Although it is inherent to the creation of life itself, sexuality keeps making people blush, as if it were something to be embarrassed about or to condemn, especially if you are a woman. Although nowadays it seems like we are willing to talk about this topic more openly, there are still many obstacles that don't let us have free and open discussions about women and sex, eroticism, desire, and lust without calling it sinful or “improper.” Women are still socially shamed and targets of criticism when they’re open about their sexuality, and although we’ve seen some improvement in this matter, there’s still a long way to go when it comes to openness regarding sex.
Repression is otherwise praised as “innocence” and purity, two ideals that have become unattainable and even poisonous. Freud dealt with that at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. The extreme sexual repression of his age made women display symptoms of “hysteria,” which was cured not only through psychoanalysis, but through the “release” of the tension of that malady; in other words, through orgasms. As Freud proved, there is a way to heal this repression and its consequences, and it is by surrendering to our own pleasure, leaving aside prejudices, fear of social judgment, and heeding the call of the forbidden. It is that or inevitably falling to the smothering toxicity of repression.
The following movies explore the opposition of repression and seduction, the struggle between rigid morals and the freedom of sexuality. Not all of them have the same outcomes, but they have two main points in common: the ones who suffer from the repression the most are women, and their titillating liberation can be either healing or fatal.
Repulsion (1965) Roman Polanski
As the title expresses, the main character of this film, Carol Ledoux, is disgusted by male contact and sex. When Carol’s sister starts an affair with a man, the audience becomes immersed in the claustrophobia and repulsion the protagonist feels from the mere thought of being in the house where her sister and that man have had sexual encounters. The house seems to literally come to life as Carol goes in a mental downward spiral, where every object touched by the couple taints her and remits her to a dark event of her past.
The Castle of Purity (1973) Arturo Ripstein
This Mexican film explores repression, not only in the sexual sphere, but as an evil that distorts the dynamics of an isolated family. The creepiest part of all: it is based on a true story. Gabriel, a rat poison seller who believes the world is a twisted place, locks his wife and kids in the house, convincing them that it's the only way they’ll be safe from the evils of the outer world. However, as his children start growing up, the temptations of their own sexual desire and their own questions regarding the world outside will tear apart the haven of “purity” in which they have been living.
The Virgin Suicides (1999) Sofia Coppola
Sofia Coppola’s masterpiece, based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, deals with the isolation and depression of five teenage sisters. After the youngest of them attempts suicide, the strictness of their Catholic parents worsens, leading to a suffocating repression from which they’ll try to escape. However, as you can guess from the title, the consequences of seclusion and loneliness can lead to tragedy.
The Piano Teacher (2001) Michael Haneke
An extreme depiction of power play and the shaming of paraphilias, this movie tells the story of Erika Kohut, a piano teacher who, despite being in her forties, still lives under her mother’s thumb. Despite being repressed in many ways, Erika manages to release the dark side of her lust through pornography, voyeurism, and masochism. When she begins an affair with one of her students, the tension between them will grow as he starts to dive into her philias.
Black Swan (2010) Darren Aronofsky
Nina, a shy and perfectionist ballet dancer who lives with her severe mother, finds her moment to be on the spotlight when she is cast as Odette (the White Swan) and Odile (the Black Swan) in her company’s version of The Swan Lake. However, she knows her position is in danger, as the ballet company’s director tells her she must embody both the innocence of the White Swan ––which she can depict perfectly––, and the sensuality of the Black Swan, which is better displayed by Lily, the new ballerina in the company. Nina’s perfectionism and pressure to be the best ultimately breaks her, as she attempts to release the darkness and lust of the Black Swan within her.
A Dangerous Method (2011) David Cronenberg
As I previously mentioned, the beginning of the twentieth century was marked by the overwhelming sexual repression women endured. Based on historical facts, this film explores the dynamics between Freud, his disciple Carl Jung, and Sabina Spielrein, Jung’s patient, who later on would become one of the first female psychoanalysts in history. As Jung tries to help Sabina with her hysteria, a passionate romance will blur the line between the professional and emotional aspects of their relationship, to the point that it will be rather difficult to say whether it’s all about a medical cure or a release of desire.
The other side of the coin, sexual liberation, has had a masterful approach in many other films. Take a look at these: