Henry and June (Philip Kaufman, 1990)
Broadly based on the diaries of Anaïs Nin from 1931-32, a gorgeous film in all aspects, rightly hailed as a cinematic classic. Henry and June explores the beginnings of the relationship between Nin and American author Henry Miller and Miller's wife, June, in 1930s Paris. delving questions of art and propriety, the boundaries of sexual exploration and taboo, as well as the role of a liberated woman in society.
The Sessions (Ben Lewin, 2012)
Based on true events, funny, poignant, ultimately uplifting, The Sessions eschews pity and patronizing sentimentality to offer a refreshingly realistic portrayal of sex and disability. Superb performances, especially from Helen Hunt as a dedicated sex surrogate and William H. Macey as a sympathetic but often-befuddled priest/confessor.
9 Songs (Michael Winterbottom, 2004)
A film about four of my favorite subjects: sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, and Antarctica, not necessarily in that order. What I find most to like about 9 Songs is its down-to-earth honesty and almost total lack of pretense. The story of a sexual relationship between two refreshingly normal human beings is framed by concert footage with emphasis on the shared experience of the audiences, and brief glimpses of the remote Antarctic ice fields, perhaps the most isolated places on the planet, posing the question what is the nature of loneliness? To be sure, merely "not being alone" is not the same thing as being lonely when one can experience the most intense, agonizing sense of disconnection in a crowded concert hall, and yet find pure exultant bliss in the stark white wastelands of utter solitude.
The simple mundanity of these lovers' lives comes as a big breath of fresh air after so many over-blown pretentious artsy-fartsy, supposedly "erotic" films about emotionally damaged people (Zalman King's Wild Orchid (1989)), Lie With Me (Clement Virgo, (2005)), In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisha Oshima, (1976)), Romance (Catherine Breillat, (1999)), and Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick (1999)) to name but a few). While the sex here is extremely explicit, it's hardly adventuresome or kinky, and decidedly not pornographic. These are real people with names, feelings, normal-sized emotions and body parts, imperfect and unenhanced, making love the way real people make love, sometimes passionate and ferocious, more often warm, gentle and unhurried. Viewers who like honest portrayals of real people sharing moments of celebratory intimacy, some decent contemporary "underground" rock, and subtle unobtrusive art, will not be disappointed.
Nymphomaniac (Volume I and Volume II) (Lars von Trier, 2013)
Lars von Trier seems to take a perverse delight in letting his audience know that he detests everything--particularly his audience. One need only look at films like Antichrist (with its horrific scene of self-inflicted genital mutilation) or the aptly titled Melancholia (in which the earth and all life is literally obliterated) to recognize a deeply nihilistic worldview, and this is driven home with an unnervingly intimate force in Nymphomanic. Volume I is a taut, thoughtful exploration of sex addiction and promiscuity, rich in metaphor and psychological insight. Volume II seems at times to meander off on tangents that aren't nearly as engaging. In the end, the director builds a dazzling thought palace, only to knock it down right before our eyes in the final thirty seconds of Volume II like some petulant god declaring "I can create, but it's so much more fun to destroy!" as he thumbs his nose at anyone naive enough to become invested in his "vision." The joke is ultimately on us, but, perhaps, the journey to the punchline is the point.
Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996)
Based on J.G. Ballard's novel of the same name, and cleaving unfailingly close to the source material, David Cronenberg's Crash is a darkly understated masterpiece. This bleak, brooding, sometimes gruesome film is an unexpected sensual exploration of modern fetishism refracted through the lens of urban ennui, exploring the characters' paraphilic obsession with fatal car crashes--the twisted metal and broken bodies of once-beautiful automobiles an irresistible metaphor for the erotic death wish. Chillingly intimate performances from Spader and Hunter help build a sense of uneasy atmosphere that is never truly relieved. I highly recommend the un-watered-down NC-17 version.
Sex and Death 101 (Dan Waters, 2007)
A surprisingly thoughtful comedic treatment of love, sex, and mortality. Through a cosmic bureaucratic mix-up, our hapless hero comes into possession of a list of everyone he will ever sleep with with in his life, assuming that he must die after his encounter with the final name on the list. Contemplating this conundrum through a series of weird, awkward, and sometimes hilarious encounters, with the gentlest of morals at the end, Sex and Death 101 is a delight!
Bliss (Lance Young, 1997)
This one's a bit problematic: while Terrence Stamp is, as always, watchable and, here, wonderfully engaging, the young couple he counsels is nigh on to insufferable, and one wonders why the hell these people came together in the first place. Yet, for all its more annoying aspects, the script is peppered with interesting insights and even a fair measure of wisdom regarding sexual self-awareness, with the frank recognition that sex is an integral part of human existence.
Fading Gigolo (John Turturro, 2013)
The presence of Woody Allen in a supporting role will no doubt be a deal-breaker for some, and that's too bad, as this little film has some very thoughtful things to say about sex, the paradoxical nature of loneliness, the clash of cultures, and the search for genuine connection in a bewildering world so full of stilted eroticism, yet so often bereft of love.
The Oh! in Ohio (Billy Kent, 2006)
This delightful, gently understated comedy stands out from so many failed sex farces precisely because it starts from the premise that sex is a natural aspect of everyday life, not a strange or frightening foreign force. A seemingly compatible couple's inability to achieve orgasm together leads each partner on a search for erotic satisfaction, whence all sorts of pleasurable wackiness ensues! Especially charming is the portrayal of the relationship between Parker Posey and Danny DeVito's happy-go-lucky older guy. Maybe the way to find that Oh! is simply to lighten up and enjoy the high dive into whatever unexpected pleasures await us when we hit the water!
The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, 2015)
An engagingly frank look at sexual awakening, carried off with such artful subtlety as to mitigate some of the more cringe-inducing aspects of the story. Set in late-70s San Francisco, Alexander Scarsgård is the older live-in lover of an aging flower child (Kristin Wiig), gradually insinuating himself into the daughter's intimate space. If that were all--if this had been played for taboo sensationalism--Diary of a Teenage Girl would be a pretty forgettable, not to mention repulsive, undertaking: But the story is so relentlessly, honestly character-driven, exploring every aspect of the young heroine's emotions, her dreams and fears, whimsical artistic impulses, hopes and aspirations, along with her own burgeoning sexual independence, that the film ends up touching and enriching us in ways we could not have imagined at the beginning. Some very imaginative film-making brings the young heroine's inner world to vibrant life, an aspiring graphic novelist, she carries on conversations in her head with her idol, underground comix legend Suzie Petrovski, who shows up as a cartoon version of herself at one point to offer sage advice. A stellar performance from young Bel Powley as the aspiring artist of the title. Well worth a viewing!
Labyrinth (Jim Hensen, 1986)
This may strike some as an odd choice--perhaps even a bit of a creepy one--to include on a list of films about sex; but this gentle children's classic, written by Monty Python's Terry Jones, directed by Muppet-creator Jim Hensen, and starring pop-music icon David Bowie as the Goblin King, and the then fourteen-year-old Jennifer Connely (in her first major cinematic role) has quite a lot to say on the subject. Indeed, Labyrinth may be seen as an allegory of adolescent sexual awakening--a young woman's coming into awareness of her own erotic nature. The shifting labyrinth of the title may be seen to represent the confusion and claustrophobic sense of aloneness a young person may experience in taking their first steps into adulthood. The goblin king's erotic interest in the girl--virtually undisguised--may strike some as off-putting or simply perverse, but a deeper interpretation reveals a universal human truth, the irresistible magnetic force that is the formative singularity of our humanness, the promise of mystery that is for the adolescent both a source of dread and ineluctable curiosity. Yet, as in all great fairy tales, these ideas are so subtly woven into the fabric of the narrative, as not to disturb the more tender sensibilities in the audience--or the sheer fun of the story! (I only first saw this film as an adult well into my fifties and the erotic metaphor was glaringly obvious: No doubt if I'd seen it first as a youngster, the subtext would have gone straight over my head.)
Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996, Mira Nair)
Set in medieval India, this lavish, gorgeously-shot epic tells the story of a peasant girl, Maya (Indira Varma)--beautiful but hopelessly poor--who rises to become the favorite courtesan of a spoiled ruler, much to the chagrin of the young queen, Tara (Sarita Choudhury) Maya's childhood friend. Maya is tutored in the disciplines of the Kama Sutra, even as she becomes the love-obsession and muse of a handsome young artist, and so we end up with something like two intersecting triangles... It's all so hopelessly romantic! While there are no graphic portrayals of intercourse here, there are one or two pearls of erotic wisdom that elevate this above the typical Bollywood melodrama.