Cinema has always been one of the most beautiful modes of reflection of the human condition. We have found our deepest passions as well as our most debilitating insecurities expressed through films since the conception of the art-form and from the very beginning, the element of the erotic in cinema has been the perfect expression of human desire.
While the most common erotic form has been the formulaic regurgitations of mainstream pornography, there have been other artists who have asked more pressing questions through the dynamic frameworks of the genre. Ranging from erotic thrillers to coming-of-age tales about sexual awakenings, erotic arthouse cinema has uncovered essential truths about what it means to be human.
Despite the fact that censorship boards have actively tried to eliminate the erotic from the mainstream experience, people have returned to these erotic masterpieces in order to learn more about the specific sociocultural contexts within which they were formed. Although they are often a product of their times, the questions they raise are almost always universal.
Check out the list below.
The 10 greatest erotic arthouse films:
Belle de jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)
Luis Buñuel’s cinematic output is one of the most spectacular collections in the world of cinema and Belle de jour is definitely among the finest of those. The film stars the iconic Catherine Deneuve as an unsatisfied housewife who cannot express her sexual desires with her husband.
She indulges in extensive sadomasochistic fantasies in her mind, ultimately signing up for a job at an elite brothel where she services clients while her husband goes off for work. While it isn’t nearly as explicitly erotic as some of the other films on this list, Buñuel manages to construct a sublimely erotically charged journey that is psychological in nature.
LA Plays Itself (Fred Halsted, 1972)
An essential film in the evolution of LGBTQ+ art and queer cinema, Fred Halsted’s 1972 experimental masterpiece has everything that is good about underground cinema. LA Plays Itself is often cited as the first and also the greatest gay erotic film ever made and there’s enough in there to justify such claims.
A true cult classic, LA Plays Itself presents a raw vision of Los Angeles during the ’70s while experimenting with fascinating forms of visual narrative. In fact, it was so experimental that Salvador Dali walked out of a screening to say: “new information for me.”
Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972)
Pink Flamingos is a disrespectful slap in the face of the brand of erotic cinema that exploits our carnal programming. Instead of pandering to our needs, John Waters takes us on a wild adventure while exploring the chaotic life of “the filthiest person alive” – Divine.
Tackling taboo subjects such as incest, foot fetishes, cannibalism among other stops on the road of absolute human depravity, Pink Flamingos is a subversive masterpiece that deconstructs the omnipresent phenomenon of voyeurism like very few other films can.
Immoral Tales (Walerian Borowczyk, 1973)
Walerian Borowczyk is counted among the most important figures in the history of erotic cinema and Immoral Tales is the perfect example of his unique artistic vision. Often described as a “genius who also happened to be a pornographer,” Borowczyk’s filmography is endlessly enigmatic.
Immoral Tales is an anthology film, divided into four individual segments that deal with virginity, masturbation, bloodlust and incest. While the film was critically panned at the time, it is considered by many to be an indispensable part of the history of erotic cinema.
Sweet Movie (Dušan Makavejev, 1974)
Dušan Makavejev is remembered for his weaponisation of the erotic element to conduct political satire, most prominently in projects such as W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism which received widespread critical acclaim and gained cult status around the world.
In this 1874 gem, Makavejev built a disturbing investigation around the lives of two women – a beauty queen from Canada and a failed revolutionary who fought for communism. Upon release, it was banned in a lot of places and created a lot of controversies.
Successive Slidings of Pleasure (Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1974)
An unconventional example of erotic cinema from the mind of one of the most prominent French writers, Successive Slidings of Pleasure is about a woman who is accused of stabbing her roommate to death. While the premise may sound simple, it doesn’t take long to devolve into insanity.
As a punitive measure, she is trapped in a prison convent but her psychosexual desires are so strong that they threaten to destabilise her environment. Soon, her sadomasochistic fantasies bleed into reality and it is impossible to tell them apart.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975)
The most infamous entry on this list, Pier Paolo Pasolini made several masterpieces over the course of his career but none of them have gained as much notoriety as this 1975 gem. A scathing critique of the power structures inherent in society, Salò explores the dynamics of sexual exchanges.
Pasolini constructs a heterotopic space – a mansion owned by fascists – within which all kinds of depraved activities take place. Attacking the widespread plague that is consumerism and fascism in the most explicit ways possible, Pasolini’s masterpiece is political filmmaking at its finest.
In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Ôshima, 1976)
A leading pioneer in the Japanese New Wave – Nagisa Ōshima created an unforgettable cinematic experience when he made In the Realm of the Senses. A thoroughly unsettling film, it explores the relationship between a former sex worker who begins a strange affair with her new employer.
Ōshima later reflected, “I found, several years after directing my first films, that I was very attracted to these two topics, sex and crime. Subsequently, my films have addressed them in a very analytic way. Today, I’m at a stage where I simply like to project the naked reality of sex and crime before the spectator’s eyes.”
Szamanka (Andrzej Żuławski, 1996)
A controversial work by the Polish maestro Andrzej Żuławski, this 1996 cult film launched a powerful attack against conservative morality and Catholicism. That’s why it generated controversy in Poland and was even dubbed as the “Last Tango in Warsaw”.
Szamanka is one of Żuławski’s greatest achievements, following the bizarre relationship between a mysterious nameless woman and a professor of anthropology whose life takes unexpected turns when he discovers the 2000-year-old body of a shaman.
The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang, 2005)
Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang explores a different side of urban isolation in this 2005 film which is intended to be a follow up to his 2001 masterpiece What Time Is It There? where a lonely clock salesman in Taipei falls in love with a woman who leaves for Paris.
They meet again during a water shortage in the country which has made watermelons more accessible than water. The bizarre dream sequences of the film involving all kinds of eccentric activities are more erotic than the actual sex involved, proving that the definition of eroticism is extremely fluid.