It’s summer. Temperatures are rising, sweat is dripping. And if you find yourself lazing about on scorching days without a clue what to do, there’s no better way to pass the time than sticking on a film. Even better, make it a sensual film, for filmmakers have long explored humanity’s carnal needs and matters of the flesh. If winter is for cosying up to something wholesome, summer is for the hottest and heaviest watches.
With all that said, this guide will take you through five of the most unpredictable dives into all things erotic. While summer isn’t the primary setting for all of these movies, they are connected by their distinctive approaches to sex and desire. Yes, there are sex scenes aplenty, but these films also recognise that the real tension comes from the lead-up to the climax. Just the meeting of eyes can carry such intense yearning that it’s almost palpable. Prepare yourself for a full sensory, horny, experience.
The Handmaiden (2016)
Korean master Park Chan-wook is famous for his unpredictable thrillers, but underneath the shocks and plot twists, many of his films at their core are about finding love in the most unlikely of circumstances. Such is the case in vampire romance Thirst, oddball sci-fi I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK and his upcoming detective story Decision to Leave, which luxuriates in the longing gazes between an inspector and a murder suspect.
Transposing the Victorian setting of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith to Japanese-occupied Korea, The Handmaiden follows a pickpocket named Sook-hee (an outstanding Kim Tae-ri), who attempts to swindle a fortune from Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) while working as her handmaiden. But her intricate plan is upended when she falls for the timid woman in her care.
Of course, you can look at its, ahem, lengthy sex scene as the dominant symbol of The Handmaiden’s sheer horniness, but Park’s film masterfully builds erotic tension in seemingly innocent encounters. Wide-open eyes filled with desire meet across sun-dappled walks; a scene in which Sook-hee grinds down Hideko’s tooth with a thimble is overwhelmingly intimate; and the juice of a peach dripping down a hand has its own steamier connotations.
At first glance, Tampopo is too wholesome of a film to be on this list. Labelled a “ramen western”, Juzo Itami’s delightful comedy follows the titular bereaved owner of a ramen shop and the truck driver who decides to teach her the “art of noodle soup making”. In a Rocky-style training montage, Tampopo refines her culinary craft, culminating in some mouth-watering shots of delectable ramen bowls and slurping noodles.
But aside from its main plotline, Tampopo is a sensual love letter to food itself, that artfully draws a connection between hunger and romantic (and sexual) desire. At numerous points, the film branches out into vignettes that speak to humans’ carnal need for nutrition – and nothing is off limits here. A woman disrupts a provincial supermarket by squeezing its fruit, as the camera fixates on its dripping juices. A white-suited gangster eagerly laps up an oyster from the hand of a coquettish pearl diver. In a hotel bedroom, two lovers melt into each other as they incorporate a room service feast into their exploration of each other’s bodies. And in their most delicate and memorable tryst, the two pass an egg yolk to each other with their mouths, back and forth until it breaks and oozes from the woman’s lips.
“I had this image of you, inside of me, like a part of me.” So begins Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s debut, a sultry neo-noir starring Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon as Corky and Violet, respectively, a pair of lovers who attempt to flee from Violet’s mobster boyfriend with some stolen cash. When the directors first pitched a lesbian thriller to studios, executives said that they would be interested if Corky was a man. The Wachowskis countered that they don’t want to direct a film that’s already been made so many times. It’s a testament to a singular vision that’s been present since the very beginning of their career.
Nothing beats a good old-fashioned erotic thriller and Bound certainly delivers on that. Violence is plentiful, sex even more so. It takes all of ten minutes for the two to consummate their attraction, but even then, each of their interactions is laced with longing, from a piercing gaze across a corridor to a tentative hand brushing over a labrys tattoo. The undying power of love has been the dominating theme of the Wachowski’s films and, even within Bound’s dark, gritty setting, you can see that unbridled optimism surface here. The film is, first and foremost, a searing romance centring two women who yearn to escape the oppressive circumstances that stifle their connection.
You may have heard critics refer to Benedetta as “nunsploitation”, a description that still doesn’t quite capture the truly wild peaks that Paul Verhoeven’s film surmounts. It’s a blasphemous romp so provocative that it even caught the attention – and ire – of the Catholic Church. A group of protestors from the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property picketed the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival with signs that read, “We vehemently protest the blasphemous lesbian movie Benedetta, that insults the sanctity of Catholic nuns.” Elsewhere in Ireland, one Christian organisation called the film “a blatant attack on the Catholic faith,” and gathered 13,000 signatures on a petition calling for its ban. Talk about free advertising.
Benedetta is an audacious and thrillingly transgressive film worthy of Catholicism’s seal of disapproval. Based on the true story of Sister Benedetta Carlini, it recounts the story of the nun who rose through the ranks of her Pescia convent after claiming to be a stigmatic. Sweltering under the Tuscan sun, she also engages in an intense affair with a fellow Sister and sexual discovery is entangled with religious transcendence. Let’s just say some ungodly things are done to a Virgin Mary statue.
Before a mousy-voiced Kristen Stewart whispered that “surgery is the new sex” in Crimes of the Future, David Cronenberg found that car crashes, in fact, were the new sex. Crash caused immediate controversy at its premiere at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, where jury president Francis Ford Coppola was rumoured to be so against the film that he refused to personally hand over the Special Jury Prize”for originality, for daring and for audacity”. When it came to its cinema release, Westminster Council banned it outright from West End cinemas, despite it being readily available in Camden. And in April this year, Crash finally screened theatrically for the first time in Oslo, 26 years after it was banned by a local cinema chain.
What incited this moral panic? A twisted film about a group of car crash fetishists. Cronenberg applies J. G. Ballard’s themes of identities in flux and sexuality to articulate the particular anxieties about the coming millennium. If you can accept the characters’ proclivities for automobiles, there’s also something deeply sensual about Crash, as it navigates that singular place where danger and death meets pure eroticism.