In 2011, the erotic romance novel 50 Shades of Grey was released, quickly becoming a global phenomenon, selling millions of copies to an audience eager for sexy thrills and, in many cases, an introduction to the world of BDSM.
I won't lie. The success of that book and its sequels creeps me out. It was developed from sexually explicit Twilight fanfic, when writer E.L. James uploaded it to various fan sites under the pen name "Snowqueen's Icedragon." There's something disturbing about realizing that there's a huge online population who enjoy masturbatory reading material based on books like Twilight and the Harry Potter series, but thanks to the Internet, that's a thing now.
In any case, 50 Shades of Grey was enormously popular, and a film adaptation is about to be released. I have no idea how good this movie will be, of course, but it got me thinking about erotic films from the past that are likely more interesting or sexy than 50 Shades of Grey is probably going to be. Even for a person inclined to enjoy the upcoming film, these are a few worth digging up. In no particular order:
6. 9 1/2 Weeks (1986)
While it initially tanked at the domestic box office and suffered from mixed reviews, 9 1/2 Weeks has gone on to be considered an erotic classic of sorts. Its strength lies in the realistic relationship dynamic shared by leads Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke, and the sex scenes show more realistic portrayals of passion than many similar films. Over the years, 9 1/2 Weeks has gained a sort of cult status and is better regarded now than it was upon release. It's also interesting to see Mickey Rourke as an attractive leading man in the days before he started looking a lot like Frankenstein.
5. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989)
This film is beautifully realized, but Peter Greenaway's masterpiece of brutality, dark humor and eroticism is certainly not suitable for all tastes. It has enough violence and scatological content to create a very disturbing ride for sensitive viewers seeking, say, a typically romantic film. But lots of great erotic films are pretty dark, and this one fits in that category. It's a beautifully shot film with amazing cinematography, gorgeous sets and costumes designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier. There is a very erotic relationship between the mob wife character, Georgina (played by Helen Mirren), and her secret bookstore-owning lover, Michael (played by Alan Howard). Most of the film takes place in a restaurant owned by Georgina's crime family kingpin husband, Albert (played by Michael Gambon), and things go very very badly for some of this film's characters. The movie has plenty of strong content, including a lot of nudity, and was released in America as "Unrated" when given the choice between that and an X rating. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is one of the most interesting films on this list, but is not for everyone.
4. Last Tango in Paris (1972) This film by director Bernardo Bertolucci is infamous for a variety of reasons, but is widely considered one of the most important erotic movies ever made. The plot is a weird one that ends with one character killing the other, so it's not exactly a fun movie. One can't watch Last Tango in Paris without feeling something; it's a film that evokes strong reactions in nearly everyone. Starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider as a couple who begin a strange sexual relationship, it was extremely controversial, and was given the equivalent of an X rating, or outright banned, in some countries. Bertolucci was himself arrested in Italy on obscenity charges. Still, Last Tango in Paris is a classic of erotic film, and many critics consider it to be one of the best movies of that type ever made.
3. Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (1990)
This Spanish film by director/writer Pedro Almodóvar is a lot of fun, but a hard film to classify. It's a sort of erotic romantic comedy with darker humor than is typical for those types of films; the plot concerns Ricky (Antonio Banderas) as a "cured" mental patient, recently released from an institution, who wants to have a normal life with Marina (Victoria Abril), but things don't work out as smoothly as that. This is another film that narrowly dodged an X rating, and was released as unrated in America.
2. Henry and June (1990) This biographical drama by director Philip Kaufman is based on the memoir of the same name by Anaïs Nin, and tells the story of Nin's love triangle relationship with novelist Henry Miller and his wife, June. The couple have a bohemian lifestyle, and Nin pursued a romantic/sexual relationship with both. Henry and June has the honor of being the first film to receive the then new "NC-17" rating, intended for movies that had content deemed too strong for a simple "R" but not deserving an "X," which usually was the kiss of death for a movie that wasn't pornographic in nature. A lot of people consider this movie to be a very erotic film, and I have to agree.
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1. Secretary (2002)
Pretty much anytime I ask people I know what erotic films they like, this movie comes up, and that has to mean something. I've seen it, and I concur. The story of a non-traditional BDSM relationship between a socially awkward young woman and an attorney prone to bouts of odd behavior, this film starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader is definitely erotic, and almost certainly a lot better than 50 Shades of Grey will be.
When it comes to erotic films, things get fairly subjective. One person's kink is another's turnoff, and movies that involve heavy sexuality without being pornographic cover a lot of thematic ground, and range in tone from funny and playful to dark and tragic. There are at least a hundred films that could be added to a list of "erotica that's almost certainly better than 50 Shades," and this list is just a tip of that iceberg. Movies such Emmanuelle, Barbarella, Performance, The Piano and Crimes of Passion could easily be added, as could many others. I suppose it's possible that somehow a piece of modified Twilight fan fiction that was panned for many reasons could somehow result in a classic of erotic filmmaking, but I'm going to bet that's not the case.