“Sex and death,” William Butler Yeats once wrote, “are the only things that can interest a serious mind.” And since its inception, the cinema has held a unique fascination with human sexuality.
In 1899, just four years after the Lumière brothers hosted their first private screening of moving black-and-white images—or motion pictures—French filmmakers Albert Kirchner and Eugène Pirou birthed Le Coucher de la Mariée. The film, silent and seven minutes in length, featured cabaret star Louise Willy performing a sultry striptease. Kirchner and Pirou’s short is widely regarded as the first pornographic film ever made.
It wasn’t until Un chant d’amour, a short film directed by Jean Genet and released in 1950, that unsimulated sex crept into “mainstream” cinema. The 26-minute film, featuring cinematography by Jean Cocteau, told the tale of a guard in a French prison that derived pleasure from watching the inmates masturbate. Genet’s groundbreaking black and white film boasted close-up shots of male masturbation. Following the abandonment of the Hays Code, a strict set of moral censorship guidelines that governed Hollywood from 1930 to 1968, sex became more prevalent in cinema.