Karina Longworth’s influential Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This tackled the category in her Erotic 80s series, arguably cementing its boomlet in interest. The Criterion Channel’s multimonth slate of erotic thrillers is still going strong. Other more mainstream streaming services are running full-fledged 2023 reimaginings of canonical films typically classified as ETs: Alexandra Cunningham and Kevin J. Hynes’s somber expansion (for Paramount+) of Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987); Alice Birch and Rachel Weisz’s delirious, exquisite gender-swapped take on David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) for Amazon Prime Video; for Netflix, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Benji Walters’s Obsession, a well-intentioned but ineffective readaptation of Louis Malle’s 1992 film Damage (based on Josephine Hart’s 1991 novel of the same name). Even The Idol, Sam Levinson’s preposterously controversial vehicle for Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye, is a Brian De Palma/Paul Verhoeven riff (the latter’s 1992 classic Basic Instinct is repeatedly shown playing on a TV in the pilot), though the preemptive, and still ongoing, outrage about the Max series has largely occluded what it owes to the likes of the former’s Body Double (1984).
If you’re horny and you know it, this is fine. The erotic thriller’s Eros/Thanatos two-step makes for entertaining and occasionally arousing viewing, as anyone who’s watched Kathleen Turner and William Hurt sweat their way through Body Heat (1981) can tell you.
But the erotic thriller is truly defined by the second half of its sobriquet. Such stories typically revolve around a femme fatale—sometimes calculating, sometimes unhinged, always dangerous—and the poor sap who’s both lucky and unlucky enough to be fucking her. Sometimes, as in The Last Seduction (1994), the dangerous woman gets away with it and the patsy is left wishing he’d never met her. Other times, as in the original Fatal Attraction, the monster gets what’s coming to her and the status quo of the family man she led down the path of sin is restored. (In rarer cases, the villain is an outside force not represented by the female half of the sexual dyad—Body Double, say.) In all cases, erotic thrillers use tension and suspense to build to a good-versus-evil resolution, and no matter which side comes out on top, sexuality is on the side of sin.
Yet there’s an adjacent genre that does away with those conventions, as easily as Catherine Tramell bumps off her lovers: a genre of tragedy. In these films, sexuality pervades, not as a troublesome interloper, but as an all-consuming directive; like hunger, it is dangerous only when thwarted. It refuses to be relegated to the shadows. Like buried trauma, sex demands an audience. The perennial discourse of the plot-relevant sex scene—does it or does it not exist, and should it?—can find no footing here: sex is the plot, and it does so much more than titillate. It communicates. There is not just the soft-focus romantic lovemaking we’ve come to expect on-screen; there is also fucking for anger, shame, sorrow, and all the ugliness of which we fear to speak in the light of day. There is transgression and discomfort. There are real taboos hard at work between the sheets.
What there aren’t, though, are thrills. These sex tragedies are downbeat, enervating to the last frame. Call this genre the “erotic bummer.”
Like their erotic thriller cousins, these films combine sex and death too, but the balance is shifted. Sex is prioritized in the plot, drives the plot, often becomes the plot, so the erotic component is stronger than ever. But the violence inherent in erotic thrillers is transmuted into something morbid rather than thrilling. It’s as if the characters’ growing appetite for ever-intensifying sexual intimacy devours them until there’s nothing left. No mind games, no cat-and-mouse chases through expensive apartments, no fundamental battle of good versus evil; the erotic connection between the characters is beyond good and evil, and is itself their undoing, leading inevitably to tragedy, isolation, and death.
Unlike the erotic thriller, which, until its recent revival, was essentially a discreet Hollywood phenomenon that existed from Reagan through Clinton, the erotic bummer manifests itself in a much wider range of modes, styles, countries, and time periods. This ad hoc genre spans from European art films of the 1970s (The Night Porter in 1974, Last Tango in Paris in 1972, the French-Japanese co-production In the Realm of the Senses in 1976) to erotic-thriller-adjacent Jeremy Irons vehicles in the ’80s (Dead Ringers, Damage) to turn-of-the-millennium period-piece Oscar bait (Atonement in 2007, The End of the Affair in 1999, The English Patient in 1996) to stylish psychological horror (Possession in 1981, Mulholland Drive in 2001) to divisive 21st-century art-house fare (The Brown Bunny in 2003, The Piano Teacher in 2001, Antichrist in 2009). In addition to jettisoning the erotic thriller’s default neo-noir template of murder plots and their resolution, the erotic bummer is less dependent on violating the specific sexual mores of “Morning in America” and its aftermath. Forget AIDS, NC-17, the Parents Music Resource Center: the erotic bummer posits that anyone, at any time, can fuck themselves to death.
The erotic bummer is, first and foremost, erotic. Sex isn’t something that happens while some other plot driver unfolds; sex is what happens, and is itself the driver of the plot. From initial sparks to first assignation to deepening obsession to the final, sad orgasms, we trace the progression of the protagonists’ lives in this moment through what they do to one another’s bodies. Consequently, sex is depicted frankly, and frequently, and to an uncomfortable degree. These films can earn NC-17 and X ratings without (or rather with) breaking a sweat. Many of them sport impressive résumés of censorship, not just because of the amount of skin on-screen, but also because the acts depicted are unidealized in a way that defies convention. You can get turned on by the sex depicted in the erotic bummer, but that’s really beside the point. The clothes come off and there’s nowhere to hide, the lovers are at their most vulnerable, and we risk seeing things we might regret. That frankness occasionally does real damage to the careers of their stars, a burden that disproportionately falls on the actresses, now tainted by the stench of sex. (See the careers of Lust, Caution’s Tang Wei, In the Realm of the Senses’s Eiko Matsuda, or Last Tango in Paris’s Maria Schneider for cautionary tales.)
But that frankness is compelling, making it easier for the viewer to understand, if not excuse, virtually anything the protagonists are willing to do for continued sexual access to their lovers. From the unfaithful spouses of The English Patient and Brokeback Mountain (2005) to the deceivers of friends in The Wings of the Dove (1997) and The End of the Affair to the abusers of power in Dead Ringers and The Piano Teacher to the hallucinating obsessives of Mulholland Drive and The Brown Bunny to the actual rapists of Antichrist and Last Tango in Paris, theirs is a desire that demands the rejection of polite society, even of tangible reality, so all-consuming is its nature.
The central characters in these films are everyday people. They’re farmhands, students, porters, and waitresses; the most glamorous among them might be a doctor, a second-rate novelist, a minor aristocrat far removed from the trappings of that position. They’re cemented firmly in a reality the audience shares. What little they have they will lose, as the tragic affair at the center of the story unfolds and devours them.
This leads us directly to the second half of the equation: the erotic bummer also intends, obviously, to bum you out. To do this, it uses the very eroticism that generates the plot’s forward motion and heat to destroy the participants. Time and again, sex—good sex, great sex, sex worth throwing your life away over—leads to exactly that: lives thrown away. Love/lust in the erotic bummer is doomed; feelings this total and transgressive cannot be allowed to exist even in a godless universe. The shadow self manifested in such uncontrolled sexuality cannot be integrated with conscious reality. A price must be paid.
More often than not, the price is the life of one or both of the lovers, though in some instances (Damage, The Wings of the Dove), a related third party perishes while entangled in the affair. Whatever the case, erotic bummers culminate in a final crisis, after which the central sexual relationship is permanently severed, the flame forcibly extinguished. There is no happy ending, no one growing older but wiser, no status quo restored. (This, as much as a lack of any explicit sexuality, is why such downbeat moral romances as 1961’s Splendor in the Grass, 1993’s The Age of Innocence, and 2000’s In the Mood for Love don’t fit the bill. Participants in an erotic bummer are not permitted simply to move on.)
Squalor and ignominy are hallmarks of the genre. More often than not, the lovers die like dogs, mutilated, wasted, face down in ditches, and death comes as a relief. The link between sex and death is taken for granted, almost to the point of mysticism—not because sexuality must be punished, but because, like death, sexuality is animal, inevitable. As above, so below.
As befits this fatalistic cast of events, these films’ visions of sex do not come with the edges sanded off. In the small canon of erotic bummers we’ve compiled, certain troubling images and tropes recur with noticeable frequency.
Cuckoldry, as not only a means of obtaining sexual pleasure but also a source of sexual pleasure in itself (The English Patient, Damage). A wartime setting (Atonement; The End of the Affair; The English Patient; The Night Porter; Lust, Caution), connecting the protagonists’ desire to death on a colossal scale. Genital mutilation (Antichrist; Dead Ringers; In the Realm of the Senses; The Piano Teacher; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover), marking eroticism this intense as destructive rather than generative. Hotel rooms (The Brown Bunny, In the Realm of the Senses, The Night Porter), disused apartments (Damage, Last Tango in Paris, Possession), or isolated places in the wilderness (Antichrist, Brokeback Mountain)—discomfitingly liminal loci outside of normal time and space, where the sex can play out with no restraints. Dalliances with fascism (Lust, Caution; The Night Porter), positing sexual arousal/pleasure as a similarly dangerous and totalitarian state of existence. Incest, actual or covert (Dead Ringers, Damage, The Piano Teacher). Rape, jettisoning even the concept of consent in the service of the need to physically possess the other (The Night Porter, Last Tango in Paris, The Piano Teacher). Terminal illness, demonstrating the body’s frailty and corruptibility (The End of the Affair, The Wings of the Dove). A failure to tend to the other needs of the body, leading to unhygienic squalor (Dead Ringers, In the Realm of the Senses, Possession) or starvation (The Night Porter, In the Realm of the Senses) as the lovers devolve into animalistic abjection. Sex in the erotic bummer is a form of rot. Even at their toniest and most Oscar-nominated, these are bad romances.
Unsurprisingly, there is little humor beyond the blackest comedy to be found in these films, and what humor there is does not take the edge off or function as a release valve. The oddball actions of Bud in The Brown Bunny or Anna in Possession may inspire baffled or nervous laughter, but within the film’s diegesis, they’re not treated as ridiculous at all. In the erotic bummer, you’re trapped in Max and Lucia’s isolated apartment in Vienna, or out in the wild with Jack and Ennis. There’s no way out, and no way back.
“I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY.” We bring up this line from 1984 not only because Michael Radford’s film adaptation is just a stone’s throw away from the erotic bummer itself (while Winston and Julia’s sexual relationship drives the plot, the cause of their undoing is not their sex but their general heterodoxy), but also because we imagine that’s where some readers now stand. Having seen what distinguishes the erotic bummer from the erotic thriller, or from a traditional romantic tragedy, why would we prefer the stuff that makes us crysturbate to the alternative?
If the erotic thriller ultimately celebrates the status quo, the erotic bummer spits in its face. It refuses to pay lip service to Hays Code morality, even in the funhouse-mirror inversion presented in noir or neo-noir. Nobody gets their comeuppance or their salvation because punishment is what they all most desire. We’re obstructed from passing judgment on what they do when the lights are out.
The power of the erotic bummer lies in its acknowledgment that, on some level, we are frightened of our own sexuality because we know it can consume us; simultaneously, we are aroused by that prospect. The erotic bummer reflects this without the popcorn-flick safety net provided by the erotic thriller’s thriller component, its adjacency to mystery, crime, even slasher horror. It rubs our faces in the rawest places of the psyche, places that ache to be probed.
From the safety of the sofa or the theater, it is possible to enjoy a lust so total that it reduces its participants to shells of themselves, supplanting their need for platonic companionship, a normal life, bodily autonomy, the basic needs of the organism, and eventually life itself. What must it be like to experience that? To desire and to be desired above all else? To reach the endpoint of eroticism? To contract terminal fuck fever? To participate in not just amazing but annihilatory sex? The erotic bummer demands that its characters risk everything, and risk is the essence of romance.
Sean T. Collins is a critic who has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Vulture, Decider, Pitchfork, and others.
Julia Gfrörer is a cartoonist whose graphic novels include Black Is the Color (2013), Laid Waste (2016), and Vision (2020).
Featured image: Unidentified. Figurative Abstraction, ca. 1930–1938. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation. si.edu, CC0. Accessed July 5, 2023.