10 great films about female desire

To celebrate the release of Claire Denis’s new film, Let the Sunshine In, we recommend 10 more films with bold and sometimes taboo-breaking spins on the subject of female sexual desire.

Sophie Monks Kaufman

Let the Sunshine In (2017)

Let the Sunshine In (2017)

The most persuasive charm of French maestro Claire Denis’s latest and lightest film is the way it presents a middle-aged woman as open to casual sex. Parisian artist Isabelle, sensually embodied by Juliette Binoche, succumbs to a slew of interested men. Her life is all the richer for these flings. By the end of Let the Sunshine In she has found her – to use the film’s more poetic French title – ‘beau soleil intérieur’. She may continue to yearn for love, but we, the audience, are privy to how naked experiences have made her soul shine.

Denis has made a vocation out of evoking atmospheres loaded with unspeakable sexual urges. From the desire a white French woman feels for her black houseboy in Cameroon-set debut feature Chocolat (1988), to the soured homoerotic longing and glistening naked torsos in Beau Travail (1999) to the tryst between strangers caught in a Paris traffic jam in Vendredi soir (2002) to – most carnal of all – the cannibalistic lust of Trouble Every Day (2001).

With the latter title, Denis is on to something. Danger dogs a pursuit so profoundly physical and yet driven by something ineffable within. Whether it’s the emotional danger of humiliation or the real danger of violence; the social danger of being marginalised for what you want, or the existential danger of being discontented with life once the pursuit is over, the most astute filmmakers show desirous women as navigating risks in their quest for pleasure.

Here are 10 films, chosen from a much longer list, in which something is staked in the name of desire.

La Prisonnière (1968)

Director Henri-Georges Clouzot

La Prisonnière (1968)

What happens when a woman falls for a man whose desires are… unconventional? Decades before Christian Grey was even a twinkle in the eye of author E.L. James, there was Stanislas Hessler, played with magnificent and melancholic authority by the Russian-descended actor Laurent Terzieff. His mysterious gallery owner, replete with an astonishing apartment of art curios and a private sideline in S&M photography, compels the relatively traditional, married Josée (Elisabeth Wiener) to step into roles she has never played before.

This was the final film from the French master of suspense, Wages of Fear director Henri-Georges Clouzot, and it blurs lines between sex and love, domination and submission, and destruction and creation, leaning into psychedelic aesthetics. Preconceptions about relationships are lost, narratively and visually, in a swirling vortex of erotically charged darkness, until chains donned in the name of sexual curiosity link around the heart.

Kissed (1996)

Director Lynne Stopkewich

Kissed (1996)

The most romantic film about necrophilia you are ever likely to see! Adapted from the short story ‘We So Seldom Look on Love’ by Canadian novelist Barbara Gowdy, Kissed stars Molly Parker as Sandra, who has been obsessed with death since girlhood when she held funerals for found animal corpses. Now a young woman, she works at the local morgue where she enjoys “crossing over” as she affectionately calls making love to dead men.

Kissed is most notable for its ethereal tone, which lends a surreal majesty to what is perhaps the most taboo expression of sexuality. Framed in this light, the film would almost scan as set in a dreamworld, but for the protective secrecy Sandra gives herself. “They wouldn’t understand,” she says in the serene voice of one who has found all that they ever wanted.

Romance (1999)

Director Catherine Breillat

Romance (1999)

French provocateur Catherine Breillat has portrayed female sexuality in many movies. Romance is perhaps tame in comparison with Abuse of Weakness (2013), Fat Girl (2001) and even A Real Young Girl (1976), in which a busty and curious 15-year-old experiments by putting all manner of farm materials up her vagina.

Still, Romance maintains an impressive focus on the intimate needs of Marie, who is in love with with her boyfriend, despite his disgust at what he perceives as her dirty side and his refusal to have sex with her. Their domestic life is colour-coded. In their shared house almost everything is hued a wholesome and anonymous white. Red begins to take over Marie’s wardrobe as she goes on ever-more extreme night-time excursions: to the bed of real-life porn-star Rocco Siffredi, to be suspended by an older BDSM-loving colleague and eventually into the clutches of a would-be rapist. Her desire for romantic fulfilment is shown as the ultimate enslavement.

Intimacy (2001)

Director Patrice Chereau

Intimacy (2001)

“When did you die?” Claire (Kerry Fox) asks her friend. This is not a reference to actual death. Claire has been having wordless sexual trysts every Wednesday with a man who is not Timothy Spall, and therefore not her husband. These trysts are about to end. That is what Claire refers to as death. Her line of dialogue (which sounds melodramatic but is delivered flatly) serves to elevate scenes previously notable for their lowness.

Based on stories by Hanif Kureishi, Intimacy – more than it is a film about Claire – is a film about Jay (Mark Rylance) who left his own wife and kids in order to live in a deeply depressing London bachelor pad. Infamous for an unsimulated blow job, and ironic in title, Intimacy tackles the release offered by unattractive, unromantic sex, and how – for one woman – it means the difference between life and death.

Take This Waltz (2011)

Director Sarah Polley

Take This Waltz (2011)

The genius of Canadian director Sarah Polley’s study of a married woman who is tempted by the rickshaw driver nextdoor is that it tonally mirrors her protagonist’s heady state. Margot, played by Michelle Williams, is a historical pamphlet writer in a comfortable domestic situation with chicken chef (Seth Rogen) until she stumbles upon a man who sees in her a previously untapped streak of sexual vitality.

Shot in Toronto at magic hour, the drama is saturated in warm colours, literally glowing with possibility. Williams, often a reserved performer, oozes physical yearning. Rather than having Margot make a swift decision, the meat of the film is giving over to agonising. Sometimes desire overpowers the frame, and adultery seems like the only natural choice. Two complementary scenes of Margot on a fairground waltzer, with The Buggles’ ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ playing as she spins, illustrate that what is pure heat one moment, can be chilly by the time the music stops.

Pariah (2011)

Director Dee Rees

Pariah (2011)

For Alike (Adepero Oduye), desire is bound up in identity and hers is unacceptable to her own mother Audrey (Kim Wayans). “I’m not running, I’m choosing” is the hard-won mantra spoken by this quiet character in the final bars of Dee Rees’ coming-of-age debut about an African-American teen lesbian in New York. Fear of being who she is and fear of not being who she is wrestle with each other as Alike moves from spending time out with gay friend Laura to lying low at home where her unhappy and religious mother will take any opportunity to release a diatribe.

Audrey has her own frustrated desires and a scene in which she tries to cajole her cheating husband to come within touching distance reveals exactly where she suffers. But focus is resolutely on the subtle inflections of Oduye’s exquisitely calibrated performance. To this character, each blow and each encouragement is magnified. Judgement sets her back just as pleasure sets her free.

It Felt like Love (2013)

Director Eliza Hittman

It Felt like Love (2013)

Eliza Hittman achieved her first flush of widespread recognition for Beach Rats (2017), in which a gay Brooklyn teen puts up a macho front during the day, while secretly cruising for men at night. Hittman’s debut shows a more outwardly candid yet still excruciating pursuit. Shot in the dreamy images and hallucinogenic tone of a city heatwave, It Felt like Love follows 14-year-old Lila who is desperate to emulate the sexual experiences of a worldly friend.

Lila sets her sights on older, sexier bad-boy Sammy hoping that he will take care of her virginity. She has no game and simply shows up to wherever he is, gazing with hopeful saucer eyes. Lila’s desire for experience eclipses all urges towards self-preservation, meaning she doesn’t know, or perhaps doesn’t care, when Sammy and friends laughs at her. Tiny for her age, she puts herself in increasingly vulnerable situations wanting only one thing. 

Gloria (2013)

Director Sebatián Lelio

Gloria (2013)

The day is eagerly anticipated when women across all ages are so routinely depicted enjoying a sex life on screen that it doesn’t merit comment when a lady in her 50s is shown pursuing carnal knowledge. We are so far away from this day that Sebastián Lelio’s Santiago-set character study, written for his luminous leading lady Paulina García, is being remade (with Lelio directing) for US audiences starring Julianne Moore. Rather than greenlight production on another script that shows a free-spirited older lady, Hollywood thought it better to stick with the tried-and-tested on this terrain.

In its original Chilean form, Gloria celebrates a character who is not celebrated within the film world itself. Caught between family duties and hedonistic urges, she doesn’t find someone to match her lifeforce. Former naval officer Rodolfo, her partner in an explicit sex scene, proves a let down. With a different tonal emphasis this could be a portrait of disappointment, but – set to the pop anthem titled, yes, ‘Gloria’ by Umberto Tozzi – it’s a tribute to her for living la vida loca.

Lovesong (2016)

Director So Yong Kim

Lovesong (2016)

Korean-American auteur So Yong Kim specialises in cinema that is breezily delicate in rendering the surface ebb and flow of human relationships while totally brutal in exposing the underlying forces that wrench people asunder. Lovesong, starring Riley Keough and Jena Malone as old friends who slot right into each other, is full of tender silences, the sound of people engaged in the lowkey bliss of companionable activities together.

Both stars give career-best performances: Keough channels such introversion that it seems genuinely impossible for her to find the words to steer her life from orthodoxy towards what she actually wants. Malone has more firepower, and the capacity to act on desire, and this brings the women together, if only fleetingly.

Raw (2016)

Director Julia Ducournau

Raw (2016)

Garance Marillier plays 18-year-old Justine, a vegetarian as the film begins with her parents driving her to vet school. En route they stop at a service station for food. When a plate of potatoes is found to contain a rogue meatball, mother flips out. The reason for this becomes clear later after Justine eats a rabbit kidney as part of a newbie hazing ritual – suddenly she can’t stop wanting meat. As in Trouble Every Day, the appetite for flesh is a metaphor for sexual hunger.

French director Julia Ducournau’s debut feature conveys the erotic bent of Justine’s insatiability via a soundtrack of creepily sweet female singers intercut with the guttural electronic burr of Jim Williams’ score. (Williams does equally primal work on the forthcoming Jersey-set female character study Beast.) The mood is a mix of delicious abandon and encroaching dread. Not everyone comes out alive. As genre gore takes over from sexual symbolism, Raw confronts the frustrating truth that you cannot have your mate and eat him.

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