Rowan Pelling: A treasure trove of erotic pleasures

Britons seem strangely reluctant to watch sexy films. But I'd like you to have a look at my collection
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The Independent Online

Would you sit in a cinema and watch an erotic movie? Put your lucre where your lust is? The answer in Britain is probably no. Not when you have a DVD player and Channel 4 shows sex! sex! sex! posing as documentaries every night of the week.

There's a small audience for arty erotica, but it's largely urban-based and metropolitan by tendency. Explicitly sexual films don't penetrate (phnaw, phnaw) far into the provinces. They gain their notoriety entirely courtesy of the Daily Mail. Relatively few people went to a movie theatre to see Romance, Intimacy, The Good Old Naughty Days or Nine Songs, but millions heard about them. The last time a significant British cinema-going audience turned out to see a film overtly sexual in content, it was probably 9 1/ 2 Weeks back in the 1980s.

This strikes me as curious because in every other field erotica is booming. Memoirs of women's sexual exploits sell by the truck-load, the vernacular of pornography is a mainstay of modern art and there's even a satirical new West End show, Avenue Q, just transferred from Broadway, which involves bonking puppets.

And then, as Labour MP Claire Curtis Thomas has helpfully pointed out to a gob-smacked public, mags such as Nuts and Zoo, intended for teenage boys, are just a gross heap of tits'n'arse.

The US feminist author Ariel Levy has been over here this week broadcasting her despair at "raunch culture". All this erotica, everywhere you look. I want it, you want it, Jonathon Ross can't stop talking about it, even when it involves Dame Thatcher. So why can't you get bums on seats for a dirty flick?

The film question is preoccupying me because I am guest-curating a strand of erotic films for the Cambridge Film Festival, which starts this Thursday. A Brief History of Erotic Cinema runs 8 to 13 July at the Arts Picturehouse and it's the first time in the festival's 26-year history that there's been such a ribald theme. And Cambridge is not exactly known for its joyous lack of inhibition.

But the festival's director, Tony Jones, and I decided it was better to startle the horses than let them ossify with boredom. The animation Red Hot Riding Hood helped cheer the teenage servicemen of 1943 in the grey days before Nuts was invented.

Jean Genet's 1950 short film Un Chant D'Amour, for example, drew inspiration from the Beat generation sensibility of left-bank Paris and shows men in solitary confinement in a military prison dancing naked and masturbating to the drumbeat of a rhythmic soundtrack.

Similarly, the "free love" swing scene of the 1970s led to an explosion in film pornography, and many art-house practitioners borrowed freely from the genre.

Take the late Polish director Walerian Borowczyk, whose sly blend of clichéd porn fantasy, humour and sensual aesthetics reached its apogee in his 1975 film The Beast; think Angela Carter and The Company of Wolves, sex with hairy monsters from the deep, dark woods, except in this instance the auteur is dismissed as an old perv because he's a bloke. We're also screening Borowzyk's Une Collection Paritculiére, a surreal voyage round the director's personal archive of recherché erotica; its first cinematic outing for 30 years.

Sad to say, among the various gems being screened there's only one from a British filmmaker: Mike Figgis is coming to Cambridge on 12 July to show two erotic shorts from his split-screen exploration of sexual intrigue, Hotel, along with his kinky short for Agent Provocateur Tied Up at the Office. Figgis is rare among leading British filmmakers (Nick Roeg being another obvious exception) in showing courage, innovation and verve in his pursuit of sexual themes.

I'm not talking about the type of naughty but nice romp, such as Calendar Girls, that shows all the wanton sex appeal of a flatulent labrador. Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs was a brave try, but disappointed in that the film was mostly porny show without the all-essential tell.

Truly involving exploration of sex involves revelation and, more importantly, self-revelation. Belle de Jour (also showing at Cambridge) enthrals successive generations of cinemagoers because you genuinely believe beautiful Severine's ennui conceals the torrid fantasies of a would-be masochist. This insight into her sexuality sheds crucial illumination upon her marriage and impulsive decision to moonlight in a brothel.

But the most unsettling, compelling and erotic aspect is how you find yourself wanting to see glacial Severine besmirched and degraded. The director casts his vision like a trawler's net; you don't know you've been caught until it's too late.

Borowczyk was fascinated by this particular function of cinema. "Film is a security valve for instincts that are condemned. The individual reveals himself outwardly, releases himself and hurts no one."

Figgis believes this degree of revelation is what makes British audiences and directors reject erotic cinema. He thinks viewers increasingly prefer the prescriptive banalities of porn where no real engagement is required and sees in this a link to the horror genre where similarly formulaic yokings of lull/ tension/climax give audiences exactly what they want and evoke an ersatz thrill. This, paradoxically, makes audiences feel safe.

I agree with Figgis. Erotic cinema (erotic anything, come to that) requires sincerity of vision, and sincerity and sex are the rarest of bedfellows in contemporary Anglo-Saxon culture. European cinema doesn't suffer from this malaise, because continentals are serious about sex at the point of engagement, but Brits often giggle.

This is why we're happy with films that offer humorous or ironic commentary on sex (rather than the electric current of sexuality itself) however explicit the content. That is why I expect a good turn out for the UK premier of the biopic The Notorious Betty Page on the 12th at Cambridge, an exuberant suspenders-and-high-heels fest of the least threatening kind.

As for the other films in our erotic season? I'm suggesting to Tony Jones that we replace all the ratings for sexual content with ones for sincerity. Thus an 18-certificate becomes: "So sincere you're in severe danger of lusting after Catherine Deneuve while she's being horsewhipped by coachmen." Cambridge beware.