The success of Fifty Shades of Grey proves that sex does indeed still sell – with a worldwide gross of $569 million, plus the record for highest opening weekend in a February ($85 million), no one can contest the value of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele.
By June of 2015, the book alone had been translated into more than 50 languages and had sold over 125 million copies. The film also garnered a storm of negative press centered around the reportedly unhealthy relationship between the protagonist and her dominant partner. Exactly how healthy was the relationship between Christian and Ana? While the question is still up for debate, one thing is certain: people still found it hot. If sales were to determine the validity or legitimacy of a literary work’s or film’s content, there is no doubt that Fifty Shades has the stamp of approval of audiences worldwide.
However, behind Fifty Shades lies an incredible wealth of sexy, boundary-pushing film. In fact, some of the first films ever made were images of sexuality or were vaguely adult in nature. Because of the long history of sex on screen, it’s hard to imagine that Fifty Shades was a film entirely without peers. And, in fact, it isn’t. So, to help illuminate the path to cinematic eroticism, here are 10 erotic films that are better than Fifty Shades of Grey.
Secretary is probably the film on this list that most closely resembles Fifty Shades. Lee Holloway (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) is hired as a secretary by an attorney (James Spader) who, coincidentally, is named E. Edward Grey. The two of them, due in part to Gyllenhaal’s character’s inadequate secretarial skills, develop a deep and intricate BDSM relationship.
Through the many explicit scenes, the film cultivates a very alluring sexual aura: the build-up of watching Lee blossom sexually under the careful domineering eye of her master, Grey, provides the audience a voyeuristic view into one of the more accurate mainstream film representations of BDSM culture.
9. Blue Is the Warmest Color
Blue Is the Warmest Color tells the story of a young girl, Adèle, in the midst of a sexual awakening. Frightened initially by her homosexual desires, Adèle and Emma begin a relationship despite backlash from her friends. Over time, the two find their relationship not as fulfilling as it once was – though throughout the film, a special note of eroticism is reached.
It has been said of the film that it feels like barriers have been removed around the young lovers, and that their flesh becomes more familiar than our own as viewers. This level of intimacy is important to the film, since the ultra-closeups used during sex scenes make it hard to distance oneself from the action on screen.
8. In the Realm of the Senses
A feature length masterpiece by Nagisa Oshima, In the Realm of the Senses tells the tale of a young, sexually active youth who becomes employed by a traditional Japanese brothel, only to fall deeply in love with one of the main proprietors, thus beginning their tangled journey of erotics, fetish, and betrayal.
Though be warned: this film is the product of Oshima’s frustration with Japanese national sexuality, thus many boundaries are pushed and broken in the process. Be prepared to watch all modesty and privacy be thrown out the window. Also, be ready for some blood.
7. Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II
One of the more well-known films on this list, Nymphomaniac (which is actually two films, totalling over 4 hours) tells the story of Joe, a girl played masterfully by Lars von Trier’s unofficial muse Charlotte Gainsbourg, as she fumbles her way through life as a sex addict.
This film is not ashamed of sex. Besides the all-star cast that von Trier has collected, the excellent directing, and the beautiful (yet unforgiving) cinematography, this film flirts beautifully with the line between raunchy and art. If anything, this film plays less like a traditional narrative and more as a frightening and disorienting guide through sexual nightmares.
A hyper-volatile sexy thrill ride, I.K.U. tells the story of a sex robot named Reiko (played variously by different actresses), who ventures out into Tokyo nightlife to collect orgasms, which then are resold to the public in pill form that give the user a sexual high catered exactly to their liking.
This film blasts all preconceived notions about sex on screen, combining what then was futuristic special effects with the explicit sexual content of a modern-day adult film. I.K.U. bends the real with the surreal, giving us a dystopian view of what modern sex technology could lead to, either for better or for worse. This is not your normal erotic film. You’ll probably leave more confused than you came.
Sailors. Brothels. Knives. Cardboard backdrops. Graffiti phalluses. Ever want a look into gay male sexuality in the late 70s and early 80s? Here it is. Based on the 1947 novel “Querelle de Brest” by Jean Genet, Querelle tells the story of Georges Querelle, a sailor on leave and in search of his brother in a town known for its strange sexuality.
Fassbinder’s tongue-in-cheek direction creates a shockingly campy film filled with murder, betrayal, and hilarious soft-focus sex scenes. This is one film you have to see to believe. Because of the film’s release just before the HIV/AIDS breakout in the 1980s, the film serves as an important historical document showing what queer sexuality was like before the epidemic. It was pretty raunchy.
This is the harrowing tale of a sex addict living in New York City. Played masterfully by Michael Fassbender, Brandon Sullivan must negotiate his way through his family and friends, avoiding every inch of intimacy he can. Though more haunting than arousing at times, McQueen has created a nuance of sexuality that draws the audience in like a car crash – it’s hard to look away. If anything, the sexuality of Shame serves as a gateway into the damage that addiction can cause on an individual. But for fans of Michael Fassbender, it’s a must-see.
The challenge of films like this tends to be balancing explicit material with real content; Shame does just that, striking a perfect harmony between sex scenes that serve the film and emotional plot-driven tableaus that contextualize and humanize the dangerous behavior that the main character exhibits.
You’re married. You’re unhappy. Your husband, though handsome, does not satisfy you anymore. He doesn’t even try. What do you do? You discover what true romance can be—getting tied up by your boss.
Breillat’s quiet, beautifully told film about BDSM and love seduces the audience through the powerful performance of Caroline Ducey as Marie. This film is unapologetic. Both sides of sex are shown – the pleasuring and the frustrating. The beautiful and the ugly. The romantic and the violent. This is the true definition of a French arthouse film – unafraid, seductive, and innovative.
2. Under the Skin
This 2014 thriller by Jonathan Glazer stimulates in multiple ways. The star, Scarlett Johansson, is known for her vaguely risqué films, having been called a modern-age Marilyn Monroe by websites such as Harper’s Bazaar. But Johansson has come a long way since Lost in Translation.
In Under the Skin, she plays an unearthly unnamed succubus who has come to Scotland to prey on men. A large chunk of the dialogue in the movie is fairly benign; most of the supplementary actors were filmed through hidden cameras, leaving Johansson to do the work to lure the men into her clutches. Cinematically, this movie is astounding. Long shots of Johansson’s naked body while various victims of hers are sucked into a black abyss – plus, the finale of the film is arguably one of the most riveting, suspenseful, and strange endings ever put on screen.
Bilitis is a beautiful French romantic drama by photographer Davil Hamilton. Perhaps better described as a softcore pornographic film, it tells the story of young Bilitis (Patti D’Arbanville) as she spends the summer with friends of her father, accidentally falling in love with her female caretaker. Through experimenting with various school friends and a few young men she meets along the way, Bilitis struggles to come to terms with herself as a sexually mature partner. Because of Hamilton’s career as a photographer, the film plays like an art piece rather than a narrative drama—a beautiful, enticing, subtle journey into adolescent sexuality, a young girl desperate to grow up.
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