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Finding Hidden Meaning in Explicit Films

Dismiss erotically-charged stories and you're missing something special

I have a high tolerance for sexually-charged art, and I forget not everyone feels the same way.

When I managed an independent video store in my 20s it had a section in the back (behind a black curtain) for adult movies. Every few months a “Karen” type would grab one of the VHS boxes and bring it to me in demonstrable fury.

“How could such a thing like this be here in this store?”

I’m more sickened by murder and violence than the appearance of a woman’s breast, but I seem to be in the minority.

Movies featuring “graphic content” often get passed over by mainstream audiences, or the erotic portions become the primary focus. That means audiences and critics miss the subtle nuances and, dare I say, potential genius of the films in question.

For example, I just rewatched Australia’s “Sleeping Beauty” from 2011 and I was blown away by how well it has held up (its stark soundtrack alone is revelatory). It also reminded me just how wrong critics were back then in their reviews.

SLEEPING BEAUTY Official Trailer

Major to Minor Spoilers Ahead:

Lars Von Trier made his brilliant Depression Cycle (“Nymphomania,” “Melancholia,” “Antichrist”) and all three films were misunderstood. “Nymphomania” ultimately (despite its sexual content) is about the mystery and misery of losing a parent.

“Melancholia” offered a thoughtful meditation on the rage of not being seen.

“Antichrist” explored the isolating nature of sex and mental illness. All three are great films, but “Nymphomania” is the best of the Depression Cycle.

Melancholia - Official Trailer

Gaspar Noe’s films (“Love,” “Irreversible,” “Climax,” “Enter the Void”) are often complex, dark, edgy, and violent but they’re always marked by humor. “Love” is very much a dark comedy and finds humor in the dumb and often tragic mistakes we make while in love.

While “Irreversible” delivers a black comedy about how revenge never works out, “Climax” examines betrayal from unexpected sources. “Enter the Void,” in turn, deals with forgiveness.

Each is rooted in the choices we make and the humor of our sure defeat.

“Cashback” explores the deeper philosophical question of just how responsible are we for someone’s subjective experiences of us and how objectification is the source of art. Yet that objectification isn’t the same as dehumanization.

Which brings us to “Sleeping Beauty.”

A lot is going on with the film, far more than what meets the eye (which is a lot of a naked Emily Browning). It’s more than an adult fairy tale as there is something more sinister at play than the monster of patriarchy.

Everyone in this film isn’t who they seem to be or say they are. There’s a mythical element to every character when you slow it down and pay attention.

Some things to think about if you watch “Sleeping Beauty”:

Early in the film the second escort leaves the grounds screaming. The same happens with Lucy (Browning) but remember, and this is important, she was woken up on purpose. I’m guessing the other escort was as well.

It seems that part of the deal the patrons make is a kind of “screw you” to youth. The old men seem to be saying, “Yeah you’re young now, but it will end, and here’s my dead body to prove it!”

Right?

Also why the virginal aspect?

They make a point that there won’t be penetration with the escorts, but it’s not like what they are doing is that moral to begin … why?

I think it speaks to a deeper notion that none of this is about sex but about the envy the elder has of the young and a desire to corrupt that on some level.

Who in this movie is living their best life? One person at the bar says, “I’m pretending, everyone is pretending, even Birdmann.” This is also a theme… that being a 20-something means having to navigate a world you didn’t build and you’re waking up in someone else’s dream.

Each of these movies is worth your time and there’s a lot more going on than excessive T&A… trust me.

8 Comments

  1. “I’m more sickened by murder and violence than the appearance of a woman’s breast, but I seem to be in the minority.”

    I hear this argument being made a lot, but I respectfully disagree. Sex and violence are two very different things, especially when they are portrayed on-screen, so to compare them doesn’t work. On-screen violence, even if it is very graphic, is obviously fake (and is often portrayed in a cartoonish or silly way, with special effects and fake blood). But when an actor is nude or simulating sex on-screen, it’s something that is actually happening to them that we’re watching, and it makes most audiences uncomfortable in a very different way. Even kissing is something that is actually happening to the actors for real, which is the point that actor Neal McDonough made when he said he refused to do an on-screen kiss, because acting or not, he was still kissing someone other than his wife.

    The two are not the same at all, and I am getting tired of audiences being chided for having different comfort levels with two obviously-different things.

    1. Absolutely agree. The author, like all people who seek out these sorts of films, are lying to themselves. They enjoy the titillation at least as much as the art, but they’ll tell you they’re just “reading it for the articles, you see”.

  2. It depends. I loved Blue Velvet. Liked Boxing Helena. Even the mid transformation werewolf orgie scene in Howling 2 wasn’t bad. No way could I stomach a film like Cuties or A Serbian Film.

  3. I watched Nymphomania (all 5 hours of it) and thought it was a fascinating character study with some terrific acting. Yes, it had sex, but the underlying message behind the movie wasn’t glorifying promiscuity at all, but rather showed how empty and hollow and ultimately destructive it can be.

      1. Not every movie has to be a documentary or to learn something. Some are actually an entertaining illustration or angle on something we are familiar with… imagine that!

  4. Some films mentioned in this article that I may have missed out on due to unfair or poorly thought-out reviews. I think I’ll check them out. Thanks Matt and God bless!

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