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Serious Sex: The Literary Erotic Trilogy of Philip Kaufman

"The Unbearable Lightness of Being," "Henry and June," and "Quills" showcase the undervalued New Hollywood filmmaker's serious take on sex.
Kayleigh Donaldson
Mainstream American cinema has a complicated relationship with sex, simultaneously leering and puritanical. Decades after the downfall of the Hays Code, Hollywood as a whole still struggles with honest and fully layered portrayals of human sexuality. The powerful combination of statewide and local censorship boards, the industry's own self-regulation efforts, and decades long social movements by conservative pressure groups helped to drastically change our cinematic understanding of sex. As Kirby Dick argued in his 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, ratings boards tend to be far tougher on sex and nudity than scenes of blood-stained massacres in action movies. Even erotic films suffer under this system, with Fifty Shades of Grey, a movie built entirely around its sexual content, being pre-emptively toned down by its studio to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating. 
The end of the Code in the mid-1960s saw greater creative freedom in regards to the depiction of sex but its status as a mainstream attraction and moneymaker would take a few more years to mature. By the 1980s and ‘90s, the erotic thriller had emerged as a surprising box office hit, with films like Basic Insinct (1992) and Sliver (1993) blending noir-esque mysteries with proudly garish sexual displays. Fatal Attraction (1987) became a cultural touchstone while Brian de Palma’s Body Double (1984) took the simmering tensions of the Hitchcockian thriller to their brashly logical conclusion. It didn’t take long, however, for the tide to turn on this genre’s popularity, quickly becoming a subject of mockery as it reached its critical nadir with Showgirls (1995). 
Erotic thrillers, even at their most critically respected, were viewed by many as a semi-respectable means for people to see sex on-screen. The genre exploded in popularity thanks to the proliferation of at-home video and cable television. Erotic thrillers were, next to action films, the most popular genre in the direct-to-video market of low-budget releases in the early ‘90s. which didn’t help to refute its increasingly seedy reputation. As the decade rolled on, however, this cheaply produced pile of "T&A films" oversaturated the market, and the big-budget failures of works like Showgirls and Jade (1995)—both written by Joe Ezsterhas—exacerbated its decline. While there were arthouse titles exploring the genre at this time, like Atom Egoyan's Exotica (1994) and David Cronenberg's Crash (1996) taking it into more provocative directions, these weren't designed to appeal to the "respectable" mainstream in the way their predecessors were.
One filmmaker, however, bucked the trend, creating erotic dramas that were explicitly sexual, designed for the mainstream, and proudly serious in their intent. As on-screen Hollywood eroticism became more ludicrous, Philip Kaufman kept it earnest.
Philip Kaufman, who turns 85 this October, is a curious figure in the history of the post-classical studio domination era of American filmmaking, the era when the bright young things took over the old guard and shook off the shackles of the Code. Unlike the New York and Los Angeles film school brats who dominated the growing auteur conversation of the era, Kaufman is a Chicago native and former teacher who made San Francisco his home and base of creative operations, forever an outsider looking in. 
He made big studio films intended for mass audiences but with a singular approach that never sacrificed sophisticated ideas, particularly ones of personal, artistic, and political freedom. Kaufman was wholly cinematic in his style but focused on the literary in terms of his source material, with a keen understanding of adaptation who didn’t shy away from bestsellers or “unadaptable” tomes alike. It was a balance that never sacrificed intellectual sturdiness in favor of accessibility, although his work is extremely inviting to even the most casual of viewers. A director who, at a time when studios were moving more towards family-friendly blockbusters in the footsteps of Lucas and Spielberg, stridently made serious films for adults. The Right Stuff (1983), a three-hour drama about the beginnings of the American space race, birthed what Quentin Tarantino called the “hip epic.” His remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) swapped the original’s story of McCarthy-era paranoia for one of Yuppie conformism and pre-Reaganist death of the ‘70s. He even made Michael Crichton pulp into a fascinating story of culture shock and corporate duplicity with the provocative, if divisive, Rising Sun (1993). Annette Insdorf, the most prominent scholarly authority on Kaufman’s work, writes that, while his auteurist approach could be argued, his versatility and willingness to put the text before his own tics placed him in a “neglected” tradition of “directors better known as craftsmen,” like Peter Weir and Alan J. Pakula.
Moreover, he made serious films about sex, most notably a trilogy of adaptations over the course of a decade that helped to define modern sensuality in American cinema. Kaufman kicked things off in 1988 with The Unbearable Lightness of Being, an adaptation of Milan Kundera's dense novel of political and philosophical strife before and after the Prague Spring. Two years later came Henry and June, a biographical drama centred on the intertwining relationships of taboo-busting writers Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin. Kaufman began a new decade with Quills (2000), a dramatization of the infamous Marquis de Sade's final years in an asylum as he battles the censorship of the state.
These films could and frequently did titillate but for Kaufman, sex could be about anything but gratification. In his films, sex is funny and awkward and boring and petty and depressing and dangerous and revelatory. Of course, sometimes, sex is also just sex. As Manohla Dargis put it in a 2000 piece for Harper’s Bazaar, Kaufman has a gift "for inflaming an audience’s libido without doing insult to its intelligence.”
The Unbearable Lightness of Being follows a playboy surgeon, played by a pre-Oscar Daniel Day-Lewis, who enjoys the libertine freedoms of late-1960s Czechoslovakia while widely ignoring the growing political unrest. He divides his romantic attentions between the similarly minded artist Sabina (Lena Olin) and the more earnest but determined Tereza (Juliette Binoche). His story starts like a bawdy sex comedy, with his fellow doctors and patients watching on in awe as he casually gets a nurse to take off her clothes for him. The audience joins in on the giddy amusement of the scene which is a Sid James quip away from a Carry On movie. After meeting Tereza, young and innocent and easily charmed by his routine, she surprises him by turning up on his doorstep. His usual shtick of seduction is suddenly turned on its head when Tereza latches onto him like a lemur on a tree and mewls her way through a hilariously weird moment of foreplay. For now, sex is innocent, something to indulge in and watch without fear or judgement or repercussion. That quickly changes when revolution comes and the state takes greater notice of its citizens.
It means many different things to watch sex, both within Kaufman’s films and for his eager audiences. In this trilogy, lovers are constantly being looked at, inspected, and judged. It is in these small but key differences that Kaufman finds immense intricacies. Mirrors are a frequent feature in these stories, offering a glimpse of the subject and the spectator. The most literal example comes in Unbearable Lightness, thanks to a shapely full-length mirror in Sabina’s apartment shaped like a woman’s nude silhouette. Befitting an artist, her home has many mirrors. In the first sexual encounter we see between her and Tomas, following an intertitle that introduces her as “the woman he knew best,” an oval mirror by their side allows not only the couple to watch their lovemaking but gives the viewer a new angle. It’s one that makes the audience instantly aware of their gaze and how quickly the pleasure of voyeurism can become a symbol of control. The crushing weight of surveillance smothers their lives. Scenes of Tereza and Tomas protesting against the military used real-life footage of the Prague Spring, to which the actors were seamlessly blended into reality by cinematographer Sven Nykvist. It’s a moment of the blurring of truth and fiction that is as disconcerting as the sudden shift in the characters’ lives.
Once military control takes over Prague, a sinister edge of surveillance overtakes these previously liberating moments of sexuality. Tereza, after discovering that Tomas has continued to cheat on her, decides to even the score with a one-night stand with an unnamed engineer played by a very young and handsome Stellan Skarsgård. Their union is unfulfilling but becomes more fraught when Tereza realizes that she may have been set up by spies to provide blackmail material against her husband. Previously innocent glances at romantic and erotic moments—a oddly sweet peeping tom pretending to be asleep on the train as Tomas and Teresa kiss—suddenly take on an authoritative air. Sex was always political but now it’s weaponized in a way that few can truly control.
Sex’s political potency would carry over to Kaufman’s next project, 1990’s Henry and June, both on-screen and off-. The film became the first title to receive a NC-17 rating. The newly created rating was an attempt to move on from the pornographic implications of the X rating and allow serious adult dramas of this kind to flourish in the commercial market without judgment. It, of course, didn’t work, and the NC-17 rating remains a death knell for any major film hoping to receive a wide release. Henry and June’s NC-17 status certainly helped to reinforce the limiting notion that honest depictions of sex couldn’t work in Hollywood. Both Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, two authors all too familiar with censorship, would have related.
Nin (Maria de Medeiros) has a sweet and stable husband in the form of Hugo (Richard E. Grant in top cuckold mode), but it's the brash egoist Miller (Fred Ward) to whom she's drawn. Working on his first novel, the pair find common ground in sharing their work with one another, and an affair blossoms. But Nin is also drawn to Henry's wife, June Miller (Uma Thurman), a woman of immense experience and charisma to whom Nin also becomes enamoured.
While the writing of Tropic of Cancer, Miller’s pioneering novel, is featured prominently throughout Henry and June, particularly in how both June and Anaïs influence its birth, the film prioritizes Nin’s evolution as a woman and an artist. She is constantly looking, seeing that which she isn’t supposed to see, whether it’s a moment of emotional weakness with Miller crying at the movies or her friend Richard Osborn (Kevin Spacey) in bed with three women. She and Hugo visit a brothel and pay to watch an exhibition of sex workers. The camera focuses on their stoic faces as the action unfolds in front of them, framed for the viewer by the mirror behind them. The display is one of obvious voyeuristic force, a strain of connective tissue between this film and Unbearable Lightness, but also a self-conscious one. You’re never not aware of the act of looking, not just with Nin (whose desire is conveyed with cross-cutting from her eyes to those of one of the sex workers) and the women themselves, but the (presumably) paying audiences in cinemas and at homes.
The voyeurism extends to the films shown throughout Henry and June, acting as its own mirror to the narrative and our cultural understanding of it. In one scene, Mädchen in Uniform, the pioneering 1931 German film that remains one of cinema's longest surviving depictions of lesbian love, plays in the background. These erotic experiences don’t just change Nin as a person, the film argues: they made her a better writer. What is art if not a dive into the forbidden? It’s a level of liberation not afforded to June Miller, who is sensual and initially authoritative towards Nin but remains a muse more than a creator. When she reads her husband’s creative reimagining of her life, which he frequently mines for inspiration, she is devastated by the result. She calls it a distortion. He claims it’s “the you inside of me.” Until her death, June Miller decried her depiction in both her husband and her former friend’s works.
Quills
While undoubtedly steeped in eroticism, Quills is the least sexy of this trilogy. Sex here is at its trickiest, its most devious and dangerous. The Marquis de Sade is played by Geoffrey Rush as a cross between Mae West, Mick Jagger, and the town flasher. He continues to write his satirical filth from the asylum where a kindly abbé (Joaquin Phoenix) believes that a kind and humane approach will “cure” him of his deviance. Everyone watches everyone, with one character quipping that “even the walls have eyes.” When Napoleon gets word of his pointed stories, he sends a torturous doctor (Michael Caine) to smother the problem once and for all. Nothing works. The Marquis can’t and won’t stop writing, not even at the cost of his own life. He declares it to be his “constant erection.” The asylum takes away his paper and ink, so he writes on the bedsheets in wine. They strip his room of his belongings, so he writes porn on his clothes in his blood. Eventually, his hands and tongue are removed, but then he writes on the walls of his cell in a mixture of urine and feces. It’s a grotesquely literal but effective treatise against censorship. Ideas can seldom truly be quashed. The Marquis’s final words before his tongue is cut out are, “Would that I were so easily silenced.” Indeed, the Abbe later takes up the quill and continues his work from within the same cell that the Marquis created his devilish tales.
To the ensemble, sex is a display of extremes, a sacrilegious cry or a cheeky performance of political spite. Only one character views it with anything remotely resembling common sense. Washerwoman Madeleine (Kate Winslet) is the Marquis’s aide in sending his work to the outside world. For her, these tales of pure filth are a perfectly innocent (so to speak) escape from reality, a way to explore taboo fantasies without enacting them. “If I weren’t such a bad woman on the page,” she explains, “I couldn’t be such a good woman in life.” It’s an attitude almost too healthy for this world. Of course, Madeline dies, and in death, becomes that very perversion she rolled her eyes at. The abbé dreams of making love to her upon the altar where her dead body lies. In the film, she is seen as coming to life, with an implication that it’s a mental rewrite of an act of necrophilia. In the original play, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright, it’s more explicitly so.
The relationship between sex and violence, and our consumption of both, is the beating heart of Quills. The film opens with the Marquis’s seemingly sensual narration of a beautiful high-bred woman in the throes of ecstasy. It’s only when we see a man’s dirty hands stroke her neck that we see the reality: she is to be placed upon the guillotine, an event that has attracted baying crowds of all ages, including young children. The Marquis watches on from behind the bars of his cell, something that happened in real life and that Sade himself said was a deeply traumatic experience. The execution of a sobbing woman in front of an audience hungry for blood is surely a greater damnation of society than the Marquis’s dirty stories. That violence is welcomed while sex is feared is a dynamic that Hollywood, and the creators of the NC-17 rating that hindered Henry and June, are all too familiar with.
Kaufman hasn't made a film since 2012's HBO biopic Hemingway and Gellhorn. His legacy is one that is either ignored or taken for granted, with even his undisputed epic The Right Stuff shunted aside by a patchy National Geographic remake in 2020. Cinematic eroticism has its moments in Hollywood but seldom to the scale or literary grandeur that Kaufman so ambitiously made his own. It's left to non-Americans like Pedro Almodóvar or the voices of indie LGBTQ+ filmmaking like John Cameron Mitchell of Shortbus (2006) fame to get the job done. The notion of sex as a serious on-screen subject remains elusive to far too many. The stylistic and philosophical richness of human sensuality, our basest quality, surely deserves better? 

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