was originally billed to star Robert Pattinson (who later had to pull out because of scheduling conflicts, with the role going to Joe Alwyn). It also stars Tilda Swinton, Richard Ayoade and Harris Dickinson. As well as showing her hesitant return to singledom, the film beautifully illustrates messages about Julie – a burgeoning female filmmaker struggling to express herself – surrendering to desire and loss of control, her relationship with her own body, femininity and her power as a woman.
As perfectly put by Ita O’Brien, the intimacy co-ordinator for I May Destroy You: "Half of the population spend roughly 40 years of their life menstruating, one week per month, but how often do we see it represented? It’s so important that periods are part of the storytelling of our lives. Women and men watching can learn that period sex doesn’t have to be embarrassing or shrouded in secrecy." Women and their bodies are complex, and have the ability to be both functional and sexy. This is exactly why these three-dimensional, nuanced portrayals of all the facets of our lived experience are of the utmost importance. These scenes also speak to actual biological truths: that during a normal menstruation cycle, most women will feel a libido surge – which means we can feel hornier when we’re on our periods – and that orgasms are scientifically proven to help with period pain.
Is it messy? Sometimes. Tragic? No. The only tragedy are those expensive, stained white sheets.
The Souvenir: Part II will be out in UK cinemas on 4th February