Sex sells. The history of fiction and artifice are littered with the scandals and sensations of erotic art. The sexploitation movie is an art form born out of the public’s desire to see people take their clothes off and a loosening of the moral standards of motion picture censors.
In the 1960s, you could suddenly get away with nudity without having to pretend it was educational. Many enterprising producers rushed hundreds of films with the bare minimum of plot or technique into production, knowing they could make serious money with the promise of sex on screen. The arrival of home video in the ’80s killed the burgeoning industry – why sit in a crowded theatre to see attractive people when you could watch in the comfort of your own home? – but lately a few movies have brought people back into movie houses to see the young and beautiful bare all – ushering in a new era and a new kind of sex movie.
Here are 10 Recent Sexploitation You Have to Watch. Note that our definition of “recent” is relative. Sexploitation as a cottage industry ended in the early ’80s, so we’re looking back almost 20 years to see the origins of this new trend.
10. 50 Shades of Grey (2015)
The 1974 french sexploitation film Emmanuelle, about a woman who discovers sex with a few helping hands while living in South East Asia, saved the French film industry from certain bankruptcy. People couldn’t wait to see the film everyone was buzzing about. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s 50 Shades of Grey is the American Emmanuelle.
Heavily compromised and dull-washed thanks to meddling in the script by the author of the wildly successful book of the same name, the title was still a license to print money, so it didn’t matter that anyone who had heard that the book was a non-stop game of sexual twister were probably flummoxed by the film’s refusal to show anything remotely kinky. And those who read the book had probably imagined far sexier images than the ones Taylor-Johnson was obligated to display to ensure that the film could still play on American movie screens without the dreaded NC-17 rating.
So really all the film had going for it was that everyone knew that it was about sex, because the film itself had nothing you couldn’t see every week on Game of Thrones. Goes to show how susceptible to dirty suggestion we remain.
9. Shame (2011)
Oh sure it came wrapped in a fancy artistic pedigree, but Shame is as exploitative as they come. Months before the film came out, blurry photos of a naked Michael Fassbender leaked online, taken by some lucky passerby who wandered beneath the New York filming locations. This seemed to promise something not suitable for work. And sure enough, in the very first scene, out walks Fassbender, letting it all hang out.
Shame is the story of a sex addict reaching one new low after another, and it’s as thoroughly moralistic as any film that had to find away around the production code. Fassbender may get up to all manner of sexy stuff, but he has to learn his lesson at some point and in the process stop holding his little sister to standards he doesn’t adhere to himself. Downright wholesome, isn’t it?
Shame would like us to know that sex should never be taken for granted, not even by the most attractive people in New York.
8. The Duke of Burgundy (2014)
Everything from the font, the color scheme and the music say that The Duke of Burgundy should have a release date of about 1974. That is director Peter Strickland’s game. His heroine imagines her life as a mysterious European sex movie. The reality is something altogether more complicated. She is in a Bondage and role play-tinged union with a woman for whom she plays a submissive cleaning lady, over and over again.
The Duke of Burgundy has its fair share of compromising situations but people expecting the frothy sensual games promised by the trailers and advance word were probably sucker punched by the labyrinth of emotion Strickland had drawn for curious viewers.
7. Nymphomaniac (2013)
Lars von Trier was no stranger to heaps of uncomfortable sexuality. So when he announced that his 2013 film would be titled Nymphomaniac, fans had every right to expect a wall-to-wall orgy of miserable fetishists and hardcore felicities. This is the man who has hired porn actors (on more than one occasion, it must be said) to make sure his sex scenes could cut to close-ups, after all.
The trailer promised real-live sex acts performed on camera, and the posters featured every actor in the enormous cast pulling their most explicit “O face.” Nymphomaniac seemed too sexy to be true. Of course that’s exactly what it was. Anyone expecting Lars Von Trier to make pornography doesn’t know Lars Von Trier. He’ll always pull the rug out from under you.
Nymphomaniac is roughly four hours of a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recounting her slow detachment from the world through sexual discovery, interrupted every so often by her audience (Stellan Skarsgaard) throwing in a tangent from his vast knowledge of esoteric interests. It’s a beautiful film, but not the one the advertisements promised.
6. Love 3D (2015)
Gaspar Noé more than likely has the word “Provocateur” on his business cards, as he’s been freaking people out with his disturbing images, woozy style and brusque (often appalling) politics since he started making movies.
After dolling out liberal helpings of sexuality and nudity into his first few movies (The almost unwatchable Irreversible among them), he went whole hog and made a an explicit movie about sex… in 3D. There’s slightly more to it than that – the story is about a doomed relationship seen through alternately dreary and erotic flashbacks – but Noé was not coy about letting people know that this was a sex movie plain and simple – and he let everyone know that the on-screen sexual activities are definitely unsimulated.
The salacious posters say everything – this is not for children. Ironically, Noé’s never made a more engrossingly humane film than this ostensible skin flick.
5. The Canyons (2013)
“This is what happens when you cast Lindsay Lohan in your movie” read the headline in The New York Times. The story was one of prima donna theatrics, exhibitionism and despair behind the scenes on The Canyons. America’s sweetheart had fallen far and done it publicly. And here was her latest disaster, a film in which she appears topless with porn star James Deen, directed by Paul Schrader, who’d given us rough movies like Hard Core, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
It turns out that neither artist was working at the height of their powers anymore. Years working on aborted and unloved projects had dulled Schrader’s acuity behind the camera. The script, by Bret Easton Ellis, of all people, desperately lacked a point of view, and Lohan looked like she’d lived a hundred years in the spotlight instead of fifteen. The weirdly affectless movie delivered on its promise of nudity, but it had a sad underpinning, like we were collectively gazing at something that should be private. But the marketing worked, it got people talking, and was apparently successful in its VOD release.
4. Secretary (2002)
Secretary was the first American film to deal with Bondage, Dominance and Sadomasochism (BDSM for short) in a frank, open and positive light. The first two aren’t so surprising, but the last one is rare in famously repressed Hollywood. The film got lips flapping for its naughty text, so much so that the lede was buried – there was a romantic and beautiful love story buried under all the fetishism.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a woman recently released from an institution for harming herself. She tries to improve her mood by working and finds herself in the employ of James Spader, playing a lawyer with special needs. Their relationship begins casually but escalates to castigations and spanking, which frees Gyllenhaal from her dependence on self-harm. If any of this rings a bell, would it interest you to know that Spader’s character is called Mr. Grey?
3. Machete (2010)
Machete, a film based on a trailer, has an uncommon relationship to the demands of the public. It first existed as a deliberately empty promise for sexy, explosive thrills. Then it had to deliver all of those things. No film that existed to give the feeling of a trailer could ever exist satisfactorily as a stand alone movie. But it was interesting to see the reason why so many trailers work better than the films they advertise. Instant gratification isn’t inherently cinematic. But that didn’t stop Robert Rodriguez from trying.
There was bloodshed aplenty and plenty of unclothed women, but that was a bit of a cheat. At the time of the film’s release there were several articles about the corners cut in that department. Jessica Alba’s nude scene was faked with digital technology and Lindsay Lohan used a body double. Rodriguez wanted to make a magical movie that was all things to all people, but like the commitment of its stars to such a ludicrous idea, such a thing is not easy to secure.
2. Knock Knock (2015)
Eli Roth had worked in every disreputable genre he could find – torture porn, body horror, cannibal movies – but he’d never made an out and out sexploitation film. Knock Knock is a classic example of what they used to call a Roughie – films in the 60s that mixed sex and violence. He gave it a queasy modern spin, as is his wont.
Keanu Reeves plays an architect who makes the mistake of letting two young women (Ana de Armas, Lorenza Izzo) who show up sopping wet on his doorstep during a rain storm. They claim to be lost but it becomes clear that they know exactly where they are. Roth’s desire to have his sex-and-violence cake and eat it too leads the film down one alley too many. It’s ethically cowardly and more than a little misogynistic, but the film does deliver on its promise of sex and violence.
1. Showgirls (1998)
The NC-17 Rating took over for the more dangerous-sounding X rating in the 90s (which had ironically become associated with pornography, which was outside of the MPAA’s purview). The first major film slapped with one was Paul Verhoeven’s camp totem Showgirls. Verhoeven’s camp wore it like a badge of honor – anyone who watched TV at the time of its release will still remember the gravelly voiced announcer relishing the pronunciation of every syllable.
The film had more nudity than it knew what to do with, so it had every right to be proud of its new and improved rating. Elisabeth Berkeley is Nomi Malone, a girl who wants to make it in Vegas, no matter what it takes or who she has to step over. Malone starts at a small-time strip club before coming aboard a glitzy strip review cabaret. The question is: will she’ll ever be satisfied unless she’s on top of the world? There is no question that Showgirls has satisfied fans of all stripes with its profoundly sleazy fireworks and nonstop parade of passionate strippers.
The golden age of sexploitation may be a distant memory but there are still those out there who try to recapture the dirty magic. What are some other good modern sexploitation films? What are some of your favorite classics of the form?