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Mainstream erotic movies

Note: this is an article about eroticism in mainstream film. To read about pornographic films, please visit the article on pornographic films.

Parent categories: erotica - film

Related: gallery - cinéma erotique (French article) - erotic films in the pre-VCR era - film censorship - Japanese erotic films - cinema and the sexual revolution - nudie film - pornographic film - porno chic - sex comedy - sex film - sadism and masochism in mainstream film - simulated - softcore

We start our exploration of sex in mainstream film in the thirties before the era of systematic film censorship. In 1932 Hedy Lamarr shocks the world when appearing nude in film and showing the facial expressions of an orgasm.

Ecstasy (Extase) (1932) - Gustav Machatý [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

After Ecstasy (1932), the cinema industry adopted a self-censorship strategy, which probably explains American audiences' enthusiastic response to mildly titillating eroticism of films such as The Seven Year Itch (1955) with the now famous "ventilation" scene in which Marilyn Monroe Marilyn's skirt is blown upward.

Of course, true eroticism in film comes from overseas and the American public was really titillated by And God Created Woman (1956) which suggested, but did not display, real sex. A surprisingly enjoyable film with a worthwhile musical selection and a typically French atmosphere.

Et Dieu Créa la Femme/And God Created Woman - (1956) Roger Vadim [amazon.com]

Towards the end of the fifties inventive directors such as Russ Meyer sidestepped American censorship regulations by showing nudity without titillation.

The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959) - Russ Meyer [Amazon.de]

In 1969 The film I Am Curious Yellow (1967) is banned in the United States for being pornography. The film is a perfectly serious and highly political social drama but includes scenes of nudity and sexual intercourse. After three court battles the Supreme Court legalized the movie by overturning the anti-obscenity law that regulated motion pictures.

I Am Curious Yellow (1967) - Vilgot Sjöman [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

After the late sixties' relaxation of film censorship there was multitude of new films to exploit the erotic possibilities of mainstream cinema. Perhaps most memorable was the scene in Last Tango in Paris (1972) when American A-list actor Marlon Brando says "get the butter" to young Maria Schneider when he wants anal intercourse.

Last Tango in Paris (1972) - Bernardo Bertolucci [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

When the sexual revolution reached its zenith there was a brief period when films that would have been labeled pornographic before suddenly became respectable and were screened in first run theatres. The American film Deep Throat (1972) came out at the right time. It cost 25,000 USD to make but is said to have grossed some 100s of million dollars since its release. The documentary film Inside Deep Throat (2005) is your best introduction to this particular title.

Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat (1972) [Amazon.co.uk]

Inside Deep Throat (2005) [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

In the mid seventies BDSM makes an appearance in European and American arthouse and softcore theatres with the release of The Story of O (1975). Not in the UK however where it remained banned by the British Board of Film Censors until February 2000.

The Story of O (1975) - Just Jaeckin [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

World wide censorship controversy because of In the Realm of the Senses (1976), a fictional and extraordinarily sexually explicit treatment of a true story from the 1930s in Japan, the Abe Sada story. It garnered great controversy during its release; while it was intended for mainstream release, it contains scenes of unsimulated sexual activity between the film's protagonists.

In the Realm of the Senses (1976) - Nagisa Oshima [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Compared to the seventies, the eighties were a particular un-erotic period in cinema. Some titles worth mentioning are Caligula (1979), Videodrome (1983), Body Double (1984), Blue Velvet (1986) and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989). In the United States, the X-rating is replaced by NC-17 and Henry & June (1990) becomes the first movie to be rated NC-17.

Henry & June (1990) - Philip Kaufman [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Recently, two films have rekindled the censorship debate for showing unsimulated sex: 9 songs (2004) and Romance X (1999).

Romance X (1999) - Catherine Breillat [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

So far, we have only discussed a small subset of films that were influential in mainstream eroticism. Below is the complete list of films reviewed:

The Kiss (1896) - Extase (1932) - ...And God Created Woman (1956) - The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959) - Peeping Tom (1960) - I, A Woman (1965) - Persona (1966) - Belle de Jour (1967) - I Am Curious ... Blue/Yellow (1967) - Teorema (1968) - If.... (1968) - Femina Ridens (1969) - Kärlekens språk (1969) - Performance (1970) - Women In Love (1970) - A Clockwork Orange (1971) - Last Tango in Paris (1972) - Deep Throat (1972) - La Grande Bouffe (1973) - The Night Porter (1974) - The Story of O (1975) - In the Realm of the Senses (1976) - Caligula (1979) - Videodrome (1983) - Body Double (1984) - Blue Velvet (1986) - The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) - Henry & June (1990) - Bitter Moon (1992) - Tokyo Decadence (1992) - L' Ennui (1998) - Romance X (1999) - Eyes Wide Shut (1999) - Baise-Moi (2000) - Y tu Mama Tambien (2001) - Sex and Lucia (2001) - Intimacy (2000) - Irréversible (2002) - Secretary (2002) - The Dreamers (2003) - Swimming Pool (2003) - Ma Mère (2004) - 9 songs (2004) -


Sex and violence being a perennial favourite of cinema, every movie features a nude, love or sex scene, whether these scenes are gratuitous or functional, is up to the viewer to decide. [Dec 2005]

Eroticism in film

The use of eroticism in film and the portrayal of love scenes has been controversial since the earliest use of cinematography. Ever since the silent era of film there have been actors and actresses who have shown parts of their bodies or undergarments, or dressed and behaved in ways considered sexually provocative by contemporary standards. Some films have been criticized and/or banned by various religious groups and governments because of this.

As social standards of acceptable public exposure have changed, cinema has changed as well, often pushing at the boundaries. For example, the famous scene in the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch, in which Marilyn Monroe stands over a sidewalk ventilation grate and her skirt is blown upward, although it showed no "private parts" or even her underpants, was clearly intended to be erotic, and was considered overly suggestive by some.

Phoebe Cates' scene in 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High in which she shows off her naked upper torso, a scene in 1987's Lethal Weapon in which Mel Gibson's buttocks are shown prominently, and the scene in 1992's Basic Instinct in which Sharon Stone spreads her legs, were all controversial examples of film-makers seeing how much erotic content they could "get away with" and use to attract film-goers. The early 1980s Porky's film series and the 2000s American Pie films deliberately went to the boundaries of what the US MPAA would permit in a film receiving an "R" rating.

Movies of this sort are often released in two versions: one edited for theatrical distribution rated "R", and another edited for home video, which may be unrated or rated NC-17. Some manufacturers of DVD players have implemented a subscription-based censor function into their players which allows users to cut out scenes of nudity, offensive language, or racism. Film directors such as Steven Spielberg are fighting this alteration of their work in court. -- adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eroticism_in_film [Feb 2005]

History of eroticism in movies

The history of erotic films began five minutes after the film medium was invented. Earliest examples include The Kiss (1896) and the French Douche après le bain (1897).

The story of sex in the movies is really two stories. For all practical purposes, they begin at the same moment - the invention of motion pictures - but take off running in parallel universes. One is the story of a very public debate over how much of the reality of human sexuality can be shown, discussed or even implied in movies meant for general audiences; the second is the story of an entire industry thriving along underground yet rarely even mentioned in polite company until the 1970s. --David Hudson, http://www.greencine.com/static/primers/adult1.jsp [Sept 2004]

Movie stardom and the sexual revolution

Beautiful women and extremely handsome men were rigorously selected to become movie stars and when they were cast in movies with romantic scenes of love, kissing, hugging, and flirting, an entire culture was transformed as it became more acceptable to show feelings of affection in public. The very conservative mood leading up to the twentieth century gave way to a growing erotic milieu as popularized by the movie industry emanating from the studios of places like Hollywood.

Nudity on screen was at first rare. But with the passage of time people became more tolerant of partial nudity for men and the display of female actress's breasts, at first to adult audiences, and later to more general ones. The invention of television made it possible for scenes of love and romance to be broadcast into any home with a "TV". A whole genre of actors who were particularly well-endowed with charisma and “sex appeal" arose. Thus an entire culture arose which was steeped in and eroticized by movie and TV culture, far removed from the more inhibiting times of an "old fashioned" morality rooted in "Bible-thumping" religion.

Famous names in entertainment became not just "stars" but also "goddesses". Beautiful women such as Marilyn Monroe, Raquel Welch, Brigitte Bardot, Jane Fonda, Sophia Loren, Madonna and later young imitators, were explicit in casting a sexual aura about themselves as actresses and to the celebrity-hungry media. A love scene in every movie was accepted as the norm. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_revolution [Oct 2004]


This is a list of directors who have consistently played a role in the representation of eroticism in arthouse and mainstream cinema:

Pedro Almodovar - Mario Bava, - Ingmar Bergman - Bernardo Bertolucci - Bertrand Blier - Walerian Borowczyk - Tinto Brass - Luis Buñuel - Catherine Breillat - Larry Clark - Roger Corman - Gerard Damiano - Jonathan Demme, - Brian De Palma - Rainer Werner Fassbinder - Jess Franco - Peter Greenaway - Michael Haneke - Alfred Hitchcock - Just Jaeckin - Juzo Itami - Stanley Kubrick - Bigas Luna - David Lynch - Dusan Makavejev - Radley Metzger - Russ Meyer - Gaspar Noé - Nagisa Oshima - François Ozon - Pasolini - Roman Polanski - Nicolas Roeg - Jean Rollin, - Ken Russell - Roger Vadim - Alex Van Warmerdam - Lars Von Trier - Michael Winterbottom - Doris Wishman

A pictorial history of sex in the movies (1975) - Jeremy Pascall and Clyde Jeavons

A pictorial history of sex in the movies (1975) - Jeremy Pascall and Clyde Jeavons [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Quotes Ado Kyrou's Amour, érotisme et cinéma.

In the early years of the century the film industry was most prolific not in America but in France. Indeed, one studio -- Pathé -- made more movies in a year than the whole American industry.

see also: sex in film

Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies 1956-1984 (1994) - Cathal Tohill, Pete Tombs

  • Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies 1956-1984 (1994) - Cathal Tohill, Pete Tombs [Amazon.com]
    "I urge you: learn how to look at 'bad' films, they are so often sublime." This remark by Ado Kyrou heads up the introduction to Immoral Tales, from which horror and exploitation film fans, especially Americans, can learn much indeed. Not so much a movie guide as an insightful critical overview of European sex/horror films (there is much overlap between the two genres), this book is elegantly organized into a sequence of essays proceeding from general themes (the history of horrific art, the surgical metaphor), to regional styles (Italian, German, French, Spanish), to individual directors (Jesus Franco, Jean Rollin, José Larraz, José Bénazéraf, Walerian Borowczyk, Alain Robbe-Grillet). The writing is intelligent, engaging, and packed with fascinating historical and technical details. The book includes plenty of photos and poster art (including many in color), a useful appendix covering miscellaneous actors and directors, an index, and a bibliography. Immoral Tales was a finalist for the 1995 Bram Stoker Award in Nonfiction.

    Taschen: Erotic Cinema (2005) - Douglas Keesey

    Taschen: Erotic Cinema (2005) - Douglas Keesey [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

    “Sexuality is limited by taboos and the domain of eroticism is that of the transgression of these taboos.” Georges Bataille

    Since the first kiss recorded on film in 1896, erotic moving images have stimulated viewers and outraged public bodies. This book explores the meaning of eroticism and gives an overview of sex on the big screen by exploring different forms of sexual behavior or taboo-breaking in film. Included are intimate looks at ten of the most erotic movies ever made: including Last Tango in Paris, Betty Blue, In the Realm of the Senses, Romance, Law of Desire, Kids, Basic Instinct, Crash, The Night Porter and Y Tu Mama Tambien. Coverage includes erotic films from the silent era, pre-Code Hollywood, film noir, cheesecake and beefcake, the international art cinema, softcore and hardcore X-rated films, gay, lesbian, and New Queer Cinema, and the latest trend toward real sex in independent and art films. Readers will be able to relive some of their favourite erotic movie moments, and discover new ones as well.

    The author: Douglas Keesey was educated at U.C. Berkeley (B.A.) and Princeton (Ph.D.). He has published a book on Don DeLillo (Twayne), along with essays on Thomas Pynchon, James Dickey, Stephen King and Peter Weir. He is a professor of film and literature at California Polytechnic State University. Keesey is also the author of TASCHEN's Paul Verhoeven. --http://www.taschen.com/pages/en/catalogue/books/film/all/facts/00120.htm [Jun 2005]

    Further reading

    1. Hollis Alpert-Arthur Knight Playboy series (series, 20 issues), “Sex in the Cinema.” (1965-1969)

    2. Eros in the Cinema (1966) - Raymond Durgnat [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK] [...]

    3. Ado Kyrou, Amour - érotisme et cinéma, Le Terrain Vague, 1957 [...]

    4. Sex in Films (1974) Parker Tyler [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
      It's good to see this fascinating book still in print after all these years. I believe the original 1974 edition went up to 8 or 9 printings. Where Parker Tyler found his material is anyone's guess. Jammed-full of photographs from obscure and well-known films, both Hollywood produced and from foreign countries, this book is casually laid-out which makes it great for thumbing through. Everytime I open the pages I find new and interesting facts I didn't know. Each picture carries a short caption identifying the film and the book is divided into chapters of sexual preference or deviation, like "Bedroom and Bath", "The Bosom and the Bottom" and "The Gay Sexes." (Hollywood didn't miss a thing!) The chapters describe every era of filmmaking and the fight with censors, eventually bringing us to 70's and Black Exploitation Films. Highly Recommended! --Tom Hopkinson , amazon.com

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