Let’s Talk About Sex! in all its messy, beautiful and sometimes dangerous urgency through ten carefully selected movies where sex sits at the core of the narrative. Whether through a rite of passage, a rediscovery of pleasure and self or a manipulative or dangerous encounter, these movies aren’t your classic love stories; they are journeys in human sexuality.
GOOD LUCK TO YOU, LEO GRANDE (2022)
I am always nervous when labelling any film ‘a sex comedy’; after all, it’s a sub-genre that has so often failed to explore the complexities of sex and our human need for physical connection. But, maybe, with director Sophie Hydes Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, the sex-comedy has finally come of age. This is a movie about a woman (Nancy) who has been denied sexual adventure and finally, in later life, decides it’s time to experience all the things her husband couldn’t give her. But it’s also the story of a young and devilishly handsome sex worker (Leo) and his need to separate his ‘work’ from his emotions as he feeds the needs of others with no thought as to his own needs in the process. It’s a film about finding yourself through physical intimacy and sexuality, regardless of age; a stunning two-person play that reminds us all that, for many of us, sex is a part of who we are, a foundation stone of our outward confidence and inward esteem. With intimate and tender performances from Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack, Sophie Hyde’s intelligent, sharp and emotional sex comedy is a pure delight.
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Camille Vidal-Naquet’s debut feature is tough, uncompromising and, at times, deeply uncomfortable as he explores the world of street prostitution through a series of conversations on sexuality, social isolation and power. Following a young street hustler Leo (Félix Maritaud), as he works the streets of Strasbourg, Vidal-Naquet is not only interested in the physical and emotional toll of prostitution but also its place in our modern world of instant gratification.
Prior to filming Sauvage, Vidal-Naquet volunteered for many years with a series of charities supporting male street workers. Here he would engage in daily conversations with the boys and men who sold their bodies on the streets of France. As a result, Sauvage carries an almost documentary-like realism as the handheld camera follows Leo through a city unable or unwilling to see the world through his eyes.
Leo’s emotional needs are reliant on his peer group, each of whom is struggling with their own inner turmoil. This is a life where drugs are an escape route as weeks and days merge into one. Sauvage may show male prostitution in all its grim reality, but it also isn’t afraid to reflect moments of tenderness as Leo offers a much-needed escape for his clients. Is Sauvage a portrait of a young man in freefall? Or is it an exploration of a tormented soul desperately seeking love? Videl-Naquet leaves that for you to answer.
THE BLUE LAGOON (1980)
Watching The Blue Lagoon today is just as confusing an experience as it was in 1980. After all, Randal Kleiser’s third major picture as a director couldn’t be more different from the revved engines and leather pants of Grease (1978). Kleiser’s adaptation of Henry De Vere Stacpoole’s book was not the first, with a 1923 and a 1949 version before it. But it was the first attempt to dig into the challenging sexual themes found in Stacpoole’s work. After all, this is the story of two cousins marooned on a desert island as children who become young lovers and then parents. It’s the story of what happens when ‘society’ is absent in the lives of children and adolescents as they develop. But unlike Lord of the Flies, The Blue Lagoon is not interested in themes of violence or control but the formation of sexuality. It is, therefore, all the more confusing that The Blue Lagoon has the spirit of a live-action Disney movie and the soul of a 70s soft-core porn flick. The result is a strange brew of Disney-esque innocence, sex and clunky dialogue that, while epic in construct, feels utterly confused in delivery. Here its leads, Christopher Atkins and Brooke Shields, often feel exploited when viewed through a modern lens, their looks and bodies far more important than the story at play. But for many a teen, The Blue Lagoon and its stars were the foundation of their own sexual awakening as a strange survival drama became a VHS essential for a whole generation.
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What happens when you take the classic biopic and mix it with elements of fantasy, fiction and psychological drama? The answer is the deliciously dark, enthralling and compelling Shirley, a film that takes the real-life story of Shirley Jackson and merges it with a fictional young couple sucked into a psychological and sexual game of cat and mouse. Josephine Decker’s Shirley has no intention of playing by the rules as the naive and enthusiastic Rose (Odessa Young) and her loving career-driven new husband, Fred (Logan Lerman), arrive at the home of Shirley (Elizabeth Moss) and Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg).
In what feels like a homage to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the story opens with Rose and her husband, Fred, en route to a new life in Vermont, where Fred will assist Shirley’s husband, Stanley, with his academic research. But as they await their young playthings, Shirley and Stanley have other plans; a dark social experiment in literature, class consciousness and sexuality.
Josephine Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins’ tale of 50s sexual conformity and oppression is far more than a historical dissection of the time; it’s a deep and thrilling journey into the mind of a literary genius who defied her time and place.
CRUEL INTENTIONS (1999)
Cruel Intentions would provide a late 90s teen audience with a dark and twisted modern take on Dangerous Liaisons. Here the Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil were transformed into two privileged Manhattan step-siblings, Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe) and Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Following a salacious bet involving a car and anal sex, Sebastian and Katherine launch a deadly sexual game involving a new girl in town, Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon) and the wide-eyed Cecile Caldwell (Selma Blair). Cruel Intentions is a sordid tale of wealth, manipulation, sex and control that has never been equalled or matched in its machiavellian teenage creativity. By the late 90s, filmmakers were joyously pushing the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable in teen filmmaking and storytelling. Cruel Intentions is one of the best examples of this newfound bravery. It’s a movie a whole generation slyly watched while their parents were out, but more than that, it’s a dark, wicked and highly sexual teenage tale that would redefine the boundaries of the teen movie.
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This is Not Berlin (2019)
From the Kama Sutra to Michelangelo’s David, sex is art, and art is sex. Throughout history, desire, beauty, and allure have been explored through paint, literature, sculpture, clay, performance, photography and film. Hari Sama’s semi-autobiographical, This is Not Berlin is alive with sex and rebellion, the intoxicating spirit of art and the energy of 1980s counter-culture. By lacing the classic coming-of-age movie with an exploration of a newly emerging national identity and sexual freedom, Sama’s film captures the moment adolescent rebellion and art combine on the streets of Mexico City.
Since childhood, Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de Leon) and Gera (José Antonio Toledano) have been classmates and close friends. Carlos lives with his younger brother and mother, who suffers from severe depression. In contrast, Gera’s home life is stable, with his well-to-do parents providing for his every need. Despite their different home lives, Gera and Carlos hold a deep friendship. Gera is fiery, volatile and rebellious, while Carlos is quiet and thoughtful. But as they sneak into an underground music club, both boys are about to find their lives, passions and loves thrown into a new and exciting adult world of rebellion, drugs, sex, and art just as AIDS rips through the city.
Sama beautifully captures the vulnerability of young people taking their first steps into an exciting and dangerous world as Carlos and Gera’s friendship forever changes in a city that never sleeps.
If Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video observed and dissected the arrival of video culture and home filmmaking among early 90s teens, Antonio Campos’ 2008 feature debut Afterschool explored the arrival of internet porn, instant video sharing and YouTube. Antonio Campos paints a disturbing picture of a newly emerging adolescence, where online and offline personas merge. In Campos’ privileged boarding school, parents come to the rescue when required, and the truth is an inconvenience that costs money. In the hands of his young lead, Ezra Miller, a boy mildly obsessed with a new world of online porn and violence, Campos dissects the world of instant media against a backdrop of a growing wealth divide and increasing social paranoia. The resulting journey is profoundly uncomfortable but ahead of its time as it explores sex as a digital commodity and truth as an obstacle to progress. Here the young people at the heart of the story are both the manipulated and the manipulators of a brave new world.
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Knife + Heart (2018)
What do you get if you take 70s gay porn and mix it with the classic 80s slasher? The answer is Knife + Heart. Set in Paris, matriarch and auteur Anne (Vanessa Paradis) spends her time persuading amateur men to perform in a series of gay porn movies. Each young hopeful leaves their menial day job in the hope of fame while finally being allowed to embrace their sexuality free from hate or oppression – their taught and toned bodies becoming the stuff of gay legend in queer XXX cinemas.
However, when Anne’s buff young film stars begin to die at the hands of a mysterious leather-faced murderer equipped with a deadly bladed dildo, Anne quickly changes the title of her new movie to ‘Homocidal’ and embarks on a creative mission to uncover the killer’s identity through film.
Yann Gonzalez’s film not only celebrates the history of gay porn and horror but wraps his narrative journey in a series of social discussions as 70s gay liberation was replaced by fear, discrimination, and AIDS took hold. The result is a gay slasher that pays homage to William Friedkin’s Cruising, the budget gay porn of the 70s, Giallo, and the simmering sexual tension of Stranger by the Lake.
There are a series of nods to classic horror, from An American Werewolf in London to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Yet Knife + Heart also feels utterly unique; it’s camp horror full to the brim with broader discussions on the interface between sex and art on film. As a result, Gonzalez offers us something unique and compelling in the landscape of LGBTQ+ horror as he bathes us in an intoxicating and proudly queer mix of artistic styles that are as sharp as the razor-lined dildo the killer wields.
54: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT (2015)
Sex sells. Disco entrepreneurs Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager understood the importance of sex in putting on a show everyone wanted to be a part of in the creation of Studio 54. 54 wasn’t just a club; it was a lifestyle, fever dream and escape. It offered the rich an opportunity to meet the beautiful and the beautiful a chance to woo the rich in a club where rules didn’t apply. In 1998 director Mark Christopher and stars Mike Myers and Ryan Phillippe brought the hedonistic glory of Studio 54 to the big screen with the story of a New Jersey boy caught in the headlights of Rubell’s disco empire. But 54 was slated by the critics, with many critical of Phillippe’s character, while others pointed toward a lack of raw sex appeal and subversive energy. It soon became clear that the theatrical version had been butchered by its executive producer Harvey Weinstein with the queer undercurrents all but removed for its cinema release. Thankfully, in 2015, 54 was put back together using rescued footage. While it’s not perfect due to the degraded video, Mark Christopher’s homage to hedonism, sexual freedom, and disco finally had its long-overdue moment in the spotlight.
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Horror and sex have been intrinsically linked since the creation of the motion picture. From the rampant sexuality of the vampire, as it sinks its teeth into a victim, to the sexual vulnerability of two stalked young teens making out before their murder. Sex, fear, and horror go hand in hand. The slasher sub-genre, in particular, is often viewed as being driven by sex. Here not only is the ‘final girl’ threatened by a male murderer, but she is generally a virgin who doesn’t engage in sex like the other girls who are offed in the opening hour. Meanwhile, in the rare case of a ‘final boy’, the young man’s sexuality is often placed under the microscope because a dominant male figure threatens him. Both porn and horror understand that fear and excitement are linked in the human brain and often converge like an exhilarating but petrifying rollercoaster ride.
Ti West’s incredibly clever homage to the origin of the slasher genre, X, pays tribute to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho, to name just two, in exploring the cinematic foundations of porn, horror and art. But far from being a mere blood-soaked cinematic seminar, West adds a new layer to the frame, our fear of sex and age. If Good Luck to You, Leo Grande explored the power of rediscovering your sexual identity in older age; X demonstrated the horrors of an ageing body, the terror of losing your sexual identity and the fear of becoming sexually invisible. In West’s film, porn, sex, and pleasure are playthings of the young and the beautiful, and he isn’t wrong – look at the world of porn and moviemaking. In porn, careers are brief, and a mere wrinkle is the equivalent of a life-ending cancerous growth, while in Hollywood, youth and beauty always have and always will reign supreme.
West’s discussions on age, sexuality and horror certainly aren’t new; older people are regularly viewed as horrifying in films, from Norman Bates’ mother to the woman in the bathtub in The Shining. But West builds upon these depictions by further unpicking human fears of sex, age and sexuality in a world built upon youthful looks and ideals. Here he asks whether the porn industry and the film industry helped create a world where people feel discarded in later life or whether we made that world ourselves due to our obsession with youth and beauty.
Teenager Justine (Garance Marillier), maybe a vegetarian as Raw opens, but after eating a rabbit kidney as part of a college hazing ritual, she quickly develops a taste for meat that can’t be controlled. French director Julia Ducournau’s debut feature isn’t just a delicious slice of modern horror; it’s a veritable banquet of discussions on sexual hunger and female empowerment. In Ducournau’s wild, vivid and gory celebration of womanhood, the body horror of Cronenberg is mixed with a genuinely unique exploration of a girl’s sexual awakening.
Ducournau explores the erotic nature of Justine’s insatiable new appetite before launching into a genuinely horrific final act where sex, desire and hunger take control. Like Bones and All, it’s clear not everyone will survive this buffet of body parts and discovery, but it’s also clear that Justine’s newfound confidence in her desires and wants knows no bounds.