The appropriately named Blue Underground studio has as part of its mission the preservation of '60s/'70s European art-porn. If that label means little to you, the new Justine and Eugenie are prime examples from the genre's elder statesman, director Jess Franco. Looking for plausible reasons to sneak his exploitation flicks through customs, Franco decided to adapt stories by the Marquis de Sade. While the ridiculously dramatic orchestral score and cheap 18th-century sets may have fooled censors, the horrific acting makes these movies little more than curiosity pieces.
They are also not very explicitly sexual. That's something you can't say about Bacchanales Sexuelles (Synapse), which is basically a '70s version of a De Sade-ish plot involving kidnapping and sex cults. It's all extremely goofy, but you have to give some points to a softcore movie that sets its first make-out scene to the music of jazz iconoclasts the Art Ensemble of Chicago instead of wah-wah-overdosing electric guitars. Too bad the one really sexy actress has little to do after than first scene.
This year's Unfaithful (Fox) had some problems overall, but one sequence made it worth the time — the one in which Diane Lane, whose happy marriage provides her no reason to roam, finally gives herself to the French Cassanova who is pursuing her. All you see of Lane's skin is her phenomenal legs and her stomach, which is quaking as her new lover caresses it; she truly looks as if she's about to explode from guilt, and the whole scene is intercut with Lane alone on the train back home. It is arousing, emotionally honest, and it's the best acting Lane has ever done.
The Piano Teacher (Kino) is all about one actress' performance, as well. Those looking for a turn-on should go elsewhere, as the sex in this film is so laced with manipulation and cruelty that only De Sade could be happy about it. But Isabelle Huppert gets the kind of meaty role she hasn't had in years, at least as far as American filmgoers have seen, and director Michael Haneke does a better job with Sadism than Jess Franco could have dreamed.
Practically nobody in San Antonio got a chance to see one of the best films this year, so it's fortunate that Y Tu Mamá También (MGM) is being released on disc in time for inclusion here. A road movie featuring two young men and a runaway wife, there's enough sex and confusion here for director Alfonso Cuarón to treat it in a variety of ways; there's matter-of-fact quickie sex, life-changing sex that's more appealing before it starts, and many things in between. There are also sharp, artful directorial choices, and fantastic performances from actors including Gael García Bernal, star of the last Mexican film that made American ones look impossibly dull, Amores Perros.
A very different romantic triangle plays out in Human Nature (New Line), by screenwriter-of-the-hour Charlie Kaufman. The story is all about primal urges and the damage we do by repressing them; it is full of heavy-handed symbolism and tough-to-sympathize-with characters that might have come off better under the direction of Adaptation's Spike Jonze — but there are some laughs to be had here, and you will at least see some things you have never seen on a screen before.
(Speaking of cinematic rarities: Transvestite stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard just released a pretty great concert film called Dress To Kill (Anti). Izzard's routine is lightly sprinkled with coy insights into the sex lives of transvestites — or at least this particular one — which may surprise those of us men who've never longed to wear angora.)
Finally, a blast from the past: John Dahl's neo-noir gem The Last Seduction (Artisan) is finally on DVD. The film was made for cable, but Linda Fiorentino's sparklingly evil performance was too steamy to be contained on the tube; it wound up being a fair-sized indie hit in theaters. Fiorentino takes the femme fatale archetype to the far reaches of plausibility — in one scene, she puts a cigarette out in a pie given to her lover by his dear old grandma — but she has so much fun with the part that you don't care she's a caricature. She's also, um, really hot, even (according to my non-scientific survey) to straight women. If only the Marquis had met Linda, Sadism might have had an entirely different flavor.