Forget Fifty Shades: Female Fantasy on Film can be so much better...
Ahead of the adaption of controversial novel Fifty Shades of Grey (Valentine's Day UK release) – we take a look at the best female erotica, and sort the sexy from the sordid.
Fifty Shades of Grey defines divisive. On one hand, the trilogy's release generated a flurry of honest discourse about modern sexuality: Fifty Shades fitted into a progressive and ongoing commercialisation of female-oriented pornography (A.K.A., cutely, 'Mummy Porn'). The series' phenomenal popularity prompted unprecedented sexual discussion, dragging the idea of female fantasy into the mainstream. And yet, in doing so, it posed other, serious questions about where this was all headed.
What place did E.L. James' books, championing bondage and female submission, have in modern society? Many see it as a betrayal of the feminist cause. Promoting violence and rape culture and speaking in the thuggish language of the patriarchy, the book can sound a lot more like the smooth-talking dominant Mr. Grey than the naïve English graduate it purports to empower. Others take other, simpler issue with the language it speaks: the boorish, artless drivel of the bottom-shelf bestseller. Many take issue with both.
Still from the film, which stars Dakota Fanning as Anastasia and Jamie Dorman as Christian Grey
Yet its success can’t be ignored. One in three women have read the novel – thanks in part to the rise of the Kindle and its facelessness. Curious middle-aged women were invited to indulge unrestrainedly in guilty pleasures and sexual fantasies. Fifty Shades was devoured on buses, trains, in artesian coffee shops.
For the uninitiated, our heroine is the young and very naïve journalist Anastasia Steele, as she embarks on a journey of sexual awakening. Her mentor CEO and sexual provocateur Christian Grey, lover of whips and wine, who is just troubled enough to be forgiven for his desire to dominate women in and out of the bedroom.
Whilst the relationship is, overtly, a consensual one – the young protagonist is repeatedly warned of the situation into which she is entering, and she’s even asked to sign a waiver – it is also uncomfortably coercive. She’s a virgin, she continually struggles in her conscience about what she actually wants, to the point that she acknowledges she’s only really doing it to please him, since he’s 'too hunky' to resist.
It’s difficult, then, to read it without a certain level of discomfort. The novel toes the line between freedom and enslavement so frequently that readers don't know where to stand.
Fifty Shades of Grey Trailer
The Best of Female Erotica on Screen?
The ultimate problem with Fifty Shades, anti-feminism aside, is that – well – it’s just not very good. Why should this be the defining 'fantasy on film' – when it's such a clichéd portrait of Hollywood sex appeal?
Better erotica – and erotica that appeals to women – attempts to engage more complex emotional responses. Considering the mainstream erotic films that have made it to the silver screen in the last decade, many more complex emotions interplayed with narratives of fetishism or desire: Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine presented a hyper-relalistic portrait of a couple whose marriage is in decline, interspersed with the explicitly sexual scenes. Directors such as Lars Von Trier used sex as a sound-board for the most extreme human responses, as in his 'depression' trilogy, Antichrist, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac, with Charlotte Gainsbourg appearing in varying states of psychotic depression.
We mustn't forget that it’s all been done before – and its been done better. So here are some great and thought-provoking, mainstream movies that are all about sex:
Good Erotica for Women
Maggie Gyllenhall in 'Secretary'
Secretary is the paradigmatic BDSM film. Released in 1993 and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, it could easily be considered the original (but with much better stories than) Fifty Shades of Grey. Gyllenhaal plays the troubled, masochistic young protagonist Lee Holloway and Spades her sadistic boss incidentally named E. Edward Grey, who hires her as secretary. Grey proceeds to demand a series of impossible tasks, then to inflict punishments that become increasingly sexual. Littered with scenes of spanking it addresses its subject boldly, but with Gyllenhaal in the lead role it manages to be charming and utterly direct. Whilst Edward’s behaviour is painted, from the beginning, as intolerable by the majority of women, Lee’s character is a troubled one, and this relationship though objectively bordering on abusive, actually in effect heals her from her own self-abuse. She discovers that her relationship with Grey is the outlet she’s always needed. Whilst there are some tricky issues at play here, the film is unapologetic. It’s open about BDSM whilst never verging on the overly lurid, and it doesn’t make light of its subject matter.
2. Blue is the Warmest Colour
Director Abdellatif Kechiche's 2013 fraught film Blue is the Warmest Colour dealt openly with a lesbian relationship, as the protagonist comes to terms with her sexuality. Some have complained that the erotic scenes seem to indulge overtly in male fantasy, but the film's preoccupation is not sexually oriented, rather a relationship that waxes and wanes, like any other. As with Blue Valentine the sex scenes are an integral part of the film's realist thrust, but less associated with its sexual orientation or male fantasy that an accurate portrait of youthful passion.
3. Jane Campion
Still from 'The Piano'
The feminist gaze of Jane Campion certainly deserves a mention in her open, unidealised portrayals of sexuality. Her haunting films, such as the 1993 Palme D'Or winner The Piano, achieve striking levels of eroticism without being overly explicit. With such a well-respected female director Sam Taylor-Wood directing the film adaptation Fifty Shades, which was also written by a woman, it's likely that mainstream film erotica will swing toward a more female-aligned perspective and Campion's films are certainly those to hold a mirror to, in their starkness and unapologetic sexual outlook.
4. Y Tu Mama Tambien
Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal star in this Mexican bildungsroman about two teenage boys who go on a road trip with an older woman. Whilst it addresses a number of other issues about the political state of Mexico at the time, the film also gives an honest depiction of sex and addresses its subject matter with monumental liberty. The arthouse film received a shockingly high rating of NC-17 in the US, which led to a number of lawsuits from the filmmakers, as well as criticism from the likes of Roger Ebert, who suggested that the standards association’s stringent attitude to sex and drug use is not in line with lack of issue with the depiction of strong violence banded around in Hollywood.
5. The Duke of Burgundy
We're far more excited about this film, to be released next weekend and purporting to be everything Fifty Shades of Grey isn't. Centring on sadistic lepidopterist and her lesbian lover, the film ties together beautiful shots of butterflies with the surrealism of their apparently normative BDSM, role-playing scenarios. Although set in a world devoid of technology and with a deep focus on our natural surroundings, the film seems to be as much a modern-day tale as any other, highlighting how easily divergences in sexual appetites can impinge on meaningful relationships. Click here to read our preview.