Please Enjoy Esther Perel’s 10 Favorite Erotic Films

Photo-Illustration: the Cut; Photos Everett Collection

“Much of my sexual education came from films,” says psychotherapist Esther Perel. Unlike binging episodes of your favorite comfort show, watching a steamy movie can trigger arousal, adrenaline, and a dopamine rush. It lets you see something that might otherwise be forbidden, allowing viewers to see parts of their own erotic blueprints that might have been obscured before. “Many of these scenes play out fantasies,” says Perel, host of the podcast Where Should We Begin?, which is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network. “Fantasies often express our deepest emotional needs and wishes — surrender, abandon, being taken care of, being in charge, being safely aggressive — all in the language of sex.” Below Perel tells us about ten of her favorite erotic movies.

An Affair of Love (1999)

It’s a very French film. It begins as a sex story and turns into a love story. The lovers — named “He” and “She” — never tell each other their names. Their anonymity is freeing. It enables each of them to reveal so much about themselves to a total stranger. I like the fact that we, the viewers, never know what really happens in their room. For some, desire wrapped in anonymity is a major fantasy plot. You don’t enter the actual world of the other person and neither do they enter yours. There is no everyday, no responsibility, no caretaking, no problems to solve. You just live in the world you are creating together. It’s deeply intimate.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

There’s a passage in my first book, Mating in Captivity, that came to me while watching this film, which is based on the novella by Arthur Schnitzler. “Our partners do not belong to us; they are only on loan, with an option to renew — or not. Knowing that we can lose them does not have to undermine commitment; rather, it mandates an active engagement that long-term couples often lose.” Essentially, our partner is forever mysterious and somewhat elusive and unknown. Faced with this unknown, we can respond with fear or curiosity. We see this play out when Nicole Kidman’s character describes to her partner how she saw a young naval officer in the lobby and proceeded to fantasize about leaving her entire life behind for this stranger. She admits that — despite the fact that she and her partner made love that day, talked about their future, felt very much in love — at no point did she stop thinking about this other man. The power of her desire destroys her partner even though, in reality, outside of her mind, she did nothing. She makes a profound declaration to her partner that he should never assume he knows the person next to him, not even her. She’s not just a wife and a mother — she’s a woman, and he doesn’t know her internal desires, longings, and that part of her erotic mind alone.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

I love writer-director Céline Sciamma’s response to critics who said she wasn’t brave enough to include an explicit lesbian sex scene in her film: “There is a sex scene. Maybe you haven’t seen it.” I believe she’s referring to the armpit scene (I’ll let you watch it for yourself), but I have another interpretation. If you’re looking closely, you’ll find sex in every longing glance, lingering touch, and small gesture. This film oozes with the female gaze. We can be very narrow-minded when it comes to sex (in the real world and in art), but penetration is more than genital orifices. There are so many ways to enter the universe of another person: through the eyes, the ears, all of the senses. It’s all those moments of connection, flirtation, and foreplay. Films that center on gay romance do a fantastic job of reminding us of this. Remember that, for most of cinema’s relatively short history, gay relationships were banned from being shown. Those implicit gestures needed to do the work of painting a whole coded picture for the viewer. Sciamma’s film stands on the shoulders of that history in nuanced and beautiful ways.

9½ Weeks (1986)

When it came out in 1986, I was in my 20s. This movie took us to a sexual world that was new, especially in the mainstream. The sex wasn’t straightforward. It was a bit alternative, playful, sensual, mysterious. It wasn’t strictly genital-focused. It showed the multiple ways people can engage with each other that don’t follow a linear track. The scene in which he is feeding her strawberries and cherries in their sauce was indulgent and fun. It really showed that, if you bring your imagination to it, anything can become a part of the erotic experience, even Jell-O.

Monsoon Wedding (2001)

There’s a lot going on in this film that qualifies it as not an erotic film. But there is one scene in particular that made me include it on this list. The two central characters are brought together by an arranged marriage. Initially, there is little attraction. But when, a few days before the wedding, Aditi tells her future husband, Hemant, that she recently had sex with a former lover, their dynamic changes. Once he’s past the initial shock and upset, he finds himself glad for her honesty. Her discovery of her erotic self shifts them into new territory. He begins to see her as her own woman, with her own past, and he finds himself drawn to this woman. Knowing that she has attention from other men is definitely a factor. The film presents desire as rooted in absence and longing. We want what we do not have. Hemant is humbled by seeing her through the eyes of another. It renders her a free and sovereign woman in possession of her sexuality, which he cannot have. We watch their arrangement develop into free passion.

Carol (2015)

One of the central questions of my first book is “why is the forbidden so erotic?” In Carol, there are many layers of forbiddenness. Set in the early 1950s, the story centers on an affair between two women: a young aspiring photographer and an older woman in the midst of a divorce. Between the same-sex relationship, the affair, the age difference — they know they will never be able to reveal their romance. Their connection is both bound by and secluded from society’s rules. Their erotic scenes play in that space. It’s hard, of course, but you know you’re doing what you want when you’re doing what you’re not supposed to.

Exotica (1994)

Atom Egoyan is an incredible filmmaker. In Exotica, Egoyan masterfully shows the intricate exchange of power between Christina, an erotic dancer played by Mia Kirshner, and her most loyal client, played by Bruce Greenwood. They don’t have sex. They barely touch or speak. He’s providing money but she’s providing comfort from his real life, which is full of neuroses and other challenges. They are co-creating this scenario that makes us, the audience, ask certain questions: Who has the power? The performer or the watcher? And where does that leave us — the audience — watching it all on a screen? 

Hamam (1997)

Location matters. The hamam is a highly erotic, sensual place that brings out steamy passions. I’ve heard from many gay friends and patients about sex in steam rooms. It’s very much a theater with its codes and agreements. It’s a vessel for permission. This film explores the power of the place in dialogue with our desires beautifully. Art enables us to explore sexualities that aren’t ours and sexual experiences we may not have.

Do The Right Thing (1989)

Spike Lee’s films were some of the first I saw shortly after moving to New York. He was part of my acculturation to the U.S. I saw his movies in an old theater on Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn and that itself was a unique experience for me. Do The Right Thing has that incredible scene in which Lee’s character is using an ice cube to cool and titillate Rosie Perez’s character’s body on a sweltering hot summer day. Though the larger story focuses on racial tension, the pleasure on display in that scene is a reminder of joy and humanity in the midst of tragic circumstances.

Y tu mamá también (2001)

I love the genre of “road films.” It’s the image of a voyage and, in that voyage, there are subplots of other voyages, other trips being taken. In the threesome scene, these two young sex-obsessed men — who always talk about sex together — finally have a sexual experience together. It’s the woman, a bit older than them, who has essentially granted them this permission through her involvement in the threesome. It’s free of guilt and judgment. These young men are so moved by the moment that they come together and kiss. It’s sweet. It shows a certain kind of innocence that has gotten a bit lost. I don’t want to spoil anything. All I’ll say is that, like so many road films, there is an intense formative experience and then life moves on.

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Please Enjoy Esther Perel’s 10 Favorite Erotic Films