Anthony Kaufman


Erotic Foreign Film Moments

At 12-years-old, I witnessed my first foreign art film -- and my first spell of onscreen erotica. My parents brought me unsuspectingly to The Fourth Man, a surreal, salacious Dutch thriller by a pre-Basic Instinct Paul Verhoeven. The story concerns some sort of Black Widow murderess plot, but all I remember is the scene in which the svelte, sexy siren with short blond hair straddles her latest conquest in bed, and then post-coitus, wields a mean scissors to make every man in the audience -- or boy -- squirm.

You can bet that years later when Basic Instinct did come out, it felt pretty tame, and Sharon Stone's parting thighs were all but a pale shadow of my pre-adolescent Sunday family outing. So it was at this early age that I learned American-made erotic movies are the white bread to Europe's fine cheeses, Asia's eccentric spices. And much to my parent's chagrin, I developed a taste for the fine art of foreign-made erotic film. The difference between erotic and exotic is, after all, but a single letter -- indeed, an "x."

When 9 1/2 weeks came out in 1986, you can imagine my embarrassment when a bunch of us hormonally-charged teens snuck into the theater to see Kim Basinger masturbate and I was not impressed. For real l'amour fou, I got my fix that same year with Betty Blue, Jean-Jacques Beineix's story of two lovers holed up in a seaside house. The alluring opening moments consist of a slow dolly shot across the entangled, hungry bodies of the young couple, while the Mona Lisa strangely looks on from above. It's this extra kitschy touch that must have done it, plus the full-lipped, curvaceous Beatrice Dalle as Betty, who pounces on her lover with a voracious appetite (more on that later).

Why is it that so many erotic moments in cinema often involve food and foreigners? Notwithstanding Last Tango in Paris's infamous butter scene (more shocking than titillating), edibles receive a high place in the hierarchy of eroticism. Some might call it food porn: Movies like Babette's Feast (the feast), Tampopo (the raw egg), Jamon, Jamon (the pig and garlic) and Like Water For Chocolate (Quail in Rose Petal Sauce) all mix sex and foodstuffs to create somewhat stirring results. But the genre has been cannibalized by so many over-baked rip-offs like Chocolat and Woman on Top that I prefer my cuisine prepared with a subtler, more piquant touch. For instance, last year's Hong Kong serving In the Mood for Love (originally titled Three Stories about Food) follows sculpted beauties Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung sashaying down the alleyways to the local noodle shop and slurping away in a steamy cloud of yearning. And in Luis Bunuel's 1977 tale of temptation, That Obscure Object of Desire, there's a box of chocolates that would make Forrest Gump blush. French coquette Carole Bouquet invites her elder suitor to the couch: rubbing the contours of the box on her lap, she opens it up, picks out a candy and deposits the sweet -- along with the tips of her fingers -- into the old letch's mouth. Needless to say, he's hooked.

The poor man in Bunuel's fantasy of sexual frustration must also deal a few scenes later with a heated flamenco dance -- just as good a stand-in for onscreen sex as food. And there's no one more famous for stirring the passions with a good mambo than pouty French pin-up Brigitte Bardot. Roger Vadim's 1956 classic And God Created Woman climaxes with Bardot's man-eating dance. Writhing madly to the bongo beats, the tawdry, busty Bardot charges around the dance-floor with the force and gams of a wild mare; filled with pain and ecstasy, she is an incarnation of lust that makes Dirty Dancing look like middle school cotillion. Another enduring erotically charged musical moment comes in Bernardo Bertolucci's 1970 masterpiece The Conformist: lean Italian beauties Stefania Sandrelli and Dominique Sanda intertwine in a tango of lesbian longing -- the camera tracks around them in sensual fluidity as a man, the husband of one and lover of the other, looks enviably upon them. A similar scene (and shot by the same master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro) appears in Carlos Saura's steamy 1998 dance film, Tango, where a couple of woman do that same nasty dance, inciting passion and jealousy in the male voyeur.

But it's just the tango, you might say, come on, where's the flesh? All you give us is noodle soup, chocolates and the mambo? Are you some kind of prude? Well, the fact is explicit onscreen sex (basically porn), foreign or domestic, leaves me cold. It's perversity, not penetration, which stimulates the hardcore foreign cinephile. Most famously in Japanese auteur Nagisa Oshima's famous 1976 work In the Realm of Senses, in which orgasm and strangulation inextricably mingle, sex and death may be the most potent erotic combination of all. Though it may be English-language, David Cronenberg's Crash is exotica through-and-through, a twisted vision of un-American sex and devastation that combines chrome with carnality (who knew Canadians could be erotic?): in the film's final moments, the car-accident-obsessed couple (played by James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger) lie on a highway embankment after another automobile accident, hurt and horny, and ready to transcend the pain for one more bout of pleasure. It took about an hour afterwards, but my girlfriend and I finally confessed our arousal. More abstract, but no less stunning, the opening moments of Alain Resnais' poetic Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) shows beautiful black and white close-ups of arms and legs entwined, first covered in the ash of nuclear fallout, which then fades into the sweaty droplets of sexual satisfaction. Make no mistake; this isn't simply the S & M of Tokyo Decadence or Romance, two recent un-erotic explicit foreign titles, but movies that show a powerful and primal link between death and desire.

Which brings me back to Beatrice Dalle. Recently described by The New Yorker as "not so much an actress as a volcanic mouth attached to a fiery reputation," Dalle's chops make for the current cinema's most erotically charged (and unsettling) moment. Forget subtle spices, this is brutal jambalaya, the fiery side of desire. In her latest picture Trouble Every Day, directed by French iconoclast Claire Denis (see her Beau Travail for lots of hard male bodies), Dalle plays a vampiric vixen who finally gets her claws on young meat: as she literally tears into a handsome boy's mouth, sucking and biting and clawing his virgin lips, it's an image of overwhelming, unparalleled lust. I'd like to see Sharon Stone try that one.