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David Bowie in The Hunger

Six films tracing a shocking, sensual history of sex in erotic cinema

From sexy vampire horror to radical depictions of BDSM, these erotic films tell us about art, style, and contemporary attitudes to sex for their time

In a quote which has been regurgitated across Tumblr feeds worldwide, Nina Simone once said that the role of an artist is to reflect the time in which they live. Although speaking from her perspective as a musician, Simone’s words also underline the importance of film as cultural commentary; a deep dive into cinematic history tells us as much about art and style as it does about societal attitudes and prejudice.

A new series of upcoming lectures in London aims to narrate the history of sexuality by referencing a series of key films across several decades. Conceived as a collaboration between BIRDS, a queer, post-punk art collective which regularly hosts club nights at Dalston’s VFD, and 23 Paul Street, an adult entertainment club tucked away near London’s financial district, the events are helmed by Mary Wild, an expert in psychoanalysis whose fascination with erotic film permeates the program.

From fetish and homosexuality to feminism and fantasy, the lectures will comprehensively explore the way our changing attitudes towards sex have played out on-screen. Ahead of the first event next Monday (November 19), we spoke to Wild and traced a history of sexuality through six key films, some of which are part of the program and others of which are wildcards; and, from menstruation to BDSM, they leave no stone unturned.

LOLITA (1962)

“How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” These words open the trailer for Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of  the infamous, reality-based novel, which tells the tale of a grown man, Humbert, becoming obsessed with an underage girl, Lolita. “This idea of his fixation is perverse and taboo, but it also shocked people that Lolita played a provocative role,” explains Wild. “Obviously that doesn’t excuse his behaviour - it’s still a crime! - but we’re so prone to assuming that a young girl should be innocent, fragile and immature.”

The film was met with controversy fueled by both the taboo subject and Kubrick’s apparent reluctance to condemn Humbert. “A repressed society wants to reassure itself that it’s following the guidelines of respectability, and a film like this shatters that because the camera doesn’t impose judgement,” continues Wild. “It’s really about exposing the hypocrisy of Humbert – he’s a well-respected scholar and even Lolita’s mom takes an interest in him, but we really do see him allow this illicit desire to rise to the surface.”

As for Lolita? “She ties into this Freudian idea that human sexuality doesn’t magically appear when we’re of legal, consenting age. The exploration of that and the acknowledgement that this adolescent girl has – as taboo as it is to say – a sexual curiosity, it’s a very honest observation.”

THE HUNGER (1983)

Arguably one of the sexiest films ever made, this erotic vampire thriller directly inspired Alexander McQueen’s SS96 collection and definitely inspired the bloodlust sex scenes of American Horror Story: Hotel. Directed by Tony Scott, the brother of fellow director Ridley Scott (Wild says this might be why the film is so often neglected), The Hunger tells the tale of a sexed-up vamp (Catherine Deneuve) whose husband (David Bowie) hires a gerontologist (Susan Sarandon). She soon becomes his wife’s lesbian lover.

Wild is impressed that the affair between Sarandon and Deneuve is communicated “through this montage of eroticism, but their destructive urges are shown as well – for me what’s exceptional is that Deneuve’s character is single-minded about identifying and speaking her desire, she doesn’t care who she hurts along the way. She literally accumulates an attic full of exes!”

The Hunger also illustrates a prevalent anxiety around sex in the early 1980s in particular. Two sex-positive decades had just passed, but the AIDs crisis was growing: “There really was this idea that sex was closely connected to death,” recalls Wild. “You also have Bowie in there, which says something because he was so iconic for his gender-bending. All of this definitely encapsulates this nervousness around sex at the time, which is paradoxical - it was seen as life-giving, but also lethal.”

BASIC INSTINCT (1992)

Better known as the film in which Sharon Stone’s character, Catherine, uncrosses her legs to reveal her bare vagina, Basic Instinct is legendary for its depiction of a femme fatale. “She’s a murder suspect, and even though we don’t have proof we’re led to believe that she’s guilty because she’s so sexually uninhibited,” explains Wild. “We have those real iconic scenes that show her hunger for sex, and they almost stand in as an admission of culpability. It’s like this film picks up on old hang-ups from the witch hunt days.”

There’s a lot to be said about Basic Instinct, but its plot has been overshadowed culturally by its themes of sex and danger. Contextually, it was released just a few years after second-wave feminism splintered due to a lack of racial diversity, a lack of queerness and a lack of sex-positivity, and Madonna’s provocative Blonde Ambition tour. Essentially, it reflected a societal fear of strong, sexual women - which still persists.

“She’s so sexy it almost ties into that horror film trope,” says Wild. “That’s best exemplified when Stone’s character dumps a man and there’s this look of horror in his eyes. So she’s not necessarily a killer of the body but she stabs him in the heart, and that puts her as a stand-in for the killer. She’s autonomous, and that’s a real source of stress from a male perspective.”

SECRETARY (2002)

Secretary explores the same themes that sent houswewives into a frenzy when 50 Shades of Grey came over a decade later, but arguably handles them much better. “It contains similar tropes but manages to create a very disempowering portrayal of the woman in that relationship,” Wild says, chuckling. “I remember being like ‘what is she getting out of this?! I don’t think she’s having a great time in the bedroom with this guy!’” It’s also notable that the film is weirdly sexless – which is bizarre given the book is largely about fucking.

By contrast, Secretary sees Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) liberate herself through a BDSM relationship with her boss. There are some problematic elements – Holloway self-harms, yet mental illness isn’t thoroughly explored – but overall Wild sees it as “a good, healthy depiction of BDSM – it almost becomes like her sexual healing.”

For Wild, like many others, it was her first exposure to erotic cinema – “if we’re ruling out porn,” she laughs. “It blew my mind! It never occurred to me that people were playing out these dominant/submissive roles willingly and consensually, so it was almost like an induction for me. “It really shows that if there’s compatability, respect and consent, there’s no reason BDSM can’t be empowering.”

ANATOMY OF HELL (2004)

Although definitively more cult than mainstream, Anatomy of Hell shows that indie film depictions of sex were way, way more radical and subversive than their big-budget counterparts. “I’m a big of Catherine Breillat, the director – she’s known for this raw, unfiltered sexuality that grosses audiences out,” says Wild. That’s the case in this film, which  tells the story of a straight woman on a journey of sexual exploration with a gay male porn star, played by actual porn star Rocco Sifredi.

“A lot of it has to do with bodily fluids – there’s a literally a close-up scene of (main character) Amira removing her tampon. It’s pretty hardcore!” Wild laughs, but then clarifies: “But actually in a way it’s really banal; this is just the everyday reality for women, but it’s depicted so unapologetically that it becomes a source of shock in the film.”

By exploring the idea of disgust, Breillat manages to highlight the societal misogyny which still tells women in particular to feel ashamed of their natural bodies. “It’s not done to educate or illuminate, but I like that,” Wild states. “Sometimes the mere act of depiction is radical enough.”

BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR (2013)

Although the recipient of numerous prizes, this film was plagued by reports that director Abdellatif Kechiche bullied his cast and crew. “I was conflicted, but even though there are some risqué scenes in that film I never felt it was predatory or exploitative,” says Wild. “Although I think that’s more of a positive reflection on the actors and crew than the director!”

A classic coming-of-age story, the film tells a tale of flourishing love between Adèle (Adèle Excharpoulous) and Emma (Léa Seydoux.) “It’s about love and joy, but also about the pain and torture that comes with that. It’s also about self-exploration; Adèle is confronting her authentic self through this relationship, and sometimes it’s traumatic.”

Beautifully-shot (Wild describes it as “tactile”), the film also works in a kind of class commentary – Adèle’s working class family thinks the women are just friends, whereas Emma’s middle-class family knows and accepts the truth. But Wild argues that the film ultimately creates a nuanced portrayal of same-sex love which shows how far society has come over the last few decades. “Emma is put on a pedestal in a way, but ultimately the film shows us that Adèle already has value because she’s emotionally honest and authentic. We feel her emotions with her along the way, and there’s something really magical about that.”

The lecture program can be joined at any point for a discounted rate, contact amy@23paulstreet.com for more details