Lately it’s difficult to get through a day without crossing paths with Fifty Shades of Grey , the Twilight fan fiction turned New York Times best seller, whether it’s a handful of commuters boldly reading it on the streetcar or fans discussing whether Ryan Gosling or Michael Fassbender would make a better Christian Grey in the upcoming movie version. The way the book has dominated pop culture, one would think that it’s the first bit of erotic literature to make the jump from dirty little secret to book club selection to big screen.
Not so. Cinema has a long and storied history of turning racy reading material into an equally racy viewing experience. While not all of those films are worth the time it takes to not only watch the movie but also read the source material, here are five that offer a most (ahem) pleasurable literary and cinematic experience proving that sometimes explicit sex and art can go hand in hand.
Toronto filmmaker Clement Virgo set loins all across Canada on fire when he released this film in 2005 which is based on a novel written by his wife Tamara Faith Berger. The book attempts to deconstruct the role of the “slut” by telling the story of a sexually aggressive woman and her seven unnamed male partners using an interesting mix of literary ambition — a lengthy quote from Ovid’s Metamorphoses is used at the beginning — and language straight out of the Penthouse letters forum. Virgo’s film adaptation fleshes out the main character, Leila (Lauren Lee Smith) and her relationship with David (Eric Balfour) while still keeping the book’s steamy sex scenes intact…to the point that there was much talk about whether or not Balfour and Smith had actually done the deed on film. Virgo also captures the feeling of sweaty summer nights in Toronto and the confusion of being a twenty-something struggling with all of those icky emotions that go along with sex.
This is the film everyone thinks of when the subject of soft core cinema is broached. People who grew up during the ’80s may very well remember surreptitiously watching this either on late night cable TV or at a friend’s house on a purloined VHS tape. What many people don’t know is that the film is based on an autobiographical novella by Elizabeth McNeill that recounts her brief affair with a man she meets at a New York street fair. During the few weeks they spend together, they explore one another’s various secret desires (including a go at some S&M – something that features heavily in “Fifty Shades of Grey”) and their intense relationship eventually becomes too much for either of them to handle. The book was quite risquÃ© when it was released in the early ’80s and when the film version followed in 1986, it was considered equally as scandalous based on the sadomasochistic content. The film, which was directed by Adrian Lyne based on a screenplay by Zalman King (truly the king of ’90s soft core cinema), still holds up as being stylish and progressive in its view of female sexuality. It’s also quite startling to think about the fact that a film like this would never be produced or released by a mainstream studio today.
Based on the novel “Lune de Miel” by Pascal Bruckner, Roman Polanski cast his wife Emmanuelle Seigner as one half of a sexually free couple who meet up with a prim and proper Brit couple (Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas) and recount the story of how they met, fell in love, married, all the while attempting to one up each other for control through sadomasochism and affairs with prim and proper Brit couples. Polanski’s film is as audacious as the book, even when it does occasionally tiptoe into melodrama. The theme of sexual repression is an interesting one and Bitter Moon takes an unconventional path in exploring the issue.
Marguerite Duras‘ semi-autobiographical story of her youth spent in Vietnam in the 1920s is as steamy as the Saigon weather. At the age of not-quite-16, she took a wealthy Chinese lover who was more than 20 years her senior. The story serves not only as a coming-of age for the lead character, but also a fascinating snapshot of the time and place in which the events unfold. The film, which stars Jane March who turned 18 just days before the film began production, is beautifully shot by Jean-Jacques Annaud who matches the sophisticated tone of Duras’ novel and makes French Indochina look positively luscious. The best thing about the book and film is that neither feel exploitative despite the touchy, jailbait subject matter.
Mira Nair‘s film about two childhood friends of different classes who become rivals when they’re both become involved with a selfish young king is based on a short story called “Hand Me Downs” by controversial Urdu writer Wajida Tabassum which appeared in an anthology about sisterhood through the ages. Nair develops the film’s plot from the seed provided by Tabassum and transforms the women’s story into one of complexity, creating a film experience that celebrates the power of femininity and that can only be described as sumptuous.
Read This is a monthly column that brings film lovers the best in cinema literature, from books on the making of cinema itself, to books adapted to film.
Toronto Film Scene is turning up the heat for the month of July and looking at Pornography as a Legitimate Art Form. Don’t miss our scintillating coverage on everything from soft to hard core films, including a look at the Feminist Porn awards, what makes a truly classic porno, erotica translated from book to screen and the golden age of geek porn.