Compelling Tales of Sexual Exploration in Cinema

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If you’re interested in watching another studio comedy that tries very hard to make married sex appear really cool, therefore making it seem incredibly lame, Sex Tape hit theaters this weekend. For the rest of us, read on.

Sex-obsessed cinema is rampant in Hollywood, but few films actually capture the honesty, anticipation, and sometimes dark side of sexual experimentation. Here are ten films that feature characters who explore their sexuality and venture to brave new worlds.

Eyes Wide Shut

Overwhelmed by his own sexual insecurities, Tom Cruise’s Bill Harford spends one night falling down the rabbit hole, attempting to forget about his wife’s (Nicole Kidman) wandering eye. He finds himself surrounded by lusty women and becomes the unwelcome guest at a strange bacchanal. Bill’s journey is hypnotic, an erotic daydream brought to life. His desires take him to dangerous places that frequently confront him with truths he isn’t ready to face. Bill never actually has sex, but sometimes holding your hand in the flame is fun (or terrifying) enough.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar

It’s somewhat shocking the number of films about sexually liberated women that end tragically. Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut suggests we can venture close to the dark side and still walk away unscathed. Looking for Mr. Goodbar isn’t as kind to its character, thanks to a conflicted, moralizing undertone regarding one woman’s sexual awaking in New York City during the 1970s. However, Diane Keaton does justice to the role as a woman conflicted by desire, curiosity, anxiety, and the shifting gender/sexual tide.

Secretary

Steven Shainberg’s film subverts the Sadean archetypes (and absurdities) presented in glossy softcore classics (The Story of O, Emmanuelle) in this unexpected riff on the erotic drama. The sadomasochistic relationship between a troubled woman and her steely boss is portrayed with disarming affection and emotional honesty.

Shortbus

A sex therapist who has never had an orgasm, boyfriends seeking a third in their relationship, and a dominatrix (named Severin, unfortunately) navigate the modern-day perils of sex and love in New York City. John Cameron Mitchell’s follow-up to Hedwig and the Angry Inch is at turns provocative, sublime, and even funny, but often a little heavy on the navel-gazing. The A.V. Club’s Keith Phipps writes:

The film spends a lot of time in those messy gray areas, discovering how sex can clear things up or make them cloudier. Developed by Mitchell and the actors, the characters don’t always seem consistent from moment to moment, but a sharp sense of humor and comfortable performances by a committed and — it must be said — remarkably limber cast help smooth over the rough edges. So does the moving tone of warmth and forgiveness. Mitchell’s infectious concern for his characters’ wellbeing steers them toward an ending that’s as much a fantasy as anything Nora Ephron ever dreamed up, but maybe that’s okay. A right to one’s own fantasies is the least of his film’s demands.

Y tu mamá también

Alfonso Cuarón’s pre-Gravity tale was a coming-of-age road film about two teen boys and a 20-something woman, framed by the social issues plaguing modern-day Mexico. “The movie is realistic about sex, which is to say, franker and healthier than the smutty evasions forced on American movies by the R rating,” Roger Ebert wrote in his 2002 review.

We feel a shock of recognition: This is what real people do and how they do it, sexually, and the MPAA has perverted a generation of American movies into puerile masturbatory snickering. Whether Luisa will have sex with one or both of her new friends is not for me to reveal. More to the point is what she wants to teach them, which is that men and women learn to share sex as a treasure they must carry together without something spilling–that women are not prizes, conquests or targets, but the other half of a precarious unity. This is news to the boys, who are obsessed with orgasms (needless to say, their own).

Crash

Car wrecks and sex consume the characters of David Cronenberg’s Crash, where metal on flesh is an orgasmic reprieve from conventional married life. Wounds are orifices and shattered bones suspended bliss. This violence and passion blurs definitions of sexuality, delivering a rare, early (albeit, fairly tame) gay sex scene in a mainstream movie.

The Doom Generation

Goth kids in love form a ménage à trois with a violent drifter during a road trip from hell and seek shelter in a series of sexual (and chemical) experiments. Heavy on the horror and nihilism. Utterly quotable.

9 Songs

Famous for its unsimulated scenes, Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs is a minimalist depiction of the birth and death of a yearlong sexual relationship (infatuation?) set in London. Real sex without explanation (frustrating, for some) or apologies.

À l’aventure

Jean-Claude Brisseau’s story of philosophical-sexual pursuit veers frequently into male, bourgeois fantasy territory, but is a somewhat interesting mystical experiment. (This is the only movie you’ll read about today that features a serious-minded, orgasm-y levitation sequence.) Reverse Shot’s Adam Nayman writes:

For all of its talk—and talking is the only thing Brisseau’s characters do with as much gusto as they copulate—about adventurous sexuality and the intersection of divine and erotic ecstasy, À l’aventure is finally, and perhaps problematically, a film about a young woman who meets her limitations while attempting to surpass them.

Anatomy of Hell

Stop us if you’ve heard this one: a woman walks into a gay bar to commit suicide. Instead, she leaves with a man she employs to spend four nights at her house so he can watch her when she’s “unwatchable.” The always divisive Catherine Breillat brings us a film where the characters’ discussions about female sexuality might be more transgressive than the sex — depending on your tolerance for garden tools.