10 Avant-Garde, Psychosexual Stories on Film

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Berberian Sound Studio director Peter Strickland returns to cinemas this weekend with another film featuring a tormented protagonist — this time centered on “two classic nesting conflicts of intimacy — between the needs of the self and the needs of partners, and between the potential liberations and constrictions of erotic fantasy.” In The Duke of Burgundy, “Strickland brings to life the appeals of a sexual fantasy as well as its potentially attending traps of detachment,” Slant writes. Two women test the limits of their sexual relationship, set in Strickland’s dreamy world that references the Euro sexploitation films of the 1960s and ‘70s. It has all the makings of a great psychosexual drama. We explore similarly sculpted films, below.

3-Iron

The films of South Korean director Kim Ki-duk, once described as a “sexual terrorist,” are full of psychosexual symbolism — and this takes on a haunting effect in 2004’s 3-Iron. A drifter Tae-suk (Hee Jae), who breaks into the empty apartments of vacationing residents, develops a relationship with an abused woman Sun-hwa (Seung-yeon Lee). The affair takes place in the beds of strangers, the couple acting as ghosts who embrace undetected. This act of concealment speaks to the filmmaker’s concerns about his home country’s attitude toward sex:

The world is facing two problems: money and sex. . . . Korean society is becoming a place where winning victory through cheating or corruption is prized. Sex is an issue that we must stay attentive to, but [Korean] society is only saying no or saying it’s dangerous — without exploring its boundaries. It’s enforcing a moral standard. . . . Once we find out all the secrets behind sex, we can then judge them to be dangerous. . . . Korea has many problems regarding sex. This is because we don’t engage in an open discussion. Koreans treat it as a simple desire that should be repressed.

Body Double

The surreal life of a voyeur and voyeurism’s oddly performative nature are explored in Brian De Palma’s Body Double. “I don’t think morality applies to art. It’s a ludicrous idea. I mean, what is the morality of a still life? I don’t think there’s good or bad fruit in the bowl,” said the filmmaker in a 1984 interview. For De Palma, the act of watching in Body Double is amoral, if anything. “It’s like a keyhole that everyone’s looking through,” De Palma explained in an interview with The Playlist. “If everyone’s looking through it — otherwise it’s on the internet. I don’t know, you have a kind of anonymous complicit-ness. Who’s looking at it? The world’s looking at it. So because I’m part of the world looking, does that make me part of the crime? I think it’s more to do with exhibitionism. I think anyone that’s taking a photograph of themselves or a video for themselves is posing for the camera. If they’re posing for the camera, they want to be seen. So anybody looking is hardly complicit, they’re basically fulfilling what the exhibitionist wants to do: expose themselves.”

Mulholland Drive

“Sex was like a dream. It was like a world that was so mysterious to me that I really couldn’t believe that there was this fantastic texture to life that I was getting to do. It was so fantastic, and I could see a world opening — this sexual dream,” Lynch once said about his early sex life. “It was another great indication that life was really great and worth living. And it kept on going, because I see that the vast realm of sex has all these different levels, from lust and fearful, violent sex to the real spiritual thing at the other end. It’s the key to some fantastic mystery of life.” Lynch explores the mysteries of obsessive, sexual, and romantic relationships as they relate to two women in a shifting dream world. Humiliation, heartbreak, and betrayal plague their affair, set in a dark construct of the Hollywood film industry.

Audition

Adapted from a novel by Ryu Murakami, Takashi Miike’s Audition finds a lonely, widowed businessman searching for a new wife through mock casting auditions. He falls for Asami, whose love comes with a steep and painful price. But Miike has argued that his film’s harrowing final scene — a twisted power dynamic put to the screen — is not as horrific as audiences think. “For me, Audition is not horror. At least, there is no monster, it’s not supernatural. It’s a story about a girl who has just slightly strange emotions, so it’s not impossible to understand her. She just wants the person she loves to stay by her side,” the filmmaker told Midnight Eye.

The Piano Teacher

“The fact that to [Isabelle Huppert’s] Erika [in The Piano Teacher], the reality of what she sees in the sex shop is more real than the feeling of reality in her ‘normal’ life […] I believe that is our general situation,” the director said in an interview with Bomb Magazine. “We take reality in the media for reality, which naturally is not reality but only images of a reality. When we take the news that comes on TV as reality, it creates a state of derealization. It has nothing to do with reality. It’s completely manipulated and it’s false. We’re actually deprived of reality. That’s the theme of all my movies, and that’s the danger.” Erika’s wounded psyche and the self-abuse she inflicts upon herself, as well as the masochistic affair she has with her 17-year-old student, also speaks to this tragic disconnect.

The Skin I Live In

“If you have to really summarize the film at the most basic level, it’s about one person’s absolute abuse of power, faced against another person’s immense capacity for survival, and to survive precisely that kind of abuse of power. There’s a reflection there, too, about identity, both sexual identity, but also a more essential identity belonging to the person,” director Pedro Almodóvar said of his 2011 film The Skin I Live In. The horror-tinged melodrama is based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel Mygale, which contains a rape scene and several sadistic elements, both not explored in the movie. Instead, Almodóvar dwells in the tensions of psychosexual characterizations, tapping into those themes of identity and desire.

Deep End

Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1970 film set in a London bathhouse centers on the sexual obsession an East End teen feels for his co-worker. “It is morally ambiguous in tone, pitched somewhere between psychosexual thriller and a dark coming-of-age comedy,” writes Electric Sheep. “In that sense it’s quite typical of the era in which it was made: particularly where working-class characters are concerned, the sexual liberation promised by the seismic cultural shifts of the 60s often translated in British film into an atmosphere of acute sexual tension, characterized by anxious promiscuity and voyeurism, casual misogyny played for comic value and a kind of nervous laughter that seems to signify fear more than pleasure.”

The Films of Jean Rollin

French erotic-horror auteur Jean Rollin told author Peter Blumenstock: “A vampire is like an animal, a predator — wild, emotional, naive, primitive, sensual, not too concerned with logic, driven by emotions, but also very aesthetic and beautiful, and these are terms also often used when my films are being described.” The director’s reputation for portraying irrational narratives, nubile bodies, and all things sapphic and sanguine precedes him. Several films, like 1979’s Fascination, feature a battle-of-the-sexes subtext. Rollin pushes the tension further by casting porn actresses (Brigitte Lahaie, for example) as powerful women to dismantle gender and class stereotypes. “In general, the fantastic cinema is always political, because it is always in the opposition,” he told Blumenstock. “It is subversive and it is popular, which means it is dangerous. I made films with sex and violence at a time when censorship was very strong, so that was certainly a political statement as well, although again, not a conscious one. I just happen to have an imagination which doesn’t correspond with those of certain conservative people.”

Bitter Moon

“Everyone has a sadistic streak, and nothing brings it out better than the knowledge you’ve got someone at your mercy. If she fancied living in a living hell, I’d make it so hot even she would want out,” says Peter Coyote’s Oscar — one half of the doomed couple in Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon. The director reveals the absurd and tragic ends some lovers will go to avoid “sexual bankruptcy.” It’s a film about how our passions may eventually consume us. “What we have to settle for, finally, is Polanski’s dry, highly personal, and scary commentary on the perils of the American experiment itself, the so-called freedom of the individual played out in psychosexual terms and staged with French and English participants — a French-English coproduction whose ideal spectators are troubled Americans, and uneasy, childless lovers,” writes Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Swimming Pool

“The swimming pool stands for whatever anyone wants to see in it. I have often filmed water, usually the ocean which is associated in my mind with shedding one’s inhibitions, or with a certain sense of fear,” provocateur François Ozon said of his 2003 film Swimming Pool. “In this instance, I was interested in the swimming pool as texture and also as water imprisoned. Swimming pools, unlike the ocean, are manageable and controlled.” Tensions between Charlotte Rampling’s Sarah, a writer seeking inspiration for her next novel, and Julie, the free-spirited and sexy young woman who interrupts her retreat and becomes a projection of Sarah’s inner world (Ozon even describes the pool in symbolic and cinematic terms as it relates to her: “The swimming pool is Julie’s realm. It’s like a movie-screen against which images are projected and into which a character penetrates.”) culminate in a fantastical ending, befitting of the anxiety and paranoia Ozon builds throughout.