8. Andrzej Żuławski
Andrzej Zulawski loves women’s bodies. Young, beautiful female bodies fill most of his scenes with an unspeakable eroticism. He is a director of women’s desires, and women’s psychosis as well.
He has helped launch the careers of new, sensual actresses such as Isabelle Adjani, Valerie Kaprisky, and his beloved muse, Sophie Marceau.
In Zulawski’s movies, you tend to expect that sexual intercourse may happen any time. Half-dressed bodies move loosely in space, unintentionally touching each other. You see a man and a woman, one next to the other, and you don’t know what will happen next; they may equally have sex, start to scream or cry. He may film Kaprisky’s gorgeous body – at the time – dancing naked in frenetic rhythms for minutes in “The Public Woman.”
The perfect naked bodies in Zulawski’s universe are often contrasted to the chubby ones of our everyday lives, as in “My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days,” when Marceau runs naked in despair on the beach in front of the perplexed eyes of a middlebrow family getting sun. When the woman runs for help, she is brutally rejected as she doesn’t belong to the lovers’ ideal world.
Women groaning with pleasure are his favorite soundtrack. He adores filming women’s orgasms. The pinnacle of his obsession with sexuality may be considered as one of his late works filmed in Poland, “Szamanka.” This commercial flop, which was considered a cult movie by French moviegoers, somewhere between “Last Tango in Paris” and “Betty Blue,” depicts the passionate relationship of an anthropologist and a wild student who rushes into his life and drives him crazy with her exuberant libido.
It seems as though his camera does nothing but follow the young Iwona Petry, trying to steal some moments of lustful looks during intercourse. After the film, Petry disappeared for several years, preferring not to comment on any of the rumors about the way Zulawski treated her during the release of the film.
7. Gaspar Noé
Even though he has released only four feature films, Gaspar Noé has a relatively high place in this list because his central focus is on relationships, love, or a lack of love and physical contact that is supposed to express this love. Or hate. Or dominion.
Noé is known for the physicality by which he films naked bodies and sexual intercourse. In “Love,” the camera is nailed on top of the bed where the lovers meet, leaving them no escape, while at the same time it tenderly caresses them and tries to understand. In real time, the rape scene in “Irreversible” grips us by its authenticity in showing violence and powerlessness at the same time.
He is determined to provoke with his bizarre stories, with extreme violence, with sex. In “I Stand Alone,” he makes up a dreary story of a man who gets by alone through the most outrageous and horrifying stories. Some people have paralleled that movie with “Saló,” regarding its frankness on exhibiting sex and violence, which are treated as the base of human function. When no love is left in the world, incest is not the original sin.
Noé does not hesitate to give sex metaphysical dimensions, to present it as a way to transcend to eternity. In “Enter the Void,” the spirit (psyche?) of the protagonist roams above a love hotel, observing several couples having sex in different positions. Each couple emanates an electric-like pink glow from their genitals, just like other psyches lost in Earth’s labyrinth.
6. Russ Meyer
He started his career as a Playboy photographer and Playboy’s aesthetics characterized him as a director and made him the ‘king of sexploitation movies’ in the 1960s. Sarcastic humor, huge-breasted starlets, and lots of sex were the trademarks of an authentic auteur on the fringes of Hollywood. He did everything by himself – writing, directing, editing. His first movie cost $24,000 to make and grossed more than $1 million. And he went on, making more and more movies – and more and more money.
His main topic was sex. In every one of his movies people are having sex as if it was the only and the last thing they had to do in life. This frenetic sexual activity would not be highly evaluated by critics as Roger Ebert (who has been a fan of Meyer) if it was not accompanied by a catalytic, sardonic humor and satire of American ethics.
Meyer’s movies became cult, as they combined eroticism with the emancipatory wave that shook U.S. in the 60s, while they pinched America’s image in a hippie-like way. Many times, both sex and violence were caricatured. “Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill” could be considered as a Tarantino movie, 30 years before Tarantino showed up.
5. Lars von Trier
Sex in Lars von Trier’s movies is painful. It is full of remorse, unsatisfied, unsaturated, perverse and depressive.
He looks at sex through women’s eyes. His heroines are tormented creatures who seek satisfaction in having sex and, more, peace of mind that cannot be found anywhere else.
Some of them are overly sentimental. Bess in “Breaking the Waves” is a sweet, mentally disturbed young girl who deeply believes in God and thinks that letting herself being brutalized by other men will help in her beloved husband’s recovery. Sex with strangers is a sacrifice that will lead her to death. Grace in “Dogville” has to pay with her body the hospitality offered to her.
In his Depression Trilogy (“Antichrist,” “Melancholia,” “Nymphomaniac”), sex is bound with psychic sickness. In “Antichrist,” She is punished for having sex and then has sex in order to cease her grief. When pain maddens her, she uses sex to torture her mate. Justine in “Melancholia” is having sex with whoever to deal with her boredom and depression.
Nymphomaniac is his great epic on sex in all its themes and variations. It is also an ode to unlimited women’s sexuality. Joe, his heroine (once more an incredible Charlotte Gainsbourg) will know no morals or other boundaries in order to get what she mostly wants: sexual pleasure.
4. Dusan Makavejev
Dusan Makavejev, one of the most controversial and provocative directors of the 20th century, started his career as a cineaste in socialist Yugoslavia, making movies about love affairs set in the social context of his country. These first movies gave him international critical success and awards in film festivals.
In his next movie, “Organism’s Mysteries,” he went deeply into exploring Reich’s theory about orgone and he related it with the suppression of sexuality in Yugoslavian society. The film was experimental, as it used parts of older movies and documentaries to compose, through montage, the story of a woman who rejects the sexual advances from a proletarian co-worker to pursue a Stalin-like ice skating star who, unable to surmount his inner conflicts, decapitates her.
In the film, there are various sequences of artists talking about their sexual experiences and a detailed discussion with Reich’s daughter, followed by a visit in his Orgonon in Mainz.
Such a provocative presentation of the socialist world and overt exploration of sexuality did nothing but enrage the Yugoslavian regime, who accused him of derision. Makavejev was considered persona non grata and had to leave Yugoslavia.
His next film, “Sweet Movie,” was even more provocative. The parallel narratives of two peculiar women, one Miss Virginity, who is bought by a loony tycoon, and a strange witchlike young woman who navigates a boat called Potemkin with a Marx-shaped prow, are interspersed with sex scenes with originality that is rarely met in world cinema. The vagina-trapped lovers on the Eiffel Tower and the sweet murders on the sugar bed were not to be easily forgotten by the cult movie audience.
Most critics didn’t estimate the obvious charismas of the movie – the exquisite soundtrack by Manos Hatzidakis included. They rated the film as porn and it was banned in several countries. They could not distinguish the subtle, ironic polemic of both socialist and capitalist worlds gleaming behind the absurd mating. Or they couldn’t forgive Makavejev’s absolute mix of sex with everything else – class society, politics, ideology. Or maybe he was too frank…
3. Bernardo Bertolucci
Bernardo Bertolucci’s movies are lavishly erotic. Eroticism seems to emanate from the skin’s pores of his protagonists. Though highly engaged in politics and a declared anti-fascist, he always portrayed his heroines as sensuous, desirable beings who tormented men’s minds and bodies. Anna Quadri in “The Conformist” and Ada Fiastri Paulhan in “1900,” both played by French actress Dominique Sanda, are iconic femmes fatale of modern cinema.
However, the film that absolutely put him in the center of the dispute about the limits between art and pornography, and much more, the limits between using and abusing actresses was definitely “Last Tango in Paris.” Marlon Brando plays a middle-aged bohemian who tries to recover from his wife’s death by having an anonymous affair with a young woman, with whom emotionally and physically takes advantage.
Bertolucci was accused of not warning the young Romy Schneider about many of the details of her role and, for the sake of natural playing, taking advantage of her, just as Paul did to Jeanne in the movie. Nevertheless, “Last Tango in Paris” is still considered one of the most emblematic films on liberated sex, set in the framework of May 1968 upheaval.
“The Dreamers,” one of his latest films, plays on the same plot sexual freedom in the framework of May 1968 in Paris. An American student in Paris is invited to stay in the large apartment of two siblings left alone by their parents. While the students protest in the street, the three youths explore their sexuality and experiment with old and new forms.
2. Nagisa Oshima
As a student of law in Kyoto University, he was a leader of ultra-left groups and the president of the students association. Even though he never worked as a lawyer, Nagisa Oshima transferred all his social and political worries to his movies. Since his first films, he was determined to bring to the screen his personal experience of upheaval, disillusionment and betrayal through original political stories or scenarios set in the working-class neighborhoods, among people who tried to survive in the cruel world of postwar Japan that was inherited to them.
Sex and violence were always predominant in this universe, since the bitterly disappointed Oshima turned his look to delinquents and followed their paths, which were interspersed with deviant sexual behaviors.
Though sexuality was omnipresent in all of his works, his trademark for Western audiences and what brings him almost to the top of this list is his masterpiece “In the Realm of the Senses,” a movie that approaches pornography and, in parallel, is inscribed in the spectrum of the sex-liberation movement filmography that characterized post-1968 Europe (the film was co-financed by French money and launched Oshima’s international career).
An former prostitute who works as a maid in an inn succumbs to the power of her master and falls into his bed. An unexpected passion will be born between them, which will make them abandon the normality of their lives and live isolated in one room, where they will lead their sexual union to its limits. It still remains unparalleled with its explicit depictions of fellatio, penetration and S&M.
The film surprised, shocked and puzzled critics and audiences, Oshima was accused of opportunism and commercialism, while others worshipped the movie as an emblem of sexual emancipation brought by the late 60’s cultural revolution. For Oshima, it was rather the search for a revolution far away from politics, in the confined space of a bedroom.
1. Pier Paolo Pasolini
Who else could be on top of this list? The poet, the ist, the painter, the philosopher, the cineaste, the cursed intellectual of the Italian 20th century renaissance.
Pier Paolo Pasolini was a Marxist. And a homosexual. A declared Marxist and a declared homosexual. Sex interested him as a social problem. Through sex, he could define social relations.
Millions of words have been written about his most famous/notorious and latest movie, “Saló, or 120 days at Sodom.” Just keep in mind that by showing the bestial sexual tortures of innocent young people by a gang of libertines – my most traumatic experience as an adolescent moviegoer – the film was meant only to denounce the atrocity of fascism… and authoritative social relations.
Sex is omnipresent in almost all of his works – in Chaucer’s erotic “Canterbury Tales,” in stories from Decameron or the Arabian Nights – and in the dark labyrinths of Teorema, Pasolini always gave major importance to human sexuality.
However, few people know of his 1964 documentary “Love Meetings” where Pasolini, microphone in hand, took to the streets and asked all kinds of people, old and young, men and women, housewives and prostitutes, merchants and soldiers, what they had in mind about topics such as virginity, social intercourse, homosexuality, prostitution and gender representation.
Pasolini traveled throughout Italy, from North to South, to collect the opinions of his compatriots on a topic which he considered of extreme importance, related to the social emancipation he always fought for: their attitudes toward sex. Even though somebody could find the whole question rather old-fashioned for the21st century, Pasolini does thorough research exploring notions such as ‘scandal’ and ‘conformism’. Alberto Moravia joins the psychoanalyst Cesare Musatti as a makeshift panel of experts.
No matter the thesis of the film about social conceptions on sexuality (attitudes toward sexuality are either very conservative among the poor and in the South or confused and self-censoring among the bourgeois and in the North), Pasolini’s pioneer work puts the problem of sexuality down to its roots, talking about it with real people, next-door faces and not cinema stars, and he highlighted taboo topics for Italian – and any other – society.
Author Bio: Regina Zervou is cultural sociologist who took some fifteen years to move from carnival and popular culture studies to cinema theory. An afficionado of movies since she was twelve, she loves the way reality and ‘surreality’ is depicted on the screen. When not watching movies, she loves walking the dogs, swimming, cooking for her children or traveling someplace in Africa or South America to take some pictures.