10 Great Movies About The Dark Side of Desire

While a good old-fashioned romantic comedy certainly has its place in film, audiences have grown accustomed to the conventions of a typical “boy meets girl” movie. At this point there is very little the standard romantic comedy film can do to be truly subversive anymore.

Even the posters for these types of movies tend to look the same; they’re sold as lighthearted films that never get too dark. The relationship depicted onscreen may have a rough patch, but there seems to be an implicit understanding that a happy ending is in store.

Fortunately, for fans of quality cinema there’s another type of romance film. This is a film that isn’t afraid to explore desire in all its complexity. It may include the excitement that comes with falling in love, but it also exposes the dark side of desire.

Let’s take a look at a few films that were brave enough to treat audiences like adults.

1. Carnal Knowledge (1971)

This is a great look at the sometimes flawed adolescent male psyche. Although it can be loosely classified as a romantic comedy, Mike Nichols does an excellent job of breaking through that box by giving us two protagonists that struggle to mature over a lifetime. They obsess over women despite lacking the maturity to maintain relationships.

The fact that they have sexual encounters with women throughout the film is almost meaningless, because they almost never quite reach the level of happiness or growth they think they will.

2. That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

Buñuel’s last film is arguably just as experimental as his earlier work. This time, we see how the surreal translates to love.

What really makes this film work is the fact that a lot of it is told in flashbacks, yet it’s still mysterious. It’s not as linear as one would think a flashback might entail. That Obscure Object of Desire is a fantastic film that really captures the sometimes inexplicable madness of love, and obsession.

3. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

This film gets mentioned quite often when discussing “dark sexual films,” but it’s unavoidable. The way Kubrick balances the dream world with the waking life is so seamless it gives the film a horrifying edge.

Eyes Wide Shut is one of the few films that is not officially a “horror” film, but it will make you feel like you’re in genuine danger. You get the sense that anything could potentially happen in this film due to Tom Cruise’s character going down a path he cannot handle. The fact that this was Kubrick’s final film adds an extra layer of mystery; we will never have all the answers regarding what he was trying to say to us.

4. Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)

This is another film where the lead character’s curiosity spells trouble. In an attempt to escape the boredom of her existence, a teacher (played by Diane Keaton) searches for companionship and finds more than she expected.

Although the film may seem dated by today’s standards, it’s still worth watching for Diane Keaton’s Oscar-nominated performance (the cinematography was also nominated).

5. In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

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If you’ve never seen it; you may have heard this film is notorious for being graphic. It has a reputation for bordering on pornography.

Looking past its sexually explicit content, it is a powerful portrait of two people trapped in a chaotic relationship. It just might be the most effective film at depicting a doomed relationship. In the Realm of the Senses shows us that when it comes to matters of the heart, logic goes out the window.

Vertigo is another great film that uses the theme of desire gone awry. When a film explores the theme of desire, the line between healthy infatuation and obsession is often blurred. Who better than the master of suspense to tackle this idea?

Hitchcock’s Vertigo was not only ahead of the curve in terms of story; it’s also one of his most visually striking films. As a side note, knowing what we now do about Hitchcock’s alleged treatment of women, the film feels partly autobiographical in retrospect. As a result, when we watch this film today it is all the more jarring.

7. The Soft Skin (1964)

Taking cues from Hitchcock, Truffaut’s The Soft Skin deserves a mention on this list due to the sophisticated way he treats his characters.

It’s essentially about a love affair, but thanks to the Hitchcock influence it’s given the same treatment you’d expect from a thriller or mystery. Almost two decades later, Truffaut would make a similar film worth mentioning on this list: The Woman Next Door.

8. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

What would happen if you took a regular romantic comedy plot, and put it in the hands of one of the most original filmmakers ever? It might look something like Punch-Drunk Love.

Paul Thomas Anderson knew exactly what he was doing by casting Adam Sandler, who was one of the most popular comedy stars at the time, and giving him a darker edge. Instead of a man Sandler would normally play, we get the tortured Barry Egan. In one scene Barry tells Lena (his love interest), “I’m lookin’ at your face and I just wanna smash it.” Lena responds to this with another violent, yet loving comment. This is not your average love story.

9. Dressed to Kill (1980)

Dressed to Kill is another instance where a film benefits from being something of a genre hybrid (and incidentally, yet another Hitchcock influenced film).

Instead of just the basic “erotic” film, this is De Palma. That means the eroticism is just the half of it; we’re led down a stylish rabbit hole that involves murder and mystery.

10. The Love Witch (2016)

The tagline for this film says it all, “She loved men…to death.” What happens when a person is forced to fall in love with someone? Can you really “force” love successfully? Anna Biller’s film explores this idea in a fresh, sometimes hilarious way.

It has been described as being a horror comedy film, and even a thriller. However you classify The Love Witch, it is one of the most beautiful films in recent history to feature such a dark look at love.

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Apr 13, 2018 1:20 PM

While a good old-fashioned romantic comedy certainly has its place in film, audiences have grown accustomed to the conventions of a typical “boy meets girl” movie. At this point there is very little the standard romantic comedy film can do to be truly subversive anymore.

Even the posters for these types of movies tend to look the same; they’re sold as lighthearted films that never get too dark. The relationship depicted onscreen may have a rough patch, but there seems to be an implicit understanding that a happy ending is in store.

Fortunately, for fans of quality cinema there’s another type of romance film. This is a film that isn’t afraid to explore desire in all its complexity. It may include the excitement that comes with falling in love, but it also exposes the dark side of desire.

Let’s take a look at a few films that were brave enough to treat audiences like adults.

1. Carnal Knowledge (1971)

This is a great look at the sometimes flawed adolescent male psyche. Although it can be loosely classified as a romantic comedy, Mike Nichols does an excellent job of breaking through that box by giving us two protagonists that struggle to mature over a lifetime. They obsess over women despite lacking the maturity to maintain relationships.

The fact that they have sexual encounters with women throughout the film is almost meaningless, because they almost never quite reach the level of happiness or growth they think they will.

2. That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

Buñuel’s last film is arguably just as experimental as his earlier work. This time, we see how the surreal translates to love.

What really makes this film work is the fact that a lot of it is told in flashbacks, yet it’s still mysterious. It’s not as linear as one would think a flashback might entail. That Obscure Object of Desire is a fantastic film that really captures the sometimes inexplicable madness of love, and obsession.

3. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

This film gets mentioned quite often when discussing “dark sexual films,” but it’s unavoidable. The way Kubrick balances the dream world with the waking life is so seamless it gives the film a horrifying edge.

Eyes Wide Shut is one of the few films that is not officially a “horror” film, but it will make you feel like you’re in genuine danger. You get the sense that anything could potentially happen in this film due to Tom Cruise’s character going down a path he cannot handle. The fact that this was Kubrick’s final film adds an extra layer of mystery; we will never have all the answers regarding what he was trying to say to us.

4. Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)

This is another film where the lead character’s curiosity spells trouble. In an attempt to escape the boredom of her existence, a teacher (played by Diane Keaton) searches for companionship and finds more than she expected.

Although the film may seem dated by today’s standards, it’s still worth watching for Diane Keaton’s Oscar-nominated performance (the cinematography was also nominated).

5. In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

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If you’ve never seen it; you may have heard this film is notorious for being graphic. It has a reputation for bordering on pornography.

Looking past its sexually explicit content, it is a powerful portrait of two people trapped in a chaotic relationship. It just might be the most effective film at depicting a doomed relationship. In the Realm of the Senses shows us that when it comes to matters of the heart, logic goes out the window.

Vertigo is another great film that uses the theme of desire gone awry. When a film explores the theme of desire, the line between healthy infatuation and obsession is often blurred. Who better than the master of suspense to tackle this idea?

Hitchcock’s Vertigo was not only ahead of the curve in terms of story; it’s also one of his most visually striking films. As a side note, knowing what we now do about Hitchcock’s alleged treatment of women, the film feels partly autobiographical in retrospect. As a result, when we watch this film today it is all the more jarring.

7. The Soft Skin (1964)

Taking cues from Hitchcock, Truffaut’s The Soft Skin deserves a mention on this list due to the sophisticated way he treats his characters.

It’s essentially about a love affair, but thanks to the Hitchcock influence it’s given the same treatment you’d expect from a thriller or mystery. Almost two decades later, Truffaut would make a similar film worth mentioning on this list: The Woman Next Door.

8. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

What would happen if you took a regular romantic comedy plot, and put it in the hands of one of the most original filmmakers ever? It might look something like Punch-Drunk Love.

Paul Thomas Anderson knew exactly what he was doing by casting Adam Sandler, who was one of the most popular comedy stars at the time, and giving him a darker edge. Instead of a man Sandler would normally play, we get the tortured Barry Egan. In one scene Barry tells Lena (his love interest), “I’m lookin’ at your face and I just wanna smash it.” Lena responds to this with another violent, yet loving comment. This is not your average love story.

9. Dressed to Kill (1980)

Dressed to Kill is another instance where a film benefits from being something of a genre hybrid (and incidentally, yet another Hitchcock influenced film).

Instead of just the basic “erotic” film, this is De Palma. That means the eroticism is just the half of it; we’re led down a stylish rabbit hole that involves murder and mystery.

10. The Love Witch (2016)

The tagline for this film says it all, “She loved men…to death.” What happens when a person is forced to fall in love with someone? Can you really “force” love successfully? Anna Biller’s film explores this idea in a fresh, sometimes hilarious way.

It has been described as being a horror comedy film, and even a thriller. However you classify The Love Witch, it is one of the most beautiful films in recent history to feature such a dark look at love.

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