Groundbreaking Films Promoting Sexual Freedom

Groundbreaking Films Promoting Sexual Freedom

Illustration of scene in "Last Tango in Paris"

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By “sexual freedom,” we mean films that expressed through fiction without restraint the ubiquitous worlds of sexual liberation. Not all of these films are a fun romp between the sheets. They represent various shades of despair, fetishes, desire, malaise, and urges that come with erotic expression. Each was scandalous in its own right, but each is considered one of the groundbreaking films promoting sexual freedom.


Shame (2011)

Steve McQueen’s film contained sex scenes and nudity that wouldn’t have been so shocking if the subject matter — sex addiction — wasn’t so riveting. Critics said no film had ever explored this problem head on before. Michael Fassbender’s protagonist, Brandon, has to rearrange his Wall Street, high-finance, sterile and lonely life dramatically when his brash, unhinged sister Sissy comes to crash at his swag Manhattan pad. What he cannot push to the side are his primal urges, which are startling at times. With incredible performances and a soulful look at soulless behavior, this is a masterful depiction of humanity.

In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

There was quite a hulabaloo in and out of the international theater circuit after this Japanese film went on screen. Nagisa Oshima challenged censorship laws worldwide, especially in his home country where genitalia were not allowed to be seen on screen, even in pornographic films. First the story: a geisha and her lover embark in the 1930s on an affair so torrid that it almost leads to bloodshed. Then the scandal: sex, all over the screen, the first mainstream film to show an erection and fellatio. Reactions to the film included bans, release delays, condemnations, and reviews calling it “the most thoughtful work of art on and of eroticism yet done.” (Charles Champlin, The Los Angeles Times,

The Graduate (1967)

A general crowd pleaser, This film is still one of the most hilarious and unique experiences at the movies. Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson, because you seduced a squirrely, fresh-out-of-college graduate named Benjamin Braddock when he was in his most nihilistic phase of life, literally stuck at the bottom of life’s swimming pool. Anne Bancroft is sexy, sad, and blasé. The youngest imaginable Dustin Hoffman squeaks with nerves and delight during his bizarre sexual awakening. It’s a movie about sexual liberation, yes, but also about the double-edged sword that can be involved in getting what you think you want.

Breaking the Waves (1996)

Then-newcomer Emily Watson was nominated an Oscar for Best Actress in this indie, arthouse, avant-garde film. She plays Bess, a vulnerable and childish Scottish woman whose devotion for her husband takes some unexpected and startling turns, especially when an accident threatens to drive a wedge between them. Lars von Trier, then and now one of the most divisive filmmakers in the world, challenges the audience as Bess challenges her puritanical coastal village to endure her sexual journey. One of the most powerful and controversial films about love ever made, it depicts a woman using her body to achieve a greater purpose. Decide for yourself if it’s the work of a misogynist.

9 1/2 Weeks (1986)

Call it “Fifty Shades of Gray” but with an ’80s touch. Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke play Elizabeth and John, whose eyes meet in a grocery store. They decide to enter into a secret alternate universe of mutual sexual experimentation and near-limitless boundaries. Described as the first film since “Last Tango in Paris” to have audiences flock to see risqué moments on screen, it’s been described as smarmy, pointless, bold and brilliant. See for yourself.

Blue Velvet (1986)

What a year for erotic cinema. David Lynch’s Oscar-nominated film made “9 1/2 Weeks” seem like a Jane Austen romp. A young man’s discovery of a severed ear leads him into the seedy and violent underworld of his small town, where he meets a troubled nightclub singer named Dorothy (Isabella Rosselini). Dennis Hopper plays Frank, a sadistic lunatic who conditions Dorothy into hungering for sex and violence together. It’s hard to watch. Lynch is a weirdo, but the feeling when walking away is unforgettable, leading many to say he’s a master of the art form. His film, “Mulholland Drive,” is considered one of cinema’s greatest.

Belle de Jour (1967)

Luis Buñuel, the Spanish auteur who once teamed up with Salvador Dali, went to Paris with Catherine Deneuve and made this film about what makes humans tick. Severine is a doting wife during the mornings, but a high-priced hooker later in the day. The brilliance of this film is that it stays light, charming, and realistic while also being very exploratory, especially with its cinematic technique of marrying together strange sounds (bells ringing, horses neighing) to trigger both Severine’s and the audience’s subconscious.

Deep Throat (1972)

It’s not the Watergate scandal guy. It’s the only true pornographic film on this list on account of unsimulated sex, but it was also considered innovative for being the first to feature a plot and an indelible leading lady — Linda Lovelace. The film grossed $1 million its first week of release, and was one of the biggest blockbusters of the year, but not without obscenity trials. A 2005 documentary, “Inside Deep Throat,” explored the film and its effects on American society. Jack Nicholson, Truman Capote, Johnny Carson, Martin Scorsese, and Barbara Walters all admitted to seeing “Deep Throat”.

It Happened one Night (1934)

Let’s squeeze some light-hearted goodness (and still some skin) into these selections. One of only three films to sweep all the major Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Director), it stars Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in the original bicker-until-they-bed together film, although the bedding together had to be very implied. Sex appeal for both men and women was portrayed in very unexpected ways in this movie. Some audiences were actually outraged by Colbert showing some leg, by Gable removing his shirt, and by the undressing scenes behind the “walls of Jericho.” The title says it all, even though we don’t actually get to see what happens that night.

Last Tango in Paris (1973)

When Bernardo Bertolucci’s film premiered at the New York Film Festival, film critic Pauline Kael said it was the most landmark moment for cinema up to that time. Her famous review can be read at The Criterion Collection. What she reacted to is the film’s unflinching totality of emotions that are dealt with through mechanical sexcapades. Marlon Brando, in one of film’s most lauded performances, plays the saddest man in the world who has a sexual liaison with a young French woman (Maria Schneider). Their names are not revealed. He cannot hide his pain and sorrowful history. It’s one of the most visceral viewing experiences to this day, and the stick of butter? Just see the film.