You can do amazing things from beyond the grave. Look at Nostradamus, posthumously making our skin crawl with his apocalyptic forecasts. Or Stanley Kubrick, dead and buried, but still making our flesh tingle in anticipation of the opening of his film, Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick's choice of stars was pretty shrewd: Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise alone would guarantee feverish interest in the film and a stampede to the box office. But Kubrick's film also grabs headlines by taking sex seriously. There's plenty of celluloid sex, no doubt about it; tonsil-tickling clinches and sweaty copulations offer Hollywood plenty of excuses to put tits on show and bums in the air. But this is sex as titillating side order, not satisfying main course. The bosoms and bottoms on display function either as the proverbial banana skin in slapstick comedy; or as humiliation in the power games that fill a violent flick. This kind of on-screen sex may stimulate you, but the release comes from the gag or the gun.
From the sizzling 90-second trailer showing Kidman and Cruise in an erotic embrace to the advance reports from US critics, it is clear that Kubrick, instead, wanted to drag sex centre-stage. Passion does not punctuate, but is the whole point of Eyes Wide Shut. Feverish exhilaration, latent aggression, psychological impact - this is the physical and emotional terrain Kubrick sought to explore. Whether he succeeded in doing so, only seeing the film will tell; what is already apparent is that Kubrick wanted to rehabilitate sex as a serious and worthy subject matter of cinematic portrayal.
You cannot wholly blame American and British film-makers for having been loath to focus on sex. The mixture of Puritan tradition and contemporary hunger for instant gratification have warped Anglo-Saxon attitudes to the artistic expression of sexuality. Puritan primness recoils from the sight of flesh and passionate pursuits. The Cromwellian hairshirt legacy decrees that sex is a temptation to be indulged in secret and, preferably, in the dark. This inbred coyness equates cinematic sex with cinematic violence - to be damned as a corrupting influence on children and adults alike.
Meanwhile, for an audience made lazy by the promise of instant gratification, thrills must come from the most brutal violence, laughs from the most obvious comedies - and sensual pleasure from get-your-rocks-off porn. Little wonder that in both Britain and America, celluloid sexuality has hitherto been relegated to Vice Vixen and Lewd Laptop Lady, shown in dark theatres crowded by men in dirty macs.
Nothing could be more different from the Continental tradition, which has been celebrating eroticism in films from Last Tango in Paris to The Story of O. Here the camera lingers over naked forms; closes in on passionate encounters; traces and retraces lustful caresses. Continentals, drawing on their rich legacy of renaissance, baroque and impressionist paintings, celebrate the explicitly physical as aesthetic and examine the passionate encounter to illuminate our human condition. Sex for them deserves the same serious treatment as a family drama and the same visually exciting portrayal as a space empire.
In this country, Kubrick's salvo from beyond the grave couldn't have come at a more opportune moment. The puerile tastes of cinema-goers were exposed in a recent poll where 160,000 people named Star Wars and Titanic as their favourite movies of all time. No mention of a Chaplin, Bergman or a Bunuel film. An audience this infantile approaches sex like a schoolboy: either ignoring it or condensing it to a dirty quickie. By choosing to place eroticism at the heart of his film, Kubrick took a gamble that movie audiences were ready to grow up. Let's hope it paid off. Sex doesn't belong in the playground.