Whether audiences are ashamed or comfortable in their sexuality, they will always be drawn to sex in cinema. It is more socially acceptable to see sex simulated in films than it is in pornography. Audiences are often introduced to – and influenced by – the sex they see depicted in films before they experience it themselves.
The following list is compiled of films featuring characters who are sexually repressed. Some are repressed due to guilt, shame, social or religious factors. Some suppress their sexuality due to past abuse or fear of emotional connection with another human being. Many of the characters have issues with accepting the vulnerability that can come with sexuality, or for others, the power it gives them over another person.
The following list details how the repression of something as integral as sexuality can impact the life and psychology of an individual – often with shocking and violent results.
1. Black Narcissus (1947, Dir. Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
Black Narcissus depicts the struggle of a convent of nuns who try to create a center for education and health in the Himalayas. Their obstacles manifest themselves in the repressed sexuality of the nuns and the atmospheric nature that surrounds them. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is a striking woman who is chosen to head the group of nuns who begin a school and hospital for the locals. Her reason for becoming a nun was to escape the memories of a glamorous, but failed romance. The wild landscape and presence of Mr Dean (David Farrar) stir nostalgia in her.
Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) initially represses her true self, but later succumbs to the landscape and her lust. Ruth is framed with great intensity throughout the film, depicting her as oppressed. Her eyes often wander further than where she’s looking. Ruth’s intense feelings for Mr Dean are not reciprocated. Mr Dean affects Sister Clodagh with his playful nature, sarcasm, and godless confidence. He is exactly the kind of man for whom she would have fallen had she not promised herself to God – whereas Ruth is overcome with desire for Mr Dean – finding opportunities to be alone with him, and through watching him secretly, recognizes his connection to Clodagh before they know it themselves.
Ruth’s animalistic and predatory nature come to a head during the third act, where she denies god and applies blood-red lipstick with intent on seducing Mr Dean. The entire film is an exercise in sexual repression and its consequences, where the nature overflows with colour, and the nuns remain in their cold white robes, and religious intent is shunned in favor of intense sexual desire.
2. Rear Window (1954, Dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
Rear Window is a clear example of the voyeuristic male gaze in cinema. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is a frustrated, immobile photographer, bound to a wheelchair with his leg in a cast after taking a dangerous shot on a racetrack. Jeff prides himself on being a daredevil, operating in risky situations to get his kicks. Confined to his apartment, he begins to spy on the surrounding neighbours through his telescope. He creates narratives and nicknames for his neighbours; they entertain him, especially the young women.
Jeff’s artistic frustration, and sexual frustration are revealed in his obsessive reactions to his surroundings and his rejection and disinterest in intimacy and commitment to his striking sociality girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly). Jeff finds the drama he is looking for when he believes he has witnessed a brutal murder committed by his neighbor Lars (Raymond Burr) in an adjacent apartment.
Jeff’s relationship with Lisa seems unconsummated while his leg is trapped, but he becomes more enthralled by her as she dares to engage with the murder suspect, giving Lars letters and sneaking into his apartment. Jeff begins to look at Lisa with the same wonder and intrigue he shows the apartments with his telescope. Jeff holds the power as voyeur, but when the gaze is turned on him he reacts in terror.
3. Repulsion (1965, Dir. Roman Polanski)
Repulsion is a film that explores the deeply repressed character of Carol Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve), a manicurist terrified of male contact and sexuality. Carol’s sister is having an affair with a married man, who, in Carol’s mind, dominates and stains the apartment in which they live with his belongings and presence. When Carol’s sister leaves her alone to holiday in Italy, Carol begins to suffer. The apartment itself abuses her, cracks splinter the walls, men appear from nowhere and attack her in her bed, the walls grow hands and grope her body. Carol is so disorientated by these events that she becomes violent.
The film sets you in Carol’s claustrophobic state with the sound of ticking clocks, phones ringing, taps dripping – making it seem as if everything is intruding on her and wont let her be. Throughout the film it is implied that Carol suffered past abuse, and that this has rendered her entirely uncomfortable with and avoidant of men. Male characters in the film are each presented as predatory, with one intention only.
4. Belle de Jour (1967, Dir. Luis Bunuel)
Belle de Jour is an exploration of the sadomasochistic fantasies of the wealthy, repressed Severine (Catherine Deneuve). Dressed in the military uniform fashion of 1960s Yves Saint Laurant, the character immediately implies ideas of control, domination, and the need to be disciplined.
Dream sequences depict her true nature, where she ecstatically enjoys being gagged and bound, whipped and abused. Regardless of the implication of these fantasies, Severine remains an incredibly dignified character. Her relationship with her husband is depicted as restrained, cold, incomplete. Severine denies him sexual contact and he respects her wishes, never forcing her. The first scene shows her fantasy version of her husband, who rages at denial and has her whipped and raped by his coachmen.
Severine secretly begins work at a brothel, using the profession as a means to satisfy her own desires, rather than focusing on the client and his needs. Scenes depicting her abused as a child for refusing Holy Communion imply where the seeds of the guilt or shame for her sexuality stem from. It would have been unacceptable for a woman of her class and status to have a taste in kink. Her desires are completely uncontrollable, and she relishes in being punished for this.
5. Death in Venice (1971, Dir. Luchino Visconti)
In Death in Venice, musical composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) falls in love with a beautiful young boy named Tadzio. The obsession Gustav has is a combination of homosexual lust, appreciation for his appearance, and his purity. Gustav is creatively sterile and physically deteriorating, which shapes his interest in the boy’s youth and potential.
The film is about a character’s sexual repression becoming projected onto a voiceless ideal, which they observe and crave from a distance.
6. The Night Porter (1974, Dir. Liliana Cavani)
In post-war Vienna, a former SS Officer, Max (Dirk Bogarde) happens across his former prisoner, Lucia. Max is now a night porter at a refined hotel, while Lucia is now married. There is great tension between them and their anxiety towards being alone together. Their relationship is depicted in flashback – Lucia’s survival in the camp based on her sadomasochistic relationship with Max.
One particular scene shows Lucia performing for Max and other Officers, with Lucia only wearing an SS cap, trousers, and braces. As a present, Max presents her with the severed head of another inmate. Lucia and Max finally reunite, and the results are destructive and passionate. They are repressed, sexually, politically – they are overwhelmed by guilt. For Max and Lucia, their desire to recreate the tortured context of their relationship is too intense to deny.