S&M, car porn and rampant nun-lust – we explore ten of the most subversively erotic scenes in cinema history
“To achieve harmony in bad taste is the height of elegance,” wrote Jean Genet, France’s pre-eminent peddler of literary filth, in his novel The Thief's Journal. But when it comes to sex, it’s a philosophy that few filmmakers have seen fit to put on screen. When it isn’t taking place off-camera, sex in cinema is too often a distressingly vanilla affair, long on the soft-focus frotting under moonlight and short on the kind of anything-goes WTF-ery (voyeurism, sadism, masochism... other types of ‘ism’) that was Genet’s stock-in-fleshy-trade.
Happily, some films don’t stint on the weird stuff. Here’s a look at the scenes that celebrate eroticism in all its strange and multifaceted glory.
Steven Shainberg’s oddly touching S&M flick concerns a self-harming 20-something, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is drawn into a strange love affair with her boss (James Spader) when she starts work as a secretary at his legal firm. Despite the titillating subject matter, there are serious themes at play here, with Gyllenhaal’s character finding release from her emotional pain in the master-servant dynamic of her relationship with Spader. But that doesn’t make this scene – in which her employer makes plain his, erm, affection – any less of a thrill.
Oh look! Here’s that man James Spader again, sleazing it up in what is surely the sexiest car showroom scene that was or ever will be. Adapted from JG Ballard’s nightmarish novel of techno-eroticism, David Cronenberg’s Crash concerns the exploits of a couple who are drawn into a mysterious sex cult after being involved in a car crash. Hugely controversial on its release, the film nonetheless dramatises what Story of the Eye writer Georges Bataille called the “extreme seductiveness at the boundary of horror.”
THE NIGHT PORTER (1974)
Widely derided at the time as exploitation, Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter is the way-disturbing story of a Nazi concentration camp survivor’s sadomasochistic affair with her former SS captor. In this infamous, but undeniably sexy scene, a topless Rampling serenades her jailers with a rendition of Marlene Dietrich’s “Wenn Ich Mir Was Wünschen Dürfte”. Fun fact: The Night Porter’s fascination with the erotics of fascism echo one of Jean Genet’s own works, Funeral Rites, which finds its narrator torn between grief over his murdered lover, a fighter in the French resistance, and his attraction to a Nazi collaborator.
THE IDIOTS (1998)
In Lars von Trier’s gleefully offensive early offering, the residents of a commune pretend to be mentally disabled in an act of hazily defined antibourgeois defiance. A situation that escalates quickly when the head of the group, questioning his housemates’ commitment to the cause, suggests everyone strip off and have an orgy... in character. The explicit sequence that follows is not sexy by any stretch (we’ll pass on including it here), but credit to Von Trier for really going there.
THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (2014)
Was the sound editor on Peter Strickland’s lushly erotic drama a secret ASMR enthusiast? In a sumptuous S&M drama with very little sex in it, every sound seems designed to get the senses popping – the trickle of whiskey from a decanter, the creaking of boots on ancient knotted floorboards, the crackle of leather on silk, the crinkling of foil between fingertips... it’s sensual in the fullest sense of the word.
Depending on who you speak to, the reality of orgies rarely lives up to the hype – something to do with all that waiting around, not knowing what to do with your hands, perhaps. That would go some way to explaining the extraordinary erotic power of the group sex scene in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, which is staged, not as an on-screen event à la Caligula (1979) or The Idiots, but as a monologue delivered by Bibi Andersson’s character, who recalls in electrifying – and explicit – detail an impromptu foursome on a beach. Jean-Luc Godard was so taken with the scene that he parodied it in his own Week-end the following year.
BLUE VELVET (1986)
Where even to begin with this twisted masterpiece in miniature from David Lynch’s controversial fourth feature. What starts out as an innocent bit of voyeurism goes wrong when a smalltown kid playing at private detective discovered hiding in the cupboard by a female ‘suspect’. The lady seems incensed, but when she forces him to strip at knifepoint things take a turn for the disconcertingly sexy. Then some guy turns up, and he’s played by Dennis Hopper so you know it can’t be a good thing. The boy goes back in the cupboard and watches as Hopper enacts some sort of deranged Oedipal ritual before striking the woman across the face. She enjoys it. Did we mention this film was controversial?
IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES (1976)
Ever loved someone so much you just have to have them forever? Maybe you’ll dig In the Realm of the Senses, Nagisa Oshima’s X-rated take on the true-life tale of Sada Abe, a hotel maid and former prostitute who became a folk legend of postwar Japan in the late 1940s. In the film, Abe embarks on a torrid love affair with her boss, which ends with her killing him in an act of erotic asphyxiation, lopping off his penis and putting it inside her for safekeeping. Which is actually kind of sweet, when you think about it.
THE DEVILS (1971)
Nuns are basically married to Jesus, so they can hardly be blamed for wanting to have sex with the guy... right? Such was Ken Russell’s thinking perhaps, in making The Devils, the batshit-but-true story of a breakout of mass sexual hysteria in 17th-century France. In this great sequence, a physically handicapped nun played by Vanessa Redgrave greets Christ – or should that be ‘JILF’? – off the cross with a passionate snog before greedily sucking at his wounds. Unbelievably, this isn’t even the weirdest scene in the film.
One filmmaker fan of Genet’s work was Todd Haynes, who used the French author’s novel The Miracle of the Rose as his template for Homo, the final segment in his three-part feature film Poison. The story of a prisoner’s sexual longing for a fellow inmate, the short presents a radical (and troubling) vision of gay sexuality in which homophobic bullying and abuse magically transmutes into something erotic – most memorably in the wonderfully weird, spit-soaked finale. The film helped spearhead the new queer movement of the early/mid-90s, and saw Haynes branded the “Fellini of fellatio” in the Washington Times – about as good a recommendation as we can think of.