Lars von Trier’s latest release, "Nymphomaniac," has drawn mixed reactions with its explicit adult content, from shock to amusement and occasional boredom. Careful listeners might be surprised to hear its soundtrack, studded with chestnuts like Camille Saint-Saëns’s The Swan and César Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major. (Von Trier also notoriously used Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde as inspiration and accompaniment in his previous film, "Melancholia.")
Directors have been mining the classical canon for music to match their erotic subject matter, and here are our five best examples:
1. Eyes Wide Shut
"Eyes Wide Shut," the final film completed by Stanley Kubrik, who singlehandedly familiarized the American movie-going audience with both Richard Strauss and Gyorgi Ligeti, uses Shostakovich's Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 2 as a musical theme throughout this New York couple’s sexual walkabout. The movie, based on the Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler’s “Dream Story” contains several other nods to classical music history such as a seamy downtown haunt named the Sonata Café, and the password to an underground soiree, “Fidelio.”
2. The Age of Innocence
Martin Scorsese, who grew up listening to Italian verismo opera (which he incorporated into movies like "Raging Bull"), turned to Gounod’s French masterpiece, Faust, for his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s "The Age of Innocence." The movie opens at the opera, where the voyeurs of New York society use their opera glasses to spy on other well-healed and attractive audience members, rather than watch what’s on stage. Though the scene looks like a Mary Cassatt painting brought to life, it’s essentially foreplay for the upper crust.
3. The Piano Teacher
Isabel Huppert plays Erika Kohut, a sadomasochistic Schumann and Schubert expert who begins a relationship with her much younger student, in Michael Haneke’s 2001 film "The Piano Teacher." Though Erika initially rejects the young pianist as a pupil, he seduces her by playing the Scherzo from Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A Major.
With Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Natalie Portman and Jude Law coupling and uncoupling throughout the 2004 movie "Closer," its no mystery why director Mike Nichols set his drama to Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. Both the film and opera explore test the virtues of all four lovers as they bounce from one encounter to the next. Meanwhile, Nichols, an avowed classical fan, topped his list of favorite classical albums with the Herbert von Karajan recording of Cosi.
5. 50 Shades of Grey
E.L. James’ erotic novel 50 Shades of Grey has already boosted The Tallis Scholar’s recording of “Spem in alium,” onto the Billboard charts, and you can expect that its movie adaptation, to be released next year, will be an equal boon to sales of the 40-part motet. For those who haven’t picked up the steamy tome, the almost 450-year-old piece is Christian Grey’s choice accompaniment for his first evening with the book’s heroine.
Weigh in: What do you think is the best use of classical music in steamy movies? Please leave your comments below.