“The cinema substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires.”
― André Bazin
There is clearly a connection between sensuality and nature, so that cinema finds a vast palette with which to convey passion and desire. Sensuality is all about creating and building tension, and thrives on atmosphere, subtext, and evocative imagery. It hints, alluding to something under the surface, a yearning that is as ephemeral as it is vital.
A lingering glance across the room; a knowing smile; the touch of silk; lying on the grass in the spring; savoring a piece of fruit as though all of life’s joys were contained in it… Cameras capture such details to their full effect, honing in on their suggestiveness.
Below are some films that are steeped in sensuality and mystique. Many are psychological dramas, some are downright disturbing, pushing boundaries, and all have something to say about the nature of desire.
10. From the Land of the Moon
Directed by Nicole Garcia and adapted from a novel by Milena Agus, this offbeat film set in post-World War II rural France has a certain lingering delicacy. Marion Cotillard plays Gabrielle, a young woman deemed too wild and unreasonable for regular society and marriage. So that when a lower-class Spanish laborer shows a little interest, her parents are all too happy to give her away and get rid of this inconvenient girl.
Afflicted by kidney stones, Gabrielle seeks treatment at a spa. There she meets an ailing soldier who is a perfect match for her artistic, high-voltage sensibility. Sparks fly from the start and it is clear the two will become lovers.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle grows increasingly detached from her husband, whom she sees as a poor substitute for the genteel – and sensual – man of her dreams. But a clever twist has us wondering about the nature of idealization and desire, and the way it shapes our perception.
9. Body Heat
William Hurt and Kathleen Turner star in this neo-noir masterpiece. The plot is as intricate as the “heat” between the characters – a washed-up, second-rate lawyer and a housewife bursting with mischief and the worst of intentions. Heat also works as an extended metaphor in Body Heat, as the story is set during a hot summer, where everything that sizzles will eventually burn.
As the black widow, Matty Walker lures her catch, Ned Racine, to do the unthinkable. Her character is as calculating and ironic as she’s smoldering and sensual. She is smarter than Ned and she knows it. When she spins the perfect web, and gets away with murder, it’s a logical conclusion. One that doesn’t keep her from enjoying herself in the process, naturally.
What elevates the film, aside from the perfect-pitch acting, is the screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan. Rich in subtext and innuendo, every line provokes. Here’s a peek:
Matty: My temperature runs a couple of degrees high, around a hundred. I don’t mind. It’s the engine or something.
Ned: Maybe you need a tune up.
Matty: Don’t tell me. You have just the right tool.
Loosely based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill and directed by Stephen Shainberg, this satirical dramedy gains much of its appeal through the performances and premise of love found in the strangest of places. The story is about Lee, a young woman prone to self-harm who has just left a mental institution and takes a job as a secretary, unleashing her fantasies.
Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhall) and E. Edward Gray (James Spader) make a perfectly wicked match, and even their most unsettling moments are engrossing. Lee embodies a woman thirsty for emotional transcendence through physical stimuli of the most bizarre kind.
And Mr. Gray, her neurotic, compulsive boss is irresistibly drawn to Lee’s sadomasochistic ideas. Yet it is Lee who insists on the relationship, forcing Mr. Gray to continue the game even when he wishes to stop.
Lee’s whimsical nature makes her fantasies colorful, lush and playful. In contrast, Mr. Gray’s world is rigid and exacting. They are drawn in by each other’s complementary natures, as kindred souls.
Secretary makes this list because it is through the senses that Lee comes to terms with her personal issues. The film also subverts politically-correct gender relations, suggesting that disturbed individuals are free to choose their type of enjoyment and rapture, as kinky as they may be.
7. The Piano Teacher
Michael Haneke’s psychological thriller based on Elfriede Jelinek’s novel plays the notes of restraint and release. Critically-acclaimed, it won multiple awards at Cannes, including the Grand Prix. The story follows Erika, a piano teacher who lives with her controlling mother.
Erika, superbly played by Isabelle Huppert, works at a Viennese conservatory, and mostly has her sadomasochistic impulses under control through her nippy treatment of students and voyeuristic explorations – and a bit of self-mutilation thrown in. Still, they are all part of her routine and she has the power, cleaning up her tracks like an expert hit man when a little blood enters the picture.
That is, until one of her more confident students begins to show interest in her…When that happens, their ambivalent attraction ruptures her sense of control, turning into an obsession.
The Piano Teacher makes the list for its depiction of unfulfilled yearning turned destructive, like a dam held for too long, cracking open at the edges.
6. Y Tu Mama Tambien
Alfonso Cuarón’s road movie explores Mexico’s social and cultural layers through the passing scenario and exchanges with people encountered along the way. Pared-down and straightforward in its approach, it looks like a documentary at times.
Distraught by her husband’s infidelity, an elegant Spanish woman goes on a joy ride with two teenaged boys. The boys, who come from different backgrounds but have similar raging hormones, are all too thrilled. Lots of sex ensues between, ahem, among the trio, culminating in a not-altogether-unexpected denouement. Along the way, they learn to see beyond the obvious. Cuarón’s sharp, well-observed film is free-spirited, often humorous, and genuinely hot.
The performances by Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna as the two teenaged boys and Maribel Verdu as their older, more experienced teacher, are also excellent.