The camera pans over a tableau of masked and black-cloaked figures. Even with these
adornments it is evident that one group, serried in a semi-circle, consists of strikingly
beautiful females; stationary and statuesque like Halloween-costumed mannequins. With
ritual significance, ethereal fumes are released into the air to mingle with baroque
cadences emanating from the fingers of a blindfolded organist. In unison, the mannequins
become momentarily animated, discarding their cloaks to reveal svelte, sensual and almost
entirely naked bodies.
Cut to an audition stage. Side by side, three young ladies in skimpy costumes
demonstrate their dancing talents. But wait. This is an audition for Las Vegas Showgirls,
so it’s off with the girls’ tops to show what they’re really made of; it is
areolae not arabesques the patrons will want to see. An exchange of dialogue (unprintable
because it’s rated IQ-17) and out comes a bucket of ice to… really perk things
Dissolve to a small room, dimly lit and thinly furnished. Dolly in towards the far end
where beneath a copy of Mona Lisa there is a couple making love on a simple bed. Their
features become more discernible as we get closer. There is no background music, no
peripheral visual distractions, just the gentle abandon of their quiet panting, body to
body, face to shoulder, oblivious to our gaze and the wandering eyes of the lady above.
Fade to black. End of the highlight reel. And time for a quick cold shower while
considering the trichotomy of approaches to erotic cinema that Eyes Wide Shut, Showgirls
and Betty Blue represent.
THE RAREST CATEGORY
Of these, Kubrick’s film belongs to the rarest category: Big budget plus big stars
plus the big talent of a big-name auteur. Plus, let’s not forget, big hype: The racy
trailer, pre-publicity furphies and the timing of Kubrick’s death provided a synergy
that ensured mouths were wide open about Eyes Wide Shut long before its release. Certainly
it’s a flawed film (the only way to forgive the naff ending is to admire the style of
a director whose oeuvre concludes with Nicole Kidman reciting the F-word) but it is also
exquisitely fashioned and threaded here and there with genuine originality. Overall, there
is just the right balance of interesting conceptions and cultural pervasiveness to hint
that this could be a seminal movie.
And for a genre still fumbling in foreplay, it could be just what’s needed. Mainstream cinema produces plenty of fluff and formula among its special-FX blockbusters,
war epics, action/thrillers and romantic comedies each year, but inevitably redeems itself
with a number of truly classy productions and even a handful of gems. Serious, quality
erotica arrives far less frequently.
Not a single movie in last year’s AFI top-100 list is a serious attempt at
THE CARNAL CATEGORY
Is it possible, then, for cinema to be seriously sexy and successfully
sophisticated? Can it intelligently combine fornication and philosophy? Sex and
sensibility? In the popular culture of America (and if we’re talking mainstream,
we’re mainly talking Hollywood) sex is ubiquitous, but it is nearly always presented
within the most narrow of parameters. This restrictive approach, the tendency for
commercial cynicism to resort to cliches and conservatism of style, defines our second
There are plenty of films coming out of Hollywood about the sex industry –
Showgirls, Striptease, Boogie Nights – but they aren’t sexy films. When a film
like Showgirls (or, as I prefer, "Fleshdance" from the writer of
"Flashdance") proclaims to be "daring" it really means explicit.
Filmmakers mightn’t be afraid to show flesh and fornication in these liberated times
but they are as timid as monks in a whorehouse when it comes to representing sexuality
honestly and insightfully.
It is a two-edged sword that cuts a swathe through censorship. The dissipation of
censorship restrictions – in violence as well as sexuality – has sometimes led
to a commensurate dissipation of imagination. Just as special-FX technologies are
counterproductive when they become the bane of masterful plots or detailed
characterisation, a plethora of gratuitous sex and violence is not a successful recipe for
classic filmmaking. But in the hands of the most gifted and innovative directors such
freedom can only be beneficial. Not only because of what they are allowed to show, but
because when they don’t present sex or violence with graphic imagery, it is by
choice, not compulsion – and, therefore, more meaningful.
THE EROTICA CATEGORY
And so to our third category. As much as it has been an anathema to Hollywood, raw
eroticism has long been embraced by independent, low-budget and art-house cinema. I chose
the opening scene from Betty Blue as one of the introductory excerpts because it is well
known, and because its minimalist style is such a stark contrast to the Hollywood
approach. But there are many other, and often greater, erotic riches to be found in the
work of directors such as Walerian Borowczyk, Mira Nair, Nagisa Oshima, Just Jaeckin,
Jean-Jacques Annaud, Brigitte Rouan, Pedro Almadadovar and Australia's John Duigan. The
latter’s Wide Sargasso Sea being a personal favourite – with its sublime
evocation of the exotic passion, colour and sultriness of the Carribean intensely mirrored
in the steamy erotic encounters of its protagonists. Perhaps most fascinating and
innovative, however, are the elliptical excursions of British director Peter Greenaway.
Greenaway’s films sometimes make it to mainstream screenings but he is relentless in
his commitment to pushing cinematic boundaries.
Kubrick himself, of course, was a maverick who shunned the Hollywood system. But while
he brought an independent, uncompromising approach to his filmmaking, he also had the
profile to participate at a commercial level with the major studios. When it is also
considered that, prior to Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick had completed only two films in the
previous twenty years it becomes apparent that all the ingredients have been provided for
a landmark piece of cinema.
But Eyes Wide Shut is certainly not the first film to have threatened to kick-start a
serious adult genre. In 1972, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris burst onto
cinema screens with an explosion of critical acclaim and controversy. Not only was it
shocking and confrontational with its full frontal nudity and notorious (though hardly
explicit) "butter scene", it dealt with sexuality honestly, seriously and from a
"true eroticism occurs more between the ears than
between the legs"
Apparently it did little to titillate the imagination of filmmakers at large, however.
And instead of opening the gates to a cornucopia of sophisticated, erotic cinema, there
was an hiatus of 16-years before Philip Kaufman crafted a sensual, aesthetic vision from
the pages of Milan Kundera’s literary masterpiece, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
The film was hardly a "blockbuster" but it screened internationally in major
theatres; it starred Daniel Day-Lewis; it was produced by Saul Zaentz (who later produced
The English Patient – a film remarkable, not the least, for its own beautifully
understated eroticism); and its sophisticated sensuality reached a far wider audience than
nearly any art-house production.
Kaufman quickly followed The Unbearable Lightness of Being with the visually sumptuous
but narratively dull, Henry and June, then even more swiftly vanished into oblivion,
leaving a conspicuous lack of influence in his wake. To this day, The Unbearable Lightness
of Being remains one of the few American produced films to be a serious attempt at an
erotic piece of cinematic art. (Ed: Last Tango in Paris and The Unbearable Lightness of
Being will be reviewed in full during our Century Collection series, 13 week celebration
of the video release of 100 of the best films ever made; the series begins October 13,
A common feature of The Last Tango in Paris, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Eyes
Wide Shut (and all too rare among the majority of major productions) is that the
characters have a psychological motivation for their sexual behavior. It is not always
simple or clear-cut but they are looking to escape from reality, from unhappiness, from
the heaviness or lightness of existence, or perhaps to explore new realities. The
eroticism in these films occurs against milieus that are sometimes joyous and exuberant,
and often bleak and unsettling; real life in other words. Unfortunately, most big budget
movies to date ignore the fact that true eroticism occurs more between the ears than
between the legs.
"a new sophisticated, erotic genre beckoning"
But Kubrick is no stranger to pioneering a new stage in the evolution of a genre. With
2001: A Space Odyssey he introduced a bevy of concepts and techniques that are still
influential in sci-fi filmmaking some three decades later. Perhaps it is fanciful to
suggest that his final bow might have a similar breadth of influence. But there is a new
sophisticated, erotic genre beckoning to be explored by next century’s major
filmmakers. There could be no more fitting tribute to Kubrick’s versatility if, in
the years beyond 2001, Eyes Wide Shut is remembered as the aphrodisiac that fired their