They say sex sells. If you asked Freud, it's THE hang-up of modern life. So it's no wonder characters who want a lot of it, and might even sacrifice everything to get it, are at the core of some of cinema's most engrossing dramas. With the director's cut of the first volume of Lars Von Trier's epic-length sex addiction epic Nymphomaniac having its world premiere at Berlin this week, we were in the mood for looking back on other leads with one thing on their minds.
STRANGER BY THE LAKE (2013)
Alain Guiraudie's explicit French arthouse thriller is a radical exploration of power and risk. An affable young cruising-spot regular (Pierre de Ladonchamps) is shocked to discover the guy he's hooking up with is a killer - then must grapple with his continued desire. As the director explained to us at the Rio Film Festival: "I wanted to make a film about anguish, and put my character between his desire and big moral questions of what he's willing to do to realise it." Out in the UK on 21 February.
THE PIANO TEACHER (2001)
Based on Nobel Prize-winning Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek's brilliant, blackly humorous satire, this film from turtlenecked lord of discontent Michael Haneke stars Isabelle Huppert as a repressed piano professor who still lives with her tyrannical mother in Vienna and is gripped by sadomasochistic fetishes, which she plays out disastrously with her pupil Walter (Benoit Magimel).
EYES WIDE SHUT (1999)
Based on a novella by Arthur Schnitzler (a Vienna libertine who kept an orgasm diary and was pals with Freud), Stanley Kubrick's eerie adaptation exposes the myth of the mind's monogamy. It follows the sexual adventuring of a New York doctor (Tom Cruise) into the masked orgies of a secret society, despite his marriage (his wife, played by Nicole Kidman, rebukes his claim women are more faithful by admitting a steamy naval officer fantasy).
POISON IVY (1992)
Drew Barrymore is at the height of her comeback ‘90s wild-child phase here as a teen psychopath in a biker jacket with a fetish for older men, who infiltrates the household of her new private-school friend to take over her sickly mother’s identity and seduce her dad (a sleazy, moustachioed Tom Skerritt) in this so-many-shades-of-wrong cult hit.
Michael Fassbender playsa Manhattanite sex addict (director Steve McQueen chose New York as the centre of "excess and access") in this bold and visually stylish (some have said, too stylised) portrait of a man whose terror of emotional intimacy has spiralled into an illness - and a compulsive cycle of three-ways, sex clubs, subway lechery and office-time porn surfing.
Outrageous in its extreme depiction of depravity, Italian maestro Pier Paolo Pasolini's last film (he was murdered by a hustler just before its release) is a portrait of sadistic libertines in a palace in 1944. Based on a book by the Marquis de Sade, in turn inspired by Dante's Inferno, it's a vision of the total nihilism of fascism. Utterly chilling. Sex-fuelled but not sexay. Don't watch before dinner.
Fascinated by power roles in sex, director Catherine Breillat's explicit, coolly clinical tale of a woman who, rejected by her boyfriend's claim to have lost sexual interest in her, seeks erotic encounters elsewhere (one of her hook-ups is played by Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi) garnered both controversy and acclaim, and nailed the tough job of shocking France.
LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972)
Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci's steamy classic turns on the affair between an American hotel owner (Marlon Brando) and a young engaged Parisian (Maria Schneider). He insists they share no personal info - even names. Schneider bitterly complained about being coerced on-set in the film's most infamous scenes. The director recently admitted the claim to us: "When we shot this scene with the butter I didn't tell her what was going to happen, because I wanted the reaction. Reconsidering now, it was a form of manipulation."
FATAL ATTRACTION (1987)
Carnal appetite equals punishment in Hollywood morality tales, and nothing tackles the terror invoked by female sexual allure with such blatancy as this '80s psychological thriller, which made every roving-eyed husband in America cross his legs, and "bunny-boiler" common slang for an obsessive lunatic. Glenn Close plays a smouldering business-woman with a cold minimalist apartment whose amorous attentions signal doom for a tempted family man (Michael Douglas).
PARADISE: LOVE (2013)
I’m making Austria seem like a hotbed here, but I couldn’t bypass Ulrich Seidl, who brings economics into his confrontational, comically grotesque portraits for today’s times. A lonely 50-year-old Viennese woman travels to Kenya's beaches as a first-time sex tourist in this first of a trilogy on women seeking sexual satisfaction in messed-up ways (the second is hot for Jesus and the third, for her diet-camp doctor).