Notebook Primer: British Erotica

Petticoats, nude wrestling, mondo London, and alien seduction: a survey of works where diverse desires can bloom.
Georgina Guthrie

The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.

Women in Love (Ken Russell, 1969).

“British erotica” has long been considered an oxymoron, and this distinction is not entirely unfounded. While European auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard, Tinto Brass, Walerian Borowczyk, and Luis Buñuel were treating copulation as a springboard to philosophical ruminations, the British were paying to see Barbara Windsor’s bra popping off during an outdoor aerobics session in Carry On Camping (1969). Is this assessment fair? Well…yes and no. While many films point to a nation of buttoned-up prudes and furtive voyeurs, a deeper inspection reveals a colorful mosaic of sexual mores and shifting social values as film became an established part of life.

Part of the challenge of defining British erotica lies with the difficulty of defining erotica itself. There’s enormous variability in the human response, and where some prefer explicit material, coarser stuff turns many people off. For others, arousal lies in acts and objects most wouldn’t even consider erotic—a cigarette, leather boots, or humiliation at the hands of a lover, for example. 

There’s also the question of sexual orientation and gender, and the freedoms (or lack thereof) provided by certain privileges. From the birth of cinema until the present day, erotic material has predominantly been made by and for cishet men. Compounding this lack of diversity is the fact that homosexuality was illegal in Britain up until 1967. Even after gay relationships were officially permitted under British law, it took many more years for depictions on film to be more broadly accepted (it’s worth noting here that the law didn’t mention lesbians—perhaps a hangover from Queen Victoria’s apocryphal assertion that lesbians didn’t exist, or a wider reflection on female visibility in the early 20th century). While laws and public sensibilities certainly hampered the production of gay and lesbian erotica, that doesn’t mean there wasn't any in circulation: directors circumnavigated censorious backlash through subversive means, or distributed more explicit offerings underground. 

This is equally true of the gendered nature of porn creation and consumption. While the idea of Victorian prudery is largely a myth (as is the view that sex was a purely male prerogative), ideas about the importance of sexual purity for “respectable” women in the late 19th century proved indelible, and promoted a double standard that worked its way into films. Nevertheless, thirsty women have found nutrients in the erotic breadcrumbs thrown their way: the gaze of matinee idol James Mason, or something so brief and subtle as a hand flex in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice (2005). These films may not be as overtly sexual as erotic offerings for straight men, but erotic they were in intent nevertheless. 

For these reasons, our definition of erotica needs to be broader than simply “sexually explicit material,” or even “overtly erotic films”; such rigid constraints would deny a world of subversive films with erotic appeal to women and queer people, as well as the deeply subjective nature of erotic response itself. Many films that might not be labeled “erotica” are more successful than the topless-yet-tame frolics in the naturist films of the 1950s and ’60s, or the sex comedies of the 1970s—two of the biggest commercial genres in British sex film history. But while definitions of what constitutes “erotic” will remain flexible, “British” will not: this Primer will largely avoid projects with multinational directors, casts, and producers, like Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970), Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon (1992), and Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy (2001).


As Seen Through a Telescope (1900).

In the late 1800s, the Victorians were fast to put the emerging cinematic medium to erotic use. In pubs and gentlemen’s clubs—largely off-limits for reputable single ladies, unless they worked there—Britain’s earliest erotica films were screened: flickering images of bloomers and ankles projected onto walls in darkened smoking rooms, or watched en masse in brothels.

Running at a little over a minute, A Victorian Lady in Her Boudoir (thought to be Britain's oldest “erotic” film, credited to Brighton-based pioneer Esmé Collings) was played in gentlemen’s clubs from 1896. Supposedly alone in her dressing room, the woman strips off layer after layer of clothing until she’s left in a demure, full-coverage petticoat. Modern viewers are unlikely to find anything arousing in the scene, but, as Michael Brooke notes for the BFI, it “undoubtedly pushed the boundaries of what was permissible” at the time, and it was certainly intended to titillate viewers back then. Four years later, the equally restrained As Seen Through a Telescope (1900) by George Albert Smith gives us voyeuristic scenes of a lady’s shoe being laced, complete with ankle flash and a couple of calf pats from the frisky gentleman doing the honors. 

Both films establish voyeurism, and specifically, “male-as-viewer; woman-as-object,” as key elements of erotic films for the next 50 years at least. They’re also exactly what most people often picture when they think “Victorian erotica”: ankles, petticoats, and prudery.  

“Stag” was originally a word to denote male-only spaces, such as “stag parties,” but during the early part of the 20th century, the word increasingly referred to a certain type of film that screened in gentlemen's clubs. The genre has been defined as “an explicit sexual narrative, produced and distributed, usually commercially, to clandestine, nontheatrical male audiences.” Typically, these were silent shorts running under twelve minutes in length, shot on 8mm film, and created by photographers and club managers who had no formal training. These poor-quality productions often had no narrative, bad lighting, and performers asking for direction mid-shoot—displays of amateurism that became the genre’s calling card: such “errors” were often purposefully included to reinforce the film’s illicit authenticity.

The earliest known example of a stag film is thought to be Argentine in origin: a short called El Satario (The Satyr), produced somewhere between 1907 and 1913. It features fellatio, cunnilingus, and penetrative sex, which ends with a wad of ejaculate making its way out of a nude nymph as she lies on her back in the woods. The equally explicit À l’Ecu d’Or ou la Bonne Auberge (At the Golden Shield, or The Good Inn), thought to be created in 1908 in France, features a maid pleasuring herself with a vacuum cleaner attachment before indulging in a threesome. In Germany, the short Am Abend (1910) features a lone woman masturbating in her room before performing straight sex; and in 1915, the early US-made stag film A Free Ride (also known by the title A Grass Sandwich), follows a motorcyclist who picks up two women and performs various sex acts with them as they sprawl out on the grass, with playful title cards in between. 

Credits for A Free Ride (1915).

And what of Britain? Rather than a dearth of voyeurs and eager perverts, the paucity of stag-film material is more likely due to decay or destruction, with big losses during WWII bombings. German-run production companies in Buenos Aires made stag films and transported them back to Germany, where they were then shipped to Europe—and England was one of the biggest importers

A few softcore offerings from this period nevertheless trace a history of male viewing traditions in Britain. These “glamour shorts” were far tamer than stags, offering little more than brief titillation, usually in the form of a flash of a model's legs or breasts. In 1920, British filmmaker Claude Friese-Greene filmed a model gracefully posing in and out of her translucent shift in Nude Woman by a Waterfall. He briefly enters the scene to adjust her pose for the camera, then, with several takes, captures her body’s movement, with the final scene seeing her reclining in the rushing water fully nude. The film’s art nouveau-inspired poses and costumes seem to claim artistic status—and it wasn't the only film featuring nudity that placed itself in the gray area between pornography and educational material. Action in Slow Motion, probably shot in the early 1940s, features a fully nude woman cavorting in the ocean after its opening title card makes clear it was produced “expressly for assistance to artists and students.” With its proclamations of innocent intent, it’s a precursor to the naturist films of the mid-1950s, which made similarly chaste claims that fooled no one, but served to protect the filmmakers from legal repercussions. 

Pamela Green in Xcitement (Harrison Marks, 1960).

Glamour shorts were generally made by uncredited amateurs, but a few recognizable names crop up here and there. George Harrison Marks (often credited simply as "Harrison Marks"), one of Britain’s biggest smut producers, cut his teeth with nude photography, then moved onto short films before transitioning to feature-length productions in the early 1960s. His film Xcitement (1960) is among the best (and last) of the period, and stars Marks’s lover and business partner Pamela Green, who would go on to a brief but key role in Michael Powell’s controversial film Peeping Tom later that year. Here, Green strips, then offers the unseen (save for his hand) cameraman a drink and cigarette, before reclining for his viewing pleasure on the couch. 

Xcitement was far from the first film to feature graphic nudity, but it’s notable for its lavish set, bodacious star, and its proto-gonzo porn filming method, characterized by the filmer transgressing the usual barrier between camera and performer. In this instance, the cameraman (Marks) reveals his hands as he interacts with Green, giving the impression the viewer is receiving the sexual contact themselves. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the technique became more widespread, notably in “Godfather of Gonzo” Jamie Gillis’s US-based On the Prowl series. 

As film executives recognized the economic potential of erotica in the mid-1950s and 1960s, more risqué content moved into sanctioned spaces, and clandestine productions became increasingly niche. Exploitation films, which occupied a salacious middle ground between illegal and board-appeasing content, pushed stag and glamour films to the periphery in the system of British (and American) cinema, and eventually out altogether with the arrival of the feature-length porn flick. 


James Mason and Phyllis Calvert in The Man in Grey (Leslie Arliss, 1943).

As motion pictures became a permanent fixture in Britain and entertainment of choice for the respectable middle classes, it became apparent there was a need for a governing body to limit the distribution of explicit material. Thus, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) was established in 1912, two decades before Hollywood’s Hays code came into effect. During the 1940s and ’50s, films had to rely on subversion to pass the censors, or package their sexual themes more discreetly. 

During World War II, men left to fight, and women entered the workforce for the first time. Taking advantage of this newly financially independent audience, British film studio Gainsborough Pictures produced a series of melodramas, which featured stories of rebellious women and dashing men treating their female love interests abominably. While laying no claim to high art, nor considered “erotica” per se, these overheated films were immensely popular among women at the time. 

Gainsborough's The Man in Grey was one of the ten most successful British films of 1943. The story centers on Hesther (Margaret Lockwood) and her friendship with the exploitative Clarissa (Phyllis Calvert), and their respective relationships with two cads, Rohan (James Mason) and Rokeby (Stewart Granger). Mason plays a moody Heathcliff-esque character; Granger a cavalier rogue—both stock heartthrob types that would endure into the ’90s. The film's denouement sees a scowling Mason, attaired in indecently tight white britches, reach for a riding crop and raise it to Calvert as she cowers at his leather booted feet. It gives a certain 2010s BDSM film franchise a run for its money; it's incredible the censors waved it through. 

The Man in Grey went on to put its Byronic star on the map, much to his dismay—Mason detested the films, but was contractually obliged to keep starring in them. His visible contempt for the role only added to his moody appeal, and female audiences clamored for more.

Deborah Kerr and David Farrar exchanging glances in Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947).

Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947) is another important film to come out of this period. Set in a nunnery in the Himalayas, it's a tale of repressed desire and roiling emotions that lets not even a kiss or embrace slip through to break the tension. Decadent interiors, sly glances, blood-red sunsets and its smoldering leads would earn it erotic credentials, despite the film being an exercise in restraint and utterly chaste on the surface (with the exception, perhaps, of David Farrar’s very short shorts). 

The story focuses on an achingly restrained love affair between a nun and a government worker whose flirtatious encounters are charged with sexual chemistry. Yet despite a mise-en-scène that exudes overripe sexuality, our lovers remain elusive, and the film's denouement is filled with the chill of death rather than the heat of sated passions. Powell and Pressburger create a sensual world where lovers may gaze at each other, but no more—and in doing so, demonstrate how so often, a slow build-up and unbroken tension fuels erotic response far more effectively than swiftly baring all.  


Bridget Leonard, Pamela Green, Jackie Salt, and Petrina Forsythe in Naked as Nature Intended (Harrison Marks, 1961).

With the sexual revolution just around the corner, it was only a matter of time before nudity cropped up on the big screen. The first film to breach the strict BBFC “no nudity” rule wasn’t actually a British film, but an American “naturist” documentary called The Garden of Eden (1955). Naturist films, which claimed to be educational for board approval (but were of course nothing of the sort), had existed since the ’30s, but this was the first BBFC-approved film to show bare breasts and bottoms, thus establishing the genre’s commercial viability on both American and British soil. 

Thanks to its high production values and passable script, The Nudist Story (1960) is widely regarded as one of the best of the era—and In 1961, the massively successful Some Like It Cool earned its £9,000 budget back in the first week. While the artistic merits of the film were questionable, its earning clout impressed producers at Elstree Studios (the film capital in Britain at the time), who realized onscreen nudity was their cash cow. 

Xcitement director Harrison Marks, meanwhile, had moved from glamour shorts to naturist documentaries, riding high on the success of the existing Marks-Green partnership. The part-travelog, part-naturist flick Naked as Nature Intended (1961) is a particularly entertaining entry to the genre, not least for its snapshot of popular West Country tourist sites in the 1960s. Again starring Pamela Green, the film begins with three young women visiting Stonehenge, The Minack Open Air Theatre, Bedruthan Steps and Land’s End, among other British beauty spots, before finding themselves on the nudist section of a Cornish beach. There, two other women persuade them to remove their bikinis and embrace the freedoms of a nudist lifestyle. Cue 30 minutes of sun, sea, sand, and nude frolicking. Though it was received poorly by critics, the film was one of the most popular of the era, and its run in West End theaters lasted over two years.

The BBFC’s “nudity, but only in the context of a naturist setting” rule proved easy to bend, and eventually break. There were a few exceptions throughout the ’60s—notably Michael Powell’s career-destroying film Peeping Tom (1960), which featured a nude model (played by—you guessed it—Pamela Green) reclining on a bed as she waits to be photographed by the killer; Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up (1966), which features female full-frontal nudity as a clothed male photographer wrestles with two young women (one of whom is a 20-year-old Jane Birkin) on the floor of his studio; and a series of “mondo” documentaries that captured the dangerous, exciting world of London’s strip club scene. 

London in the Raw (Arnold Louis Miller & Norman Cohen, 1964).

Much like naturist films, mondo documentaries draped themselves in the robes of salaciousness, but delivered very little on the titillation front. The best of these include London in the Raw (1964)—a sensationally titled film that’s decidedly tame in content—and the equally mild Primitive London (1965). While neither film is particularly erotic, they offer the contemporary viewer playful slice-of-life vignettes featuring, among other things, a peek inside bars, burlesque clubs, gymnasiums, youth discos, a beautician’s parlor, various immigrant-run restaurants, and other sundry businesses and entertainment venues popular in London at the time.

Eventually, audiences lost interest in the formulaic nudist films, and producers began releasing the same flicks under new titles to trick patrons into repeat viewings. By the mid-’60s, production had largely ceased as more explicit films began making their way into the country from continental Europe, and British filmmakers increasingly tested the limits of what both the BBFC, and the public, permitted in the mainstream. 


Women in Love (Ken Russell, 1969).

While heterosexual men were enjoying the fruits of a more liberal climate in feature-length exploitation features, films depicting or implying gay sex remained underground. In the US, Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, and Paul Morrissey were creating experimental works that paved the way for Wakefield Poole's Boys in the Sand (1971), but there were no equivalents in the UK until the decade’s close. (Though a mention should go to Basil Dearden’s Victim [1961], staring the closeted Dirk Bogarde; and Sidney J. Furie’s The Leather Boys [1964], which were two important non-erotic films in the queer canon that helped liberalize attitudes towards homosexuality in Britain during this time.) 

A year after the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967 passed, Ken Russell (in partnership with AIDS activist Larry Kramer) made Women in Love (1969), which broke barriers not just for containing full-frontal male nudity, but for the not-so-subtly queer-coded encounter between the two leads in what would infamously go down as “the male wrestling scene.” 

Lit by flickering firelight, the two men strip off then commence grappling, working up a sweat with a series of close-quarter parries, before locking bodies and grimacing with effort as the music swells. They face each other, then we cut to Gerald (Oliver Reed) rolling off Rupert’s (Alan Bates) prostate body. “Was that too much for you?” he purrs, panting away. D.H. Lawrence’s source material makes its gay subplot overt, and as homosexuality became more widely tolerated in Britain, its creators spoke openly about their intent. “I wasn’t quite out of the closet at the time I was writing this. Now you could look at it as full, ripe and redolent with gay themes,” said Kramer in his 2014 book Sexplosion.

When it came to getting the film past the board, Russell used two strategies: firstly, to appeal to the censors' snobbery by making a film that’s clearly artistic, adapted from a canonical literary classic. Secondly, to trick them into letting more of the wrestling scene through by using more footage than necessary, allowing for cuts to pass without affecting the quality of the film. They found a compromise, with a few feet of film being snipped without any noticeable effect, and the picture darkened, so that the men’s genitals were less visible. This gave the film a dark, elegant look, which further convinced viewers that what they were watching was Hugh Culture, rather than anything more salacious. 

As The Garden of Eden proved with onscreen nudity, once the door had opened a crack, it was possible to push it further. After Women in Love, Ken Russell dialed things up a notch (or ten) with The Devils (1971), a film based on the real-life story of the 17th-century nun Sister Jeanne des Anges, who was convinced she was possessed. The notorious tale centers around a group of exorcists who visit the town and whip the nuns into an orgiastic frenzy—a detail Russell faithfully recreates in his still-shocking commentary on religious hysteria and corruption. 

The film contains, among other things, nudity, masturbation and lashings (pun not intended) of sexual violence—but most notorious of all was what came to be known as “the rape of Christ” sequence, in which nude nuns masturbate on an effigy of Jesus then start “rubbing candles sexually,” as the BBFC censors put it. This was (unsurprisingly) largely cut, along with later scenes of forced vomiting, vaginal torture, and a scene of the Mother Superior pleasuring herself with a charred bone. 

It’s a stretch to call any of this erotic, but with its scandalous depictions of sexual perversion, The Devils nudged the boundaries of acceptability ever further. Here was a film featuring graphic and brutal sexual content, the likes of which had never been seen in cinemas before—but thanks to its high production values, lavish set (designed by queer filmmaker Derek Jarman), and cast of high-profile thespians, it passed for “high art.” 


Girl on a Motorcycle

Alain Delon and Marianne Faithfull in The Girl on a Motorcycle (Jack Cardiff, 1968).

From 1969, American erotica had entered what would be known as The Golden Age of Porn, or “porno chic”: a time when sexually explicit movies had entered the mainstream. Kicking off the movement was Andy Warhol’s Blue Movie (1969), followed by Bill Osco’s Mona (1970)—both of which influenced Deep Throat (1972), which is credited as being the first feature-length porn film with a plot (thin and ridiculous though it is), character development, and relatively high production values. And how did the movement translate across the Atlantic? The short answer is—it didn’t. 

A year earlier, sleazy exploitation film Her Private Hell (1968) won the honor of being Britain’s first feature-length adult film, but unlike Deep Throat, it contains no unsimulated sex. The Girl on a Motorcycle, released the same year, was another feature-length exploitation film, but similarly contained little in the way of explicit content. 

Meanwhile, Deep Throat was twice banned in the UK on grounds of obscenity, both upon its 1972 release and again in 1982. The uncut DVD was finally given an R18 certificate by the BBFC in 1999, and it had its first UK theatrical screening in 2005, 33 years after its initial release (though plenty of people had seen it on pirated VHS tapes and in private cinema clubs before then). By the time Deep Throat was finally sanctioned for public consumption in the UK, it was considered nothing more than a relic. The film’s star, Linda Susan Boreman (credited as Linda Lovelace), had also reneged her support for the feature, speaking out about how she had been coerced to perform by her abusive then-husband Chuck Traynor and threatened at gunpoint. 

Linda's experiences highlighted a darker side of the sexual revolution. What originally appeared to be a movement towards abolishing antiquated taboos and sexual customs led, in some cases, to greater exploitation and anxiety. Women repudiated oppressive ideas of moral purity and were newly free to embrace casual sex, kink, and porn on the one hand—but on the other, they risked appearing regressive if they didn’t performatively live out this new ideal. Overt displays of sexual liberalism disproportionately benefited men (or in Linda's case, became literally weaponized).

Imogen Hassall in Carry on Loving (Gerald Thomas, 1970).

Many of the films depicting female desire throughout the 1960s and ’70s feature a cartoonish dichotomy of the prude and the sexually liberated nymphomaniac—neither of which offer a particularly helpful or accurate insight into female desire. In Carry on Loving (1970), we see not just a nation struggling to unite repressed British values with the swinging ’60s and its sexual “freedoms,” but an iteration of the sexist female makeover trope. The prim Jenny Grubb (Imogen Hassall)—who we first meet in her parents’ dark, Victorian house, surrounded by elderly relatives—is drab and shy, dressed in a long dark skirt and gray high-necked blouse. Later, she undergoes a makeover, becomes a model, and finds romance with Terry, her previously uninterested suitor. With the transformation from sheltered girl to glamorous sex kitten complete, it’s only too clear which version of Jenny we’re supposed to enjoy more. 

The transition between old the world and the new, between contradictory and often irreconcilable ideals and ideologies, define the films of this era. Mainstream erotica was no different, and grappled—rarely comfortably—with the concept of female sexuality in a state of flux. Through a male lens, the “sexually liberated woman” often remained as objectified as before; her newfound freedom offering not agency, but sexual availability to be consumed by men, or turned into the butt of the joke by directors who weren’t sure what to do with this new, exotic creature. 


Sebastiane (Derek Jarman, 1976).

While unsexy and unfunny sex comedies dominated London’s West End throughout the ’70s, queer directors were creating erotic work that dealt more overtly with LGBTQ+ themes. Derek Jarman’s 1976 film Sebastiane is a historical retelling of the life of Saint Sebastiane, ending with his martyrdom with arrows. The film, which was aimed squarely at gay male audiences, caused controversy at the time for featuring unbridled homoeroticism—notably a scene featuring two naked soldiers wrestling in shallow water—and a dialogue delivered entirely in Latin. It was also the first film approved by the British Board of Censors to feature a fully erect penis on screen (though not because it was permitted at the time: Jarman snuck an engorged member past the censors thanks to clever framing).  

Eight years later, Stephen Frears’s far more mainstream My Beautiful Laundrette (1984) examined class and racism while telling the story of life as an immigrant family in London. This love story about a Pakistani-British man and an ex-National Front member proved a massive hit with cinemagoers and critics alike, proving that with the right approach, audiences were more than ready to engage with such subject matter. The film’s one gay sex scene is neither explicit nor prudish; topless Omar (Gordon Warnecke) and Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis) kiss and mouth-swap champagne in the back room of the laundrette, while Omar’s father dances with his lover among the dryers out front. Here, gay desire isn’t played for laughs or ridicule, but for its sensuality, as well as the erotic frisson that comes from two characters engaging in something forbidden. 

While the sex scene was groundbreaking at the time, a mention must go to a subtler moment. Omar and Johnny say goodbye to each other outside the laundrette while the latter’s gang friends watch on. As they embrace, Johnny—a tough guy with bigger emotions than his constrictive world allows him to express—brushes his tongue against Omar’s ear before smiling and walking off. This surprising moment of tender yet carnal intimacy relieves the sexual tension in a way that is as satisfying as any love scene. It delivers that thrilling interplay of restraint and release that defines all great erotica. 

My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, 1984).

In 1987, the American director James Ivory made Maurice, a British production based on E.M Forster’s novel of the same name. The story follows the titular character’s (played by James Wilby) formative years as a young adult attending the University of Cambridge, where he befriends, then falls in love with Clive (Hugh Grant). The two begin a passionate affair, which remains unconsummated on Clive’s insistence that such behavior is beneath them. Despite languorous afternoons spent playing cricket and punting along the river, shame and danger hang over the couple’s union as oppressively as storm clouds before a downpour. Refreshingly, the ominous signs don’t end in tragedy; Maurice ultimately refuses to live a life of secrecy and denial.

Though Maurice received praise in the US, the response in the UK was more muted: film critics at the Times wondered whether "so defiant a salute to homosexual passion should really be welcomed during a spiraling AIDS crisis." Yet Maurice—with its full-frontal male nudity, frequent male-on-male kissing, and a rare affirmative ending for its gay protagonist—was an especially audacious film to be released at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and has since been recognized as a key film in the queer cinema canon. 


The Pillow Book (Peter Greenaway, 1996).

Throughout the '80s, '90s and ’00s, British auteurs began creating stylish films that used sex as part of the narrative, rather than the overly prescriptive (and slightly disappointing) main course itself. Nicolas Roeg dabbled in eroticism with Don't Look Now (1972) and Bad Timing (1980) with mixed results, while Peter Greenaway explored the erotic potential of power dynamics and fetishism in The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), Drowning by Numbers (1988), and The Pillow Book (1996).

Sex features prominently in every one of Greenaway’s feature films—perhaps unsurprisingly for a man who once said “If we are going to talk about sex and death, nothing else is important.” Yet despite this preoccupation, he’s disdainful of filmmakers who show the act itself (notably Nicolas Roeg and the sex scene in Don’t Look Now, which he dismisses as mere “propaganda to distribute the film.”) There’s nudity in abundance in Greenaway’s oeuvre, yet it’s never treated as a payoff in itself; his back catalog is filled with clever wordplay, lavish tableaus, and elegant eroticism that's playful and cerebral, and often sexually suggestive while skirting around anything more explicit.'

The Pillow Book, one of the director’s more conventionally erotic films, is a tale inspired by the famous book of observations, anecdotes, poems and ideas by 10th/11th-century lady-in-waiting Sei Shōnagon. In Greenaway’s adaptation of the story, Nagiko (Vivian Wu) fetishizes calligraphy when it’s written on her skin by a lover. She meets Jerome (Ewan McGregor), but dislikes his handwriting and orders him away. "Use my body like the pages of a book. Of your book!" he cries in return. With its rich detailing, and a parade of naked bodies shown in morsel-sized close-ups, the film demonstrates how the highly personal act of sex is best shown at a slight remove, the likes of which fetishism—which deals in details and the periphery—provides. While The Pillow Book does contain simulated sex of a more carnal and vanilla kind, it is at its best and most erotic when the camera depicts the careful trace of a wet paintbrush over soft skin.

Red Road (Andrea Arnold, 2006).

By the beginning of the 2000s, censorship had massively relaxed; as films tackled the bleakness of a global recession, British filmmakers began to depict sex explicitly and clinically. Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (2004) is a blend of mumblecore and highbrow porn that treats sex both too cynically and too seriously: in nine unsimulated sex scenes between nine concerts, the characters fuck, learn very little about each other, then part ways. Young Adam (2003), starring Trainspotting heartthrob Ewan McGregor, similarly puts forward a grim carnality with an array of unromantic sex scenes on towpaths and under railway bridges. And in 2010, Brilliantlove played homage to 9 Songs with plenty of explicit (though here, simulated) sex and a storyline centered on a young, bohemian couple’s sexually charged few months together before their relationship disintegrates.

Are any of these films sexy? Not really. Or at least, not anymore. Porn was, by this point, widely available at the click of a button, and a feature-length film claiming to be erotic surely needs to offer more than a watered-down version of what’s available online. While the hype around the likes of 9 Songs—a film the Guardian called “the most sexually explicit film to date”—and Brilliantlove attracted viewers, the films suffer from treating explicitness as the main draw, with little consideration for narrative, tension, or intrigue.

It wasn’t a complete erotic desert in the early ’00s. Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (2006) does something 9 Songs and Brilliantlove failed to do: it uses sex to bring us closer to the characters. It’s the story of a lonely woman who works as a CCTV operator in Glasgow, who stalks and seduces Clyde (Tony Curran), a loutish man she spots on one of her screens. Understandably perplexed by her hot pursuit, the two initially regard each other warily like wild cats in his cramped bedroom—then, in a moment of surprising tenderness, he massages her feet and gently undresses her before burying his face between her thighs. In one fell swoop, Arnold masterfully subverts the male voyeur/predator dynamic, adds depth to Tony's character, and transports us into a haven of blissful moans and human connection, a world away from the hostile concrete jungle outside. The orange-yellow street light shining in through the bedroom window gives the room a honeyed glow that could almost be candlelight.

While 9 Songs and Brilliantlove moved in newly explicit directions, Red Road focused instead on character development. With its lengthy build-up and transgressive sex scene, it delivers the necessary tension that underpins all good erotica—something Arnold would again do in 2009 with her depiction of a taboo affair between a young woman (Katie Jarvis) and her mother’s boyfriend (Michael Fassbender) in Fish Tank. Both films were part of a slow but steady movement toward erotic dramas that weren’t afraid to make desire complicated, and subvert viewer expectations in the process.

The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014).

Hearkening back to Greenaway, Peter Strickland explores visual and aural eroticism in The Duke of Burgundy (2014), which masterfully nudges viewers towards lascivious imaginings without being overly prescriptive. The story, which is about a sadomasochistic relationship between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), features a scene where the former forcibly urinates in the mouth of the latter. It’s an act (one of many) most viewers would find repellent, but Strickland chooses to depict it through sound alone, and in doing so, makes the heart of the story—which is about the erotic frisson between restraint, desire, and power—accessible to a wider audience without turning them off. 

The mind is a powerful erotic tool, capable of taking libidinous cues from the most benign things, and Strickland’s dreamy world is redolent with sex, even in the absence of anything explicit. The creak of leather boots on wooden floorboards, the rasp of nylon on skin, and the sound of chittering insects weave a deeply seductive spell that is finally broken not by the act itself, but by the realization that we're watching two humans struggling to navigate a long-term relationship. 

In 2013, Jonathan Glazer pushed challenging erotica to new limits with Under the Skin. Glazer’s film is not about cheap payoff or mild titillation, but about slowly seducing the viewer into the film’s sensual world, from which they can then explore their own response. Driving through gray Glasgow streets under leaden skies, Laura (Scarlett Johansson), an alien disguised as a human, lures men back to a dank house, strips down to her underwear then beckons them forward until they sink into black goop, where their bodies will soon be transformed into meat. 

With its eerie mood, achingly slow pace, and stark sensuality, Under the Skin offers a complex eroticism that can’t be denied. As with the sexually subversive dramas of the 1940s and ’50s, the film’s restraint provides the erotic impetus: our beautiful protagonist seduces men, but neither party enjoys sexual release in a traditional sense. Instead, she dispassionately watches her would-be suitors succumb to a pool of shiny back oil while Mica Levi’s chilling score—in these moments, a primal drum beat reminiscent of a beating heart, but predatory in its relentlessness—hypnotically lures us (and them) in. This isn’t straightforward vanilla sex; it’s the eroticization of power dynamics and submission. As the male victims willingly sink into black goop, their helplessness at the hands of a beautiful woman offers a twisted form of sexual release. 

 Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013).


So how do filmmakers create genuinely erotic works now, when we’ve seen it all, and almost everything is permissible? While salacious titles of the past used lascivious taglines that overpromised on the sex front, it became obvious by the early 2000s that showing everything was equally disappointing. Such films erred by using “boundary-pushing sex” as the main draw, or exploitation for exploitation’s sake. Both A Victorian Lady Undressing and 9 Songs survive as time capsules of limits that were pushed, but quickly dated.

The films that have retained their erotic appeal are not about censor-pushing sex or exploitation, but about the complex lives of the people taking part in the act. Good erotica is lovingly detailed, surprising, yearning, playful, weird, carnal, urgent, tender, slow. It mirrors the natural pace of human sexual arousal, and it allows room for diverse desires to bloom. It uses sexual suggestion to inspire, rather than prescribe, and in doing so, allows viewers to respond in their own personal way. You may not jump to Chinese calligraphy or alien femme fatales when you think about sex, but these films hold timeless appeal, whatever your desires may be.

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ColumnsNotebook PrimerClaude Friese-GreeneGeorge Harrison MarksHarrison MarksLeslie ArlissMichael PowellEmeric PressburgerKen RussellGerald ThomasDerek JarmanStephen FrearsJames IvoryPeter GreenawayAndrea ArnoldPeter StricklandJonathan GlazerPamela Green
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