Desire is fluid and fluctuating, and few forces are as powerful in their influence over our bodies and minds. Deriving from eros, the Greek word for desire, eroticism is the philosophical examination of love and desire as they manifest in literature, photography, film, and other art forms. Eroticism charges human stories with tenderness and connection, rage and desolation, and everything in-between.
Below is a list of 10 modern erotic arthouse films produced within the last 20 years. What makes them all unique is that they put aside the conventions of major blockbusters to consider desire from a diverse set of vantage points, many of which deconstruct sexual norms. Each film is a contemplative and chaotic field, aimed at stimulating and expanding public perceptions of love and sexual connection.
Top: “The Duke of Burgundy” poetically explores the crossroads of power and pleasure.
Shown in the bottom image is Sofia Lin (Sook-Yin Lee), a couples counselor/sex therapist who is unable to achieve an orgasm.
Few erotic films explore love and desire with as much clarity and courage as John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus.” The plot weaves together three storylines: Sofia Lin, a pre-orgasmic sex therapist; Jamie and James, a couple looking at opening up their relationship; and Severin, a lonely professional dominatrix. Seeking emotional connection and sexual fruition, the characters’ paths converge at Shortbus, an infamous underground salon. All of the movie’s sex scenes are unsimulated, showing real penetration, ejaculation, group sex, and more. However, the eroticism doesn’t distract the viewer from the movie’s deep emotional themes, which makes the depiction of sex truly authentic; in Mitchell’s words, “when you’ve got a hard on, you’re not always laughing.”
“Blue Is the Warmest Color” is an adaptation of Julie Maroh’s French graphic novel of the same name.
Blue Is the Warmest Color
In this three-hour coming-of-age story, Abdellatif Kechiche uncovers the hurdles and heartbreaks that can underlie the most passionate of connections. Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a high school student who, after finding herself dissatisfied with heterosexual encounters, falls in love with Emma (Léa Seydoux), an aspiring painter. At one point the two women discuss Sartre’s philosophy on existence preceding essence; as Emma explains, “We’re born, we exist, and we define ourselves by our actions.” Together, the couple explores desire and love as motivating drives on the path to self-actualization. While critically-acclaimed, it is important to note that many considered the movie’s sex scenes gratuitous, pornographic, and an unrealistic depiction of lesbian sex.
Set and shot in Toronto, the city’s hazy-hot summer adds eroticism to the couple’s sultry affair.
Lie with Me
“I didn’t know how to love him. I only knew how to fuck,” says the sexually-voracious Leila (Lauren Lee Smith). Desire rules her life, and nothing can seem to quench her; there is always something “left inside.” When she meets David (Eric Balfour), they share an erotic connection that fluctuates between euphoria and destruction. The sex scenes are raw and realistic, and the actors produce a fevered space where logic and reason break down in the carnal act. Based on the book “Lie With Me” by Tamara Berger, director Clément Virgo does an excellent job translating the physical and emotional nuances onto the screen.
The beautiful waters of Lake Sainte-Croix in Provence, France, provide a lulling backdrop for this tension-filled film.
Stranger by the Lake
Love, sex, and violence collide in Alain Guiraudie’s moody erotic thriller. In the forests surrounding a cerulean lake, a group of men gather to “cruise,” seeking anonymous satisfaction with one another. The main character Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps)—who is confused between love and fleeting connection—falls for Michel (Christophe Paou), another lakeside regular. Franck quickly becomes absorbed in the power of desire and his illusions of love, and when he witnesses something horrific, he becomes an accomplice to the crime. Haunting and slow-burning, “Stranger by the Lake” is an examination of desire as something that can supersede morality and truth.
It takes high-speed machinery and the risk of death to ignite the desires of Catherine and James.
David Cronenberg‘s 1996 film “Crash” examines desire from a philosophical and highly offbeat perspective; the main characters, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) and James (James Spader), can only get off by having sex while driving at high speeds. Mixing the the fetishization of technology (the brute power of a car) with erotic escapism, the couple seeks to overcome boredom and surpass the limitations of their bodies by playing chicken with death. This movie is grotesque and bizarre—and it will probably leave you somewhat confused—but it is a fantastic, abstract exploration of desire that likens the fury of sex with explosions of shattered metal and glass.
Desire creates love with as much power as it tears it apart.
Director Gaspar Noé is known for pushing the boundaries when it comes to depictions of sex and drug use. His 2015 film “Love” is no different, bringing us a romance story overflowing with passionate, raw, unsimulated sex. The movie features Murphy (Karl Glusman), an individual stuck in the gloom of an unwanted domestic life. Throughout the course of a day Murphy recalls his past girlfriend, Electra (Aomi Muyock), and the sexual, drug-laden exhilaration they once shared. “Love” will grip you from its opening scene, as Murphy and Electra lie poetically on a bed, pleasuring each other to the point of orgasm. The emotional and sexual intensity doesn’t let up as their desire degenerates into a toxic haze of jealousy and mutual torture; as Murphy observes, “love makes people bright, and it also drives people crazy.”
“The Idiots” makes you a voyeur to graphic sexuality, as well as immaturity and radical dissidence.
Lars van Trier is another enfant terrible in the film world, known for sexually explicit movies such as “Antichrist” and “Nymphomaniac.” He directed “The Idiots” in 1998, and while this movie leans more towards “arthouse” cinema than “erotic,” sex is explicitly and tactfully used. The plot revolves around a group of misfits who seek to challenge civilization—or more specifically, the middle-class bourgeoisie—by behaving like people with developmental disabilities. Mayhem ensues as they repetitively shock and confuse the people around them, including the viewer; when the leader of the group, Stoffer (Jens Albinus) proposes an orgy, the group succumbs to desire with the same playful carelessness that informs the rest of their politics, making group sex a form of social resistance. As an interesting aside, the sex scenes are unsimulated, but body doubles were used.
Mystery and silence are catalysts for passion during the characters’ weekly trysts.
Patrice Chéreau captures the intricacies of sex and emotion in this British drama. Jay (Mark Rylance) is an embittered bartender who lives in a run-down apartment. Every week, he is visited by an anonymous woman (Kerry Fox) with whom he shares a powerful sexual connection. Vulnerability breeds affection, however, and over time Jay falls in love. Emotional and realistic, this movie demonstrates the unpredictability of desire.
Peter Strickland’s film shows the often-unseen tenderness of BDSM relationships.
The Duke of Burgundy
Power and desire come into play in this stylish erotic drama by Peter Strickland. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is an older woman who studies insects (specifically moths and butterflies), and Evelyn is her maid, understudy, and lover. Each day the couple performs sensual and quietly playful rituals of dominance and submission, master and slave. Tensions arise when Cynthia’s own desires change, and her power-play over Evelyn becomes a strained performance to satisfy her lover. Resembling a Flemish painting with a melancholic soundtrack, “The Duke of Burgundy” is an artful film that exposes the challenging asymmetries of love and lust.
“Kissed” is based on Barbara Gowdy’s short story, “We So Seldom Look On Love.”
Finishing off the list is something a little different. Actress Molly Parker shocked audiences in her role as Sandra Larson, a mortician and necrophiliac in Lynne Stopkewich’s 1996 Canadian film “Kissed.” While the subject matter may certainly turn stomachs and raise controversy, the movie itself is tenderly composed, exploring eroticism in an intellectual way. Sandra, having been socially ostracized since childhood for her fascination of death and affection for the deceased, symbolizes a radical exploration of the manifold directions of desire, as well as the connections between love and death. As Sandra explains, “Love is about craving—our craving for transformation. And all transformation, all movement, happens because life turns into death.” While not for the faint of heart, this movie is sure to make you think.
Photos © respective film studios.