The history of Western morality has been a tale of repression. Alongside repression, comes its opposite, which in the case of film is adult entertainment. But the most interesting thing lies between those two extremes, namely, healthy sexuality and cinematic portrayals of it that have higher goals than simply providing source material for self-stimulation.
Where adult entertainment offers misogyny and unrealistic portrayals of sexual encounters, intelligent films by great masters like Stanley Kubrick and, on the other end of the spectrum, Tinto Brass, present exciting and realistic scenes that retain an interest beyond the images of all those naked people who seem to be having incredible fun.
The 1990s were a particularly rich period for beautiful films with psychological depth and thrilling sex scenes featuring smart and gorgeous actors and actresses. Recently, several bloggers recommended Secretary as an alternative to the consecrated flop Fifty Shades of Grey, perhaps because they believed that onscreen sex doesn't have to be banal, superficial, or unrealistic. Hopefully, our decade will offer us more sexy, profound, and realistic films like Blue is the Warmest Color and Patrice Chereau's Intimacy and fewer Christian Greys...
10 Nymphomaniac Vols. 1 and 2
The condition the title refers to may have been rendered obsolete by current medical diagnosis standards, but the film is nonetheless believable for it. Director Lars von Trier has often displayed a flair for the bizarre, and this is probably his most bizarre film to date.
Magnetic French star Charlotte Gainsbourg plays a woman who cannot stop herself from having sex with random strangers all the time. She pays a sadistic man to hit her -without a safe word- picks up a random immigrant off a basketball court across the street from her house, and systematically neglects her child in favor of engaging in sexual acts.
This is not an easy film to watch. It's not always pleasant. One could say it is the opposite of adult entertainment, it is meant to make audiences feel uncomfortable, but it also features pleasurable love scenes and intriguing characters enjoying the delights of the flesh. As an experiment, it is quite remarkable. In terms of storytelling, it has some peaks, such as Uma Thurman's little subplot about a betrayed wife, but also many lows. Gainsbourg's first-person narrative about her exploits as a nymphomaniac does its best to keep the story on track, but an abuse of literal montage (e.g. if someone talks about chickens, the screen immediately shows an image of a chicken) can render the film hard to swallow at times.
When Mr. Grey (played by James Spader) needs a secretary, he hires Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The socially awkward Lee, who is given to self harm, finds validation for her conduct in an incipient BDSM relationship with her boss. The more he pushes her, the more she obeys, going to unthinkable lengths to follow his orders to the letter, including spending day and night in a specific position at a desk, not even moving to use the toilet.
An intriguing plot and an interesting portrayal of sadomasochism make Secretary a must watch for anyone interested in the subject. At one point during the film, after Mr. Grey and Lee have started engaging in frequent BDSM acts, Spader's character asks, "We can't do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week," to which Lee replies, "Why not?" That dialogue epitomizes the beauty of the film, which tells the story of a perfect match that defies many a social convention.
8 9 1/2 Weeks
Arguably the hottest film of the 80s, the Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke-led movie bore testimony to an era, it shaped a generation's ideas about what was sexy in many ways, and forever linked Joe Cocker's song about a hat with images of a hot girl stripping behind the blinds of a minimalist Manhattan apartment.
9 1/2 Weeks may have been a somewhat misogynistic film, but Rourke's bad boy character captured the imagination of women around the world. The lovemaking scenes were beautifully shot by Adrian Lyne, the music was superb, the clothes, the restaurants, and the apartments were elegant and chic, and the passion portrayed in the impeccable screenplay made the movie unforgettable. Lyne went on to direct films that would be hailed as classics, like Jacob's Ladder and the erotic thriller Fatal Attraction, proving that he could do much more than turn audiences on with steamy scenes shot around NY's sewers, a hot blonde masturbating to an Eurythmics tune, and honey dripping between a sexy pair of legs.
7 Dangerous Liaisons
Lovers of corsets, 1700s fashions, and sexy/perverse heroes and heroines will love this Stephen Frears adaptation of the fabulous epistolary novel by Choderlos de Laclos, possibly the greatest work of fiction ever created in its genre.
Some of the film's most unforgettable scenes involve John Malkovich (back when he was one of the sexiest men in Hollywood) writing a love letter over a prostitute's behind as well as his forceful training of an adolescent Uma Thurman in the arts of pleasing a husband.
Malkovich and his co-star Glenn Close created two of the most interesting villains in film history. Thurman, a young Keanu Reeves, and Michelle Pfeiffer contributed a counterbalance of virtue and innocence. The plot involves numerous intrigues crafted by la Marquise de Merteuil (Close) and le Vicomte de Valmont (Malkovich) to deceive everyone else, but in Laclos` world, evil doesn't pay, and things do not exactly turn out very well for them.
6 Cosi Fan Tutte
At an informal gathering during the Seattle Erotic Art Festival 2014, erotic writers Assia Fengári and Theo Galalexis mentioned that they privately called this film "Il Culo" (Italian for "The A**"). Perhaps they are not the only ones, as the work was once hailed as "the greatest film about a** appreciation ever made."
Cosi Fan Tutte, aka "All ladies do it" will satisfy all Tinto Brass fans with its mix of witty dialogue, superb cinematography, charming, non-surgically enhanced stars, and an interesting plot. The film tells the story of a happily married woman who entices her husband with erotic tales about her imaginary encounters with other men. The convenient arrangement goes awry when she finds that the realization of those fantasies is infinitely more exciting than mere words.
Car accidents were never sexy before this 1996 film by David Cronenberg. But Hollywood's enfant terrible went on and made us feel like scars beneath fishnets were sexy, especially if the legs belonged to Rosanna Arquette. Crash is a film about obsessions. It features James Spader in his prime as a cute boy-nextdoor with a kinky edge and the beautiful Arquette accompanied by Holly Hunter and Deborah Kara Unger. The film's cinematic beauty is as much of a turn-on as the erotic obsessions that fuel the psyche of its complex characters.
4 Eyes Wide Shut
In an interview about polyamory culture, a staff member of the Center for Sex Positive Culture complained that everyone came to the Center expecting to find "a room full of models ready to have sex with them, like in the movie Eyes Wide Shut. The good news is that for as long as Stanley Kubrick's film lasts, such fantasies may be abundantly fulfilled.
A marriage on edge, mysterious sex parties in an ambiance of luxury, and a sense of ubiquitous danger permeate the film, which has become iconic, although it received mixed reviews from critics at the time of its release.
To explore different aspects of marriage, infidelity, and sexuality Kubrick chose to work with Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, who were a married couple at the time. The film shoot in London took several months, and Kubrick reportedly pushed the actors to their limits, often asking them to repeat a simple scene over 90 times. The result of that complex process was a poetic film about desire and love with numerous glimpses into an abyss of exquisite decadence.
3 Mulholland Drive
If you enjoy sexy and mysterious female characters, you need look no further than this cult film by David Lynch. It tells the story of Betty, played by Naomi Watts, who comes to LA with the dream of becoming a star. Upon arrival on Tinseltown, she befriends an amnesiac woman (Laura Harring) who is living in her aunt's apartment. Critics haven't been able to agree about what is a dream and what is reality in terms of the plot, but the surreal atmosphere created by Lynch makes the film all the more exciting. The two female leads offer stellar performances and an abundance of masterfully shot romantic interactions.
2 Blue is the Warmest Color
This is a rare French film in which the portrayal of sex is more interesting than the portrayal of love. A coming of age story about an erotic awakening, it was directed by Abdellatif Kechiche and stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. It features one of the longest sex scenes ever seen in a non-adult film.
The sexual interaction between an experienced bohemian girl and her naïf apprentice is arguably the most realistic sex ever portrayed in the history of cinema. Rumor has it that the director forced the actresses to actually have sex on the set, but the stars have clarified that they wore prosthetic vaginas to simulate the action. While they have confessed to having had a rough time during the ten days it took to shoot the lengthy sex scene, none of that discomfort is apparent onscreen.
The film tells an interesting story, it has very good actors, and everything works well, but for anyone expecting a story about a great love, perhaps it will be a disappointment. For those expecting a story about mind-blowing sex, the way it happens in real life, with no faked orgasms and no posing for the cameras, it will be an exquisite thrill. In fact, the world is still waiting for a film that portrays heterosexual sex as vividly as this.
1 Henry and June
Arguably the best film ever made about a love triangle, Henry and June was as much of a hit with literary types as with skin flick lovers. It tells the story of the torrid love affair between "Tropic of Cancer" author Henry Miller, his wife June and writer Anaïs Nin, a pioneer of female-perspective erotica. Beautifully shot around the charming streets of Paris, it won the Academy award for Best Cinematography.
Uma Thurman, who plays June, was never more superb. Maria de Medeiros was perfectly cast as Nin and Fred Ward plays Miller. The chemistry between the three works on every possible level. Some of the most unforgettable scenes include one in which Nin watches two female prostitutes having sex and asks the most aggressive of the two to "stop pretending to be a man."
Ward is sexy and masculine. De Medeiros is an icon of femininity, and Thurman is magnetic. The characters are united not only by desire, but also by the power of words and their infinite power to excite the imagination. As far as literary threesomes go, film has never seen anything quite as hot as this classic Philip Kaufman film.