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Eroticism happens between the ears not between the legs, argues BRAD GREEN, and serious, quality eroticism in cinema (mainstream and otherwise) is far too rare.

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 up.

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.

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 eroticism.

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 carnal category.

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.

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 psychological perspective.

"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, 1999.)

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 creative juices.

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