Top 9 greatest on-screen love scenes

Reader's Digest Editors

Whether you like them hot and heavy or tender and sweet, we've got all bases covered in our list of film and TV's greatest love scenes. 

The Duchess 

In this film based on a true 18th-century aristocratic story, we find our protagonist, Georgiana Cavendish, trapped in a loveless, abusive marriage. Her husband, William Cavendish was known for having mistresses and would take advantage of Georgiana time again getting ever-more frustrated at her “inadequacy” for not producing a male heir.

In this scene, Lady Elizabeth Foster or "Bess"—who had famously moved into the Duke and Duchess’ home and became one of Georgiana’s closest confidants—shows the Duchess what pleasure is supposed to feel like and how naïve Georgiana has been forced to be, hidden from the desires and closeness that sexuality should bring.

Although, in reality, it’s not presumed that Bess and the Duchess were more than friends, this scene is so important for showing that women could indeed enjoy sexual experiences in the midst of an era shrouded in negligence and abuse, and what a difference a “sexual awakening” can have on a person’s spirit.

 

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

If a “life-imitates-art” approach is more up your alley, you’re probably a fan of director Peter Greenaway’s work as it is. And nothing showcases his penchant for bleak, disturbing, stomach-churning mise-en-scène like the cult classic, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. In it, the “wife” (Helen Mirren) of a monstrous restaurant owner, Albert Spica (Michael Gambon), pursues a doomed affair with a gentle restaurant regular.

While each and every love scene in the film is masterful in its own way, it is their very first, surreptitious tryst that’s the most morosely thrilling. In an echoey, theatre-like restaurant kitchen, the pair slowly move through the hordes of rushing line cooks and waiters, surrounded by expensive meats and caviar, finally finding refuge in a tiny storage room where they solemnly fall into each other’s arms—with the raging Spica in the next room.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale: Season 1 episode 5

Followers of the hit Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel will know that when it comes to sex, the show usually veers closer to terror than pleasure. What a release then, when this scene of genuine, consensual desire emerged in defiance of the traumatic sexual assaults that permeated the rest of the series.

The relief of the sexual tension that has underpinned Nick and June’s every interaction up until this point also acts as a political relief, as the pair find themselves free from the restraints of their society’s brutal fascist regime in a rare moment of privacy and intimacy. The scene becomes almost animalistic in its total rejection of the artifice of the state as the pair claw at each other’s skin and gasp uninhibited.

From the moment June removes her headpiece, a blinker-like uniform that identifies her as a “handmaid” first and a person second, she is finally humanised, her long hair tumbling to her waist as she removes the rest of her scarlet costume, revealing the ordinary woman beneath.

 

Meet Joe Black

Of course Brad Pitt had to be on this list somewhere. In this quirky, quintessentially Nineties romantic drama, he plays Death himself, who “borrows” the body of a handsome young man in order to learn more about life on Earth—and falls in love with a beautiful woman named Susan in the process.

Their first time together (and the first time ever for Death) is a moving mixture of tenderness, cute awkwardness and affection, with Joe curiously observing Susan as she takes off his clothes, while he gets his hands stuck in his sleeves. It’s a charming and clever reversal of roles and expectations and, well, a slightly creepy concept, what with having sex with death and all. 

 

Black Mirror: Series 2 episode 1  

In a truly depressing and captivating episode of Black Mirror, a young couple (Martha and Ash) are torn apart just a day after moving into a new countryside house, when Ash is killed in a crash. Longing for her lover, Martha buys a robot that imitates Ash and at one stage attempts to connect and bring back the man she misses by having sex with it.

The robot version of Ash “downloads” new tricks that the real Ash didn’t know and the couple spend the night exploring each other. Although Martha is enjoying herself, there’s an awful compressing sadness that clouds the whole scene as she grasps for any sign of her real partner in the soulless droid. The biting scene brings you back to the sordid reality as she says “I love you” to it and the robot echoes her words back to her in Ash’s voice yet devoid of any true meaning.

 

The English Patient

This furiously passionate, nine-Oscar-winning drama revolves around one fateful, doomed affair between the characters played by Kristin Scott Thomas and Ralph Fiennes. While everything in this film is bubbling with smouldering lust and repressed desire under the surface, it’s the actual love scenes that display a whole symphony of emotion and wild attraction.

Ralph Fiennes proves to be one of on-screen’s greatest lovers as he brushes Scott Thomas’ collarbone with the meticulousness of a scientist investigating a rare specimen in one scene, to ripping her dress in half right off her body in the other. There’s fierce, undeniable chemistry between the two that keeps you glued to the screen with religious dedication.  

 

Call Me by Your Name

The sexual chemistry between Elio and Oliver in this Oscar-nominated film plays out like a beautiful dance, as each coyly plays with the desires of the other, both too wary to openly admit to their feelings.

In the iconic “meet me at midnight” scene, those desires are finally fulfilled, in a scene that is in turns awkward and sweet, careful and brazen.

With all the heady rush of first love and sexual discovery, it’s the post-coital intimacy between Elio and Oliver that makes this scene so remarkable. As they lie with their legs intertwined, half asleep in pale moonlight, the mind of the viewer inevitably drifts to their own first forays into the world of sexual and romantic intimacy, and all the joy and fear that went with it.

 

Orange Is the New Black: Season 1 episode 9

One of the shows that first launched Netflix’s formidable reputation for original programming, Orange is the New Black made history with its fearless depictions of lesbian lovemaking.

One couple with plenty of on-screen action are fan favourites Nicky and Morello, who captured attention early on with this illicit scene in the prison’s chapel.

While patently erotically charged, this scene is important for more than just titillating the audience. To see women in love exploring each other’s bodies so unashamedly is still relatively new ground for a mainstream television show.

Speaking to MTV, show writer Lauren Morelli explained the importance of representing authentic lesbian passion on the small screen. “The sex should feel authentic and the sex should look like at the very least everyone is really enjoying themselves and that we are seeing healthy depictions of sex, no matter who's having it.”

 

Anchorman

This scene is one for the comedy lovers. Ron Burgundy aka “Anchorman” takes his fellow female anchor to “Pleasure town” after a truly iconic pick up line following a tremendous flute-playing session; “What if just for tonight we weren’t co-workers we were… co-people? / I'm storming your castle on my steed, milady”.

Instead of a typical love-making scene and in true Will Ferrell fashion, the characters embark on a cartoon journey where they’re greeted by unicorns and sickeningly sweet animations who cheer them on for their brilliant sexual achievements.

Veronica Corningstone’s post-coital cigarette and “well done, sir” certainly seals the deal. Well done indeed.