Sex and Sexuality in Cinema: Alternatives to 50 Shades of Grey

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Well ladies and gentlemen, the time is nearly upon us…

When the news broke that E L Jame’s best selling Fifty Shades of Grey was being turned in to a film, many people cried with joy and many people just cried. I’m guessing a fair few of you here reading this have either read or know someone who has read the trilogy. Of course, being a cinephile and a truly spectacular boyfriend, I will be joining my better half when she goes to the cinema to watch what I’m guessing will be a completely misguided and toned down adaptation. I haven’t read the books myself, but I know enough to know Hollywood will probably completely get it wrong (Erika Lust should make her own adaptation). Of course, that review will be posted when I see it. In preparation for what will probably be my first trip to cinema of 2015, I thought I would write about some of my favourite films that deal with sex and sexuality. Of course, being a fan of exploitation cinema and classic porn, I have seen a lot, but my list won’t be including anything like that, the following films aren’t just skin flicks. These films often have something to say. These films are interesting in their own right and have something to offer.

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NYMPHOMANIAC PARTS 1 & 2 (2013)
Directed by Lars von Trier

Last year I must have bored a lot of my cinephile friends to near death with my harping on about how much I loved this film. I won’t go on and on telling you why it was my favourite release of last year, I have done so every time von Trier’s name has popped up in conversation. You’d think with the way this film was marketed and the subject matter that it deals with, that one of my favourite aspects was the fact that we get to see stars like Shia LaBeouf (Disturbia) completely naked and getting involved with some extremely graphic sex on screen. To be honest, if you’re going in to the film expecting that, you may be disappointed. Sure, cast members bare all and there is real sex throughout, but the sexual acts are completely outshone by a genuinely intelligent and well crafted story. Stacy Martin (Winter) plays the young Joe (the central character) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist) plays the older Joe. Joe’s sex life is varied, she’s been sexually active since she was a child. We follow her life through its ups and many downs. Her nymphomania often brings her sexual gratification, yet ultimately brings her trouble, often with devastating affects for herself and others involved. Why have I included this on my list? For the sheer fact that even though von Trier uses graphic sexual content, it never takes away from the film or leads it down an unintentionally silly or absurd path. Of course, von Trier sets antagonism mode to full and even references previous films in his filmography. Another aspect I enjoy is how utterly brilliant von Trier not only uses his reputation, but built up a hype prior to the release with a great promotional campaign. The whole thing reeks of von Trier. Overall, a thoroughly intelligent film with many layers that manages to use themes of sexuality and graphic sex in a way only von Trier could pull off.
DVD and Blu-ray available from Artificial Eye.

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9 SONGS (2004)
Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Michael Winterbottom directed my all time favourite film, 24 Hour Party People. Maybe at some point I will write about my passion for that film. Now isn’t the time nor place of course. I’m here to talk about his erotic drama, 9 Songs. The story is simple. Kieran O’Brien (The Look of Love) stars as Matt. Whilst at a gig he meets Lisa, a college student played by Margo Stilley (Reverb). The pair begin a 12 month relationship. When they aren’t going to other gigs, they’re spending a lot of their time together making love. As the film progresses, you see the relationship falling apart. A very controversial film upon it’s release due to the fact that sex between Lisa and Matt is completely unsimulated. There’s even an ejaculation scene. Now, when I first watched this film, I was a lot younger and immature. I bought it obviously for the sexual content (no, not for that reason!) and the infamy. Upon repeat viewings down the years, you come to realise that this is a very real film. That’s partly due to the fact that O’Brien and Stilley had only around 3 days to get to know each other prior to shooting. Not only that, but there is a strong sense of intimacy due to the fact that whilst shooting the sex, only the director, camera operator and sound engineer were present. There are no fake orgasms and there are no body doubles. The use of concert footage, scenes of the pair holidaying and conversations between the couple at home intercut with the graphic content make the viewer feel as if they’re a fly on the wall of a couple who no matter how hard they try, ultimately fall out of love with each other. A realistic love story with a tragic ending and a historical film in a sense. Wether it titillates you or not, this is a subtle drama that is unlike anything else.
DVD and Blu-ray is available from Optimum Home Entertainment.

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NINE ½ WEEKS (1986)
Directed by Adrian Lyne

Ah, erotic thrillers from the 1980’s (that’s another list for another day!). How much I love you! Back when Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) was handsome and had a normal face and Kim Basinger (L.A Confidential) was a complete cutie. Kim stars as Elizabeth, a sweet and innocent woman working in a art gallery. Her life changes when she meets John, a high flying Wall Street broker played by Rourke. What begins as an innocent, yet persistent game of cat and mouse develops in to the beginning of an intense sexual relationship. John’s dominance when it comes to the sexual acts not only pushes Elizabeth’s boundaries, but ultimately towards the edge. Elizabeth not only experiences new and intense sexual practices, but also finds herself in some strange and sometimes menacing situations. She almost becomes a slave (in both the sexual and psychological sense) of John. The film is famous for the kitchen scene, but there are many stand out moments. The reason I have chosen to put this on my list is because of just how much of a psychological film this is. It deals with many themes and concepts. It’s clear that John wants a woman that can be broken down and owned. He finds that in Elizabeth as she is a naïve and ultimately sad character. It’s a game and no matter what, he’s in control. Overall, I feel that this film has a lot more depth than some give it. It may have bombed at the box office, but this is more than just a campy or goofy erotic thriller. There are many aspects to analyse. It deals with the concept of sexual dominance, playing with a persons psyche as well as observing a woman’s sexual journey. Oh, it has a great soundtrack too!
DVD and Blu-ray available from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

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THE PIANO TEACHER (2001)
Directed by Michael Hanake

Even though I have only seen (not even) a fraction of her filmography, Isabelle Huppert (Time of the Wolf) is one of my all time favourite actresses. As beautiful now as she was when she first graced the big screen in the early 1970’s. Not only that, but she is a fantastic actress whose facial expressions, posture and all round physical presence can make even the weakest script more than workable. In The Piano Teacher, she stars as Erika Kohut. A middle aged piano teacher who still lives with her mother. When young and handsome student Walter, played by Benoît Magimel (La Haine), comes in to her life and persists to be tutored by her, Erika’s life starts to take a dark turn. The pair forge an uneasy and uncomfortable sexual relationship. Prior to the couple’s relationship, we find that Erika has sexual hang ups and strange kinks such as smelling used tissues in a sex shop viewing booth and cutting herself in ‘private’ places. It’s clear she has issues and seeing her often impulsive sexual and mentally draining relationship with Walter makes for uneasy viewing. He tells her he wants her one minute and calls her pathetic and ugly the next. As much as you try to sympathise with Erika, she doesn’t make it easier for the audience at time. She finds herself taking out her frustration on not only her mother, but other students. In one case she almost completely jeopardises the future of a young, talented female student. Walter is completely in control throughout the film. He embarrasses, hurts and breaks Erika. Overall, it’s a fantastic film portraying just how much of a hold one person can have over the other, especially when sex is a big part of the game. Hanake’s film is an adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s 1983 novel of the same name. At the time of writing, I am still yet to source myself a copy.

DVD and Blu-ray available from Artificial Eye.

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PARADIES: LIEBE (2012)
Directed by Ulrich Seidl

There’s nothing too complex about Ulrich Seidl’s drama. Margarete Tiesel (Freispiel) stars as Teresa, a fifty-year-old Austrian single mother. She decides to treat herself to an African holiday. Leaving her daughter in the hands of her sister, she’s on her way to enjoy the sun, sea, sand and sex offered by the exotic surroundings of Kenya. Yes, this film is about sex tourism. As a society, we are used to the idea of teenagers flocking in groups to places like Kos and Magaluf. We’re also used to old men combing (in more ways than one) the streets of Thailand. Over the past few years, it’s become increasingly popular for older women to travel to Africa to have their fun in the sun. We follow Teresa as she goes from man to man. Sexual exploitation is right at the centre of the film. Teresa and her friends take advantage of the muscular and handsome men on display. On the other hand, Teresa herself becomes exploited at times. She finds herself out of pocket whilst being under the impression that Munga a local, played non- actor Peter Kanungu (in his only role) is spending time with her because there’s an actual human connection. She is essentially bullied in to giving money to his family and a local school. Not only is Teresa not receiving the high quality sex that she was expecting, she finds herself in a downward spiral of self hatred. To make things worse, her daughter back at home is ignoring her phone calls. The film is often hard to watch and extremely cringe inducing, yet has a subtle use of dark humour to weave an ultimately pathetic tale. You don’t really sympathise with anyone throughout. Overall, it’s a simple story that shows you that love well and truly can’t be bought and that sex tourism may not work for some.
DVD and Blu-ray available from Artificial Eye.

There you have it. A quick look at five of my favourite films that deal (in one way or another) with sex and sexuality. There are many other examples that I could have mentioned, but this is a great selection. Paradies Liebe is the first in a trilogy. I definitely suggest that you make an effort to watch all films within the trilogy. After writing this, I found myself thinking that the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey could potentially be a watered down and poor man’s version of 9 ½ Weeks, You will find out if that is the case and what I think of that film when I watch it.

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