When Peter Strickland was asked about his influences on The Duke of Burgundy, he unsurprisingly trotted out a parade of what used to be called “continental” filmmakers: Walerian Borowczyk, Tinto Brass, Luis Buñuel, Claude Chabrol, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Jesús Franco. Anything from Britain? Yes, the 1980s sitcom Terry and June, although decidedly not for its (nonexistent) erotic content.
François Truffaut notoriously suggested to Alfred Hitchcock that there is a certain incompatibility between the terms ‘British’ and ‘cinema’. This was obvious nonsense, but if you add the word ‘erotic’ to ‘cinema’ you create a proposition that’s harder to deny. Despite two of the stronger commercial genres in British cinema history being the 1950s naturist ‘documentary’ and the 1970s softcore sex comedy, it says much about the cultural repression of the time that anyone ever found them especially erotic.
There are certainly major British filmmakers with unashamedly sensual imaginations, but can we describe the likes of Black Narcissus (1947), If…. (1968) and “Don’t Look Now” (1973) as ‘erotic films’ in themselves? And although they’re more overtly erotic, can we call the likes of Deep End (1970), Bitter Moon (1992), Breaking the Waves (1996) and Intimacy (2001) ‘British’ given complex co-production funding, multinational casts and directors hailing from Poland, France and Denmark?
Should we define an ‘erotic film’ purely in terms of sexual explicitness, or something subtler and more sensual? Or indeed by the effect that it had on its audience? After all, it’s arguable that the appeal of 1940s Gainsborough melodramas was far more genuinely erotic than that of the inexplicably long-running Come Play with Me (1977) and its fusion of ancient music-hall routines with only very mildly titillating nudity.
There are no direct equivalents of Borowczyk, Brass, Franco or Radley Metzger in British cinema (the hardcore pornographer Ben Dover has different priorities), and serious British films about eroticism remain as rare as the more exotic butterflies on display in Strickland’s film, despite the considerable relaxation in censorship post-2000 – Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (2004) being the British film most notorious for taking full advantage of this. So the following 10 films are at least as much illustrations of social and historical trends as they are defining examples of cinematic eroticism in their own right. It’s safe to say that a French, Italian or Spanish list would be very different!
A Victorian Lady in Her Boudoir (1896)
Director: Esmé Collings
Lasting only a minute or so, this late Victorian film was also catalogued under the title Woman Undressing, which provides evidence that its primary purpose was to titillate, although (presumed) director Esmé Collings only lets his unidentified star strip down to her voluminous petticoat.
Given the lack of reliable background information, it’s impossible to say whether this coyness was intended to be erotic or whether a beady eye was being kept on obscenity laws so strict that the philosopher Bertrand Russell once complained that it was impossible to campaign against them without breaching them. It may of course have been a little of both.
The Man in Grey (1943)
Director: Leslie Arliss
British cinema’s oldest direct precursor to the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon was the Gainsborough studio’s 1943-47 cycle of costume melodramas, which were more or less explicitly marketed on the strength of their erotic appeal – specifically that of James Mason (often complete with riding crop and tight britches) treating Phyllis Calvert and Margaret Lockwood appallingly badly, but in such an irresistibly smouldering way that the films’ largely female audiences secretly longed for him to do the same to them. A contractually-tied Mason loathed the films, but this all too evident on-screen disdain only increased his fans’ ardour.
Naked as Nature Intended (1961)
Director: George Harrison Marks
When the British Board of Film Censors (as was) agreed to pass a serious documentary about naturism in the mid-1950s, this gave an immediate green light to numerous similar “documentaries’ by shamelessly opportunist producers who took care to adhere to BBFC guidelines (“Breasts and buttocks, but not genitalia [would be accepted] provided that the setting was recognisable as a nudist camp or nature reserve”).
This effort by photographer-turned-filmmaker George Harrison Marks came relatively late in the cycle, but retains a fond following thanks to its catchy title and a genuinely charming performance by model-turned-actor Pamela Green.
Women in Love (1969)
Director: Ken Russell
Two D.H. Lawrence creations bookended the 1960s: the obscenity trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1963 (the year in which Philip Larkin alleged that sexual intercourse began) and the international hit that Ken Russell made of Women in Love, thanks not least to one of the most notorious scenes in all British cinema, in which Alan Bates and Oliver Reed engage in full-frontally naked wrestling on a rug in front of an open fire to underscore their characters’ latent homoeroticism. But there was also a powerful sensuality emanating from Glenda Jackson’s Oscar-winning performance as the wayward Gudrun.
Eskimo Nell (1974)
Director: Martin Campbell
A (slight) relaxation of censorship at the turn of the 1970s triggered a decade where the softcore sex comedy was one of the few surefire commercial bets for British cinema. Most were neither sexy nor funny, and this one isn’t particularly erotic either, but it does cast a keenly satirical eye on how the sex-film business was run at the time, with wide-eyed ingénues on both sides of the camera and a plot that contrives multiple adaptations of the notoriously filthy poem to please different backers: hardcore porn, a gay western, a kung-fu musical and a family-friendly compromise.
Director: Derek Jarman
The martyrdom of Saint Sebastian had been a key erotic symbol in western art for many centuries before Derek Jarman and Paul Humfress’s cinematic take. One of the most sexually explicit films then made in Britain, it begins with an aggressively symbolic dance performed by Lindsay Kemp’s troupe wearing giant phalluses before decamping to a remote garrison where various Roman soldiers either suppress or give in to their various homosexual urges. The amount of frontal male nudity was unprecedented in British cinema for the time: a blatant erection slipped past the BBFC thanks to cunning framing subterfuge during the official inspection.
Bad Timing (1980)
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Nicolas Roeg has consistently demonstrated one of the most powerfully erotic imaginations in all British cinema: Performance, Walkabout (both 1970), “Don’t Look Now” (1973) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) all provide ample evidence, as does the more recent Puffball (2006), with its show-stopping glimpse inside the protagonist’s vagina at the moment of orgasm. But the Roeg film most completely bound up in the erotic is this often intensely disturbing psychological drama about the obsessive affair between Art Garfunkel’s psychiatrist and Theresa Russell’s married client. As a by-product of an unusually intense shoot, Roeg married his leading lady.
The Pillow Book (1995)
Director: Peter Greenaway
“I’m obviously interested in pornography”, Peter Greenaway admitted in 1985, and 10 years later he made his most overtly erotic film, loosely inspired by the famous ‘pillow book’ by 10th/11th-century Japanese lady-in-waiting Sei Shōnagon.
Thanks to her unusual upbringing, Nagiko (Vivian Wu) fetishises not just the elegance of calligraphy in general but the process of writing directly on her own skin, ideally at the hands of a potential lover – a notion that allows Greenaway to explore verbal as well as visual eroticism. Ewan McGregor is the translator who turns out to be ideally equipped (in every sense) to fulfil Nagiko’s desires.
The Mother (2003)
Director: Roger Michell
In the early 2000s, Hanif Kureishi wrote two British films that paid unusually close attention to the distinction between straightforward physical intimacy and its knottier emotional component. If Intimacy (2001) garnered most of the column inches for its unsimulated fellatio scene, it was The Mother that offered the most complex take on its subject, as its middle-aged grandmother May (Anne Reid in a memorably fearless performance) tries to conquer bereavement-triggered grief through an affair with her daughter’s boyfriend (Daniel Craig).
Three years later, a Speedo-clad Craig would be globally promoted as an image of erotic allure via the publicity for Casino Royale (2006).
Director: Ashley Horner
Ashley Horner’s celebration of erotic obsession sees young lovers Noon (Nancy Trotter Landry) and Manchester (Liam Browne) not only indulging in a great deal of graphic sex but also trying to preserve their sexual feelings through photography and a recorded ‘orgasm diary’, scenes depicted with an unselfconscious spontaneity that’s unusual for a low-budget British film.
But when Manchester exhibits Noon’s nude self-portraits in a gallery without her knowledge, the film explores thornier questions about exploitation and objectification that apply to almost anyone tackling similar subject matter, at least if they do it as a collaborative enterprise.
To our list above, you voted to add these great erotic British films…
- My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, 1985)
- Carry On Camping (Gerald Thomas, 1969)
- Intimacy (Patrice Chéreau, 2001)
- Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947)
- Deep End (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1970)
- 9 Songs (Michael Winterbottom, 2004)
- Confessions of a Window Cleaner (Val Guest, 1974)
- Sunday Bloody Sunday (John Schlesinger, 1971)
- The Draughtsman’s Contract (Peter Greenaway, 1982)
- Red Road (Andrea Arnold, 2006)
Lots of interesting additions came in this week, with the Hanif Kureishi-scripted gay love story My Beautiful Laundrette topping the votes. With the cheeky antics of Carry On Camping, the boundary-pushing explicitness of 9 Songs, and Black Narcissus’s nuns in the Himalayas all vying for space in the top 10 this week, it goes to show that the erotic British film comes in many different forms. There were, however, dissenting voices, with @SteveHills among them…
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