Wednesday 21 February 2018

Why so many erotic movies just don't turn me on

Getting it right: Julie Christie and Donald
Sutherland in Don't Look Now
Getting it right: Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Don't Look Now

Paul Whitington

British author EL James was in Hollywood last week, meeting film producers anxious to adapt her bestselling erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey for the screen.

Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Angelina Jolie are reportedly among those keen to produce and direct the film, which is bound to sail pretty close to the wind in terms of its sexual content.

James's book, which has sold an estimated 10 million copies worldwide, deals with a strange and tortuous relationship between dashing but manipulative millionaire Christian Grey, and a virginal college graduate called Anastasia Steele.

He's into S&M and she's prepared to go along with it, and the novel includes some pretty steamy domination/submission sex scenes.

Hollywood clearly sees Fifty Shades of Grey as a chance to create a kind of erotic Twilight franchise.

But realising this potentially lucrative dream may be problematic, because mainstream female audiences (at whom the film would be mainly aimed) tend to resist being lured into watching porn.

The most likely outcome is that the finished film will water down the book's sexual content to produce a more palatable product. And that would be typical of Hollywood's attitude to erotica, because ever since the 1930s a curious double standard has existed there when it comes to sex versus violence.

While extreme violence and cruelty is now standard in mainstream American films, sex scenes -- even loving, entirely consensual ones -- are still a bit of a no-no. Sex can be played for laughs or in the service of horror, but rarely, it seems, for the simple depiction of love.

And those brave directors who do try and film frank, loving sex scenes run the risk of making a hash of it, because sex in the cinema is one of the hardest things to get right.

How Fifty Shades of Grey will manage its steamy topics remains to be seen, but in the meantime here are five famous films that got it right, and five that made sex seem like something medical and unpleasant.

The Good

Belle de Jour (1967)

Luis Buñuel's groundbreaking psychological drama explores the sexual fantasies of a prim, bourgeois Parisian housewife called Séverine, played by Catherine Deneuve.

Unable to be sexually intimate with her husband, Séverine dreams up elaborate fantasies involving domination and bondage. Desperate to act out her impulses, she begins working in the afternoons at a high-class brothel, at which she's given the nickname 'Belle de Jour'.

Buñuel's frank and witty film investigates the dark impulses that drive even the superficially respectable, and Deneuve was wonderful as the vulnerable but determined Séverine.

Why it worked: Buñuel's film was darkly sensual, but never prurient.

The Graduate (1967)

With a plot involving casual adultery, Mike Nichols's 1967 comic drama The Graduate was a controversial trailblazer. It was also pretty steamy. Dustin Hoffman played Benjamin Braddock, a 20-year-old college graduate who's wondering what to do with his life when he encounters Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft).

A sexy, sophisticated and profoundly bored housewife, she pursues and seduces Benjamin, undressing in front of him during their first encounter. Benjamin later falls in love with her daughter Elaine, played by Katharine Ross, but it's Bancroft's unforgettably vampish Mrs Robinson who dominates the film.

Why it worked: A sense of humour, a scent of the forbidden, and Anne Bancroft.

Don't Look Now (1973)

Nic Roeg's unforgettable thriller features one of the most controversial sex scenes in movie history.

Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland played a shattered couple grieving the recent death of their daughter. He has been hired to restore a Venetian church, and while she wanders the city she begins catching sight of a child she believes is her daughter.

Midway through, the film's almost unbearable tension is broken by a remarkably frank and moving love scene.

Roeg was forced to intercut it with footage of the couple dressing afterwards to placate his studio, but this only seemed to add to the tenderness of the scene.

For years afterwards, rumours circulated that the sex had been unsimulated, ie real, but both actors have always denied this.

Why it worked: Roeg's famous scene isn't really about the sex, it's about the characters sharing their grief.

Body Heat (1981)

Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat follows a sleazy Florida lawyer's sexual obsession with the wealthy, treacherous wife of a rich businessman.

When Ned Racine (William Hurt) gets mixed up with Matty Walker (a memorably sensual Kathleen Turner), he becomes so besotted with her that he agrees to help kill her husband.

Turner was so good as the over-sexed Matty that she played vamp after vamp through the 1980s until her chronic rheumatoid arthritis and a drink problem prematurely terminated her A-list career.

Why it worked: Good chemistry and great performances stifled any sleaze.

Dangerous Liaisons (1987)

Stephen Frears's sublime adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's classic 18th Century novel proves a sexy film needn't depend on lots of graphic sex.

In fact, the only sex you actually see in Dangerous Liaisons is humorous, as John Malkovich's devilish seducer the Vicomte de Valmont gives a lanky virgin (Uma Thurman) a crash course in technique.

Valmont and his aristocratic friend the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) are both amoral schemers: he's after her, but she will only admit him to her bedchamber if he deflowers annoyingly virtuous Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Why it worked: The sexual tension between Malkovich and Pfeiffer is palpable. Malkovich and Close are wonderfully depraved.

The bad

Last tango in Paris (1972)

Before her death last year, Maria Schneider had some unhappy comments to make about her experiences on the set of Last Tango in Paris. Schneider was only 19 when she agreed to star opposite Marlon Brando in Bernardo Bertolucci's film.

She played a young Parisian woman who embarks on a torrid sexual affair with a recently widowed American (Brando). The resulting film divided critics, some of whom thought it an artful exploration of human sexuality, while others considered it thinly disguised porn.

In later life, Schneider claimed she felt "humiliated" and "a little raped" by Brando and her director, and also said a notorious scene involving butter and sodomy was Brando's idea.

Why it flopped: The film feels like a flabby middle-aged man's fantasy.

9 1/2 Weeks (1986)

If Last Tango in Paris was seedy, Adrian Lyne's 9 1/2 Weeks was merely derivative. Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke played a divorcee and a Wall Street trader who take part in mildly kinky sex acts. Like Bertolucci's film,

9 1/2 Weeks had no plot to speak of and resorted early and often to cheap titillation. Rourke and Basinger blindfolded each other, had sex in public places and experimented with whatever they could find in the fridge.

While Basinger certainly looked splendid, the film itself wasn't very sexy at all.

Why it flopped: With its low lighting and poppy soundtrack, the film looked like a dirty music video.

Swept Away (2002)

Madonna and Guy Ritchie may have intended to turn the heat up with this steamy remake of a controversial 1970s film, but the result was a passionless bore.

Madonna played a spoilt heiress who gets stranded on a Mediterranean island with a hulking Italian fisherman she'd recently been lording it over.

But the fisherman turns the tables, using the poor woman as his slave and having his wicked way with her.

Nice idea perhaps, but the sex scenes were gloomy and mechanical, and Madonna persisted in the belief that striking a pose is the same thing as acting.

Why it flopped: Madonna's acting, an utterly absence of sensuality.

9 Songs (2004)

Michael Winterbottom's low-budget English drama caused considerable controversy on its release as it featured the first graphic male ejaculation in mainstream cinema history. But that makes it sound a lot more interesting than it actually is.

A British research geologist called Matt (Kieran O'Brien) is stationed in the Antarctic when he remembers a passionate but doomed relationship with an American student (Margot Stilley) in London.

In a series of flashbacks, they talk a little but not a lot.

Most of the time they hump, using considerable imagination and a variety of props.

Why it flopped: The film is a soulless bore, not sexy in the least.

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