One of the dubious distinctions between erotic art and pornography is to qualify the former as having creative merit, while the latter is about getting off. These two categories, risque art and masturbatory aid, are deemed mutually exclusive, such that it becomes almost unfathomable for many to conceive of a hardcore work that is both intellectually and physiologically arousing.
What about explicit representations of fucking that manage to both excite the mind and the body, or… neither?
Let’s start with the latter:
I recently saw Gaspar Noé’s Love, a film that ran the festival circuit and was received with lukewarm reviews. Despite having a marketing campaign based entirely on its 3D, unsimulated sex scenes, this film struck me as neither erotic nor pornographic.
The plot centers around a whingy male character who becomes involved with two women, both equally as immature as himself. This might have been tolerable given the right treatment, but the near constant cliched dialogue made it very difficult to sustain my interest. I have a high tolerance for unsympathetic, irredeemable characters, but being boring while being awful is just unforgivable. And while melodrama is not my thing, the way emotions are represented in Love is both gratuitous and mundane, even for the genre.
As for the sex itself, Noé manages the impressive feat of making all this gorgeous high production sex totally limp. If you edited out most of the dialogue so that Love was mostly wall to wall, this would make for a beautiful porno. (Even better, inventive voiceovers could perhaps transform Love into In the Realm of the Senses caliber smut.) Certainly the actors give it their all. But as it stands, all the emo drama in between the sex scenes left me unmoved.
What Noé was successful at was something different and unexpected. About halfway through the movie, one becomes desensitized to the constant fucking – no surprize there. But by the last third, you have seen so much explicit sex, you begin to notice subtleties and details that may have escaped you before. It’s a bit like how all jazz might sound the same to a neophyte, but with repeated exposure, clear differences arise. And even though the basic mechanics of sex don’t change very much, as you shift from desensitization to a kind of hyper-sensitization, it becomes apparent how even very small differences between both the style and content of the sex scenes reflect the changing relations between Love’s characters. So I suppose the question is, is this realization worth sitting through an entire movie of watching its characters shit their emotions all over each other? My verdict is: hardly.
Now, for the more difficult feat – the arousing work of smut that engages both mind and body:
Little Cat is a collection of two novellas by Tamara Faith Berger whose writing I’ve reviewed before. Both stories offer unconventional representations of female sexuality, but it’s the former story, Lie With Me, that fits the bill.
Entirely pornographic, every single chapter of Lie With Me features raw and hardcore descriptions of fucking. Central to the narrative are the increasingly intense exploits of a psychologically disturbed young woman who picks up random men at a bar and brings them home for casual sex.
But Lie With Me is much more than what its premise would suggest. It is political and critical – and staunchly feminist in how it vivisects gender stereotypes, plays with power imbalances and implicates you, the reader, in all this. Told from both the protagonist’s point of view and those of the men she seduces, Berger’s writing is designed to make you uncomfortable from all angles. Without giving anything away, I can only say that she is not a writer that shies away from pushing boundaries. And keeping someone on edge is something I find very exciting. You can take from that statement what you will.
Although I didn’t enjoy Little Cat as much as Berger’s novel, Maidenhead, I would still recommend it, especially for reading in public places…