The first volume of Lars Von Trier’s film, Nymphomaniac, a 5-hour, two volume sex opus, rolled into theaters on a wave of hype and anticipation on March 21, 2014. Volume two arrived on April 4th. Both chapters are currently available in the United States on video-on-demand. There’s an abundance of graphic, explicit, and boundary-pushing sex in Nymphomaniac, but the film isn’t pornography. It’s simply the latest in a long line of films designed to tease, titillate, raise eyebrows, shock and awe audiences into questioning the boundaries of good taste, or challenge them to confront cultural conventions and stereotypes.
From up-and-coming auteurs to globally recognized and award-winning directors, filmmakers have long challenged what can be shown -or how much can be shown- in mainstream films without being considered pornography. Cinema strives to break down censorship barriers. Sex on screen can be salacious, scandalous, and explicit, yet at the same time it can feature painfully raw, honest, and realistic dramatizations of love and relationships. From art house classics to a prestigious Palme d’Or winner, these 7 films push the envelope when it comes to sex in mainstream cinema.
7. I Am Curious (Yellow): 1967
Sweden and Denmark have a long tradition of racy and risqué filmmaking, and while there are few films like Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, the Danish director’s latest provocation is part of a venerable tradition of Scandinavian erotic cinema. In fact, in 1974 a young Stellan Skarsgard, who co-stars in Nymphomaniac, played a similar role in the X-rated Swedish drama Anita. It seems Skarsgard, who’s best known in the United States for his role as a professor in Good Will Hunting, has a penchant for listening to beautiful sex addicts recount their traumatic love lives and erotic misadventures.
Before Nymphomaniac or Anita, however, there was Vilgot Sjman’s sexually explicit I am Curious (Yellow). When the Swedish melodrama/political screed was brought to the U.S. in 1969, it was seized at customs and placed on trial in the Supreme Court for obscenity. I am Curious (Yellow) tells the story of a radical student who has an affair with an older, married man. The film features interview footage of Martin Luther King Jr. as well as authentic footage of Vietnam War protests. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the film’s political stance or antiauthoritarian tone that upset censors, but the sex scenes in which the actors display their hairy pubic regions. However, it wasn’t just the abundance of pubic hair that made the film notorious, but also a quick genital smooch. That smooch paved the way for all the European art house porn-chic that followed.
6. Henry and June: 1990
Henry and June earns a place on the list for one reason and one reason only: it was the first mainstream movie to earn an NC-17 rating. Philip Kaufman’s adaption of Anais Nin’s memoir follows the libidinal adventures of American novelist Henry Miller, his lover Anais Nin, and his wife June (who was also Nin’s lover) in 1930s Paris. Artfully tasteful to a fault, the film is replete with ecstatic moaning, groaning and thrusting, but it has the soft-edged, romanticized, airbrushed quality of an old school Playboy –more European erotica than pornographic ghetto. Still, the literary love story upset moral watchdogs enough that it was quickly slapped with an NC-17 rating, which meant that no newspapers would run advertisements for it in 1990. Henry and June features a very young, very naked Uma Thurman.
5. Shame: 2011
Before British writer and director Steve McQueen won the Best Picture Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave, he made a darkly textured drama about a Wall Street sex addict (Michael Fassbender). Fassbender plays Brandon, a man who goes through the motions of life in search of the ultimate act of pleasure. From one-night stands and anonymous threesomes to visits with prostitutes and lunchtime porn binges, Shame takes a clinical approach to sex addiction. The film is more of a character study of a broken soul in search of human connection, or a thinly veiled treatise on the link between carnal greed and capitalism, than it is a piece of art house erotica. People have sex in Shame, and lots of it, but none of it is pleasurable. The gratuitous nudity and sex in the film, which includes the now famous “Fassmember,” resulted in Shame being rated NC-17 in the United States.
4. Crash: 1996
Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg is no stranger to controversy. Early cult classics Shivers, Rabid (staring porn star Marilyn Chambers), and Videodrome cemented his reputation as one of the principal originators of a subgenre known as body horror, or venereal horror. Cronenberg’s 1996 film adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s hallucinatory novel, Crash, focuses on a group of protagonists -led by the increasingly seedy James Spader -who become sexually aroused (symphorophilia) by staging and participating in car crashes. Crash won a prize for “Audacity” at the Cannes Film Festival.
The sexual thrill of recreating famous car crashes, inter-wound penetration, the erotic allure of body modification through injury and technology, Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of Eros and Thanatos (instinct vs. death drive), Cronenberg’s film picks and scratches at sexual taboos like they’re scabs. In clinically surveying the wreckage of modernity, Crash challenges what it means to be human -as well as tests the comfort level of the viewer- in featuring sex scenes that are both grotesque and disconcertingly arousing. According to Rolling Stone, Ted Turner found the movie so degenerate that he tried to have it banned from ever being released.
3. Last Tango in Paris: 1972
“Go get the butter,” says Marlon Brando, in Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci’s seminal meditation on sex, loneliness, alienation, and anonymity. Last Tango in Paris premiered in 1972 at the prestigious New York Film Festival and ignited a firestorm of controversy. The film tells the story of an American widower (Marlon Brando) who begins an anonymous sexual relationship with a young Parisian woman (Marie Schneider). Brando’s Paul uses his anonymity, athletic and often creative sexual encounters in an empty Parisian apartment as his way of escaping from the world.
While some critics savaged the film as pornography masquerading as art, famed movie critic Pauline Kael (The New Yorker) championed the film with the most famous review of her career, calling its raw depiction of sex as momentous as Stravinsky’s controversial Rite of Spring. The controversy surrounding the film reached an even greater height when it was briefly rumored that Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider were actually having sex in the film. Last Tango in Paris was banned in Chile, Spain, and the director’s native Italy, where his civil rights were revoked for five years. By today’s standards, Last Tango’s infamous anal sex scene is tame, but the film’s exploration of how carnality destroys boundaries remains as potent as ever.
2. Blue Is the Warmest Color: 2013
In May 2013, the jury at the Cannes Films Festival awarded the Palme d’Or to the French film Blue Is the Warmest Color, a three-hour lesbian coming-of-age drama. While the film is a love story, with more than a passing nod to Francois Truffaut, it features raw, unflinching, and extended sex scenes. The film struck a nerve with feminists, caused outrage and viewer walkouts, garnered praise and criticism, and became one of the most polarizing films of the year.
Some critics and viewers thought Blue Is the Warmest Color was an honest look at the growing love and eventual heartbreak between two women, while others thought the film was compromised by the fact that it was made by a man, starred two heterosexual women, and featured sex scenes that were too titillating. In fact, one feral sequence lasts nearly 10 minutes. Blue Is the Warmest Color was criticized for pandering to the “male gaze.”
In a New York Times review, film critic Manohla Dargis writes: “It’s disappointing that Mr. Kechiche (director) seems so unaware or maybe just uninterested in the tough questions about the representation of the female body that feminists have engaged for decades.” Another critic asks: “If a straight director is choreographing an explicit scene between two straight actresses, isn’t he just arranging them to his own satisfaction, say, a male fantasy of girl-on-girl action?” As polarizing as Blue Is the Warmest Color is with critics and viewers, the Palme d’Or winner set the stage for a minor renaissance of sexually explicit films including Nymphomaniac and Alain Guiraudie’s Strangers By the Lake.
1. Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom: 1975
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or 120 Day of Sodom is one of the most controversial films to come out of the 1970s. Set during Mussolini’s reign in Italy, it depicts four corrupt and wealthy libertines who imprison young men and women and sexually humiliate, torture, and murder them in increasingly grotesque ways. Pasolini’s final film is intensely graphic; even by today’s standards Salo is difficult to watch. While the film is noted for exploring themes of political corruption, abuse of power, sadism, perversion, sexuality, and fascism, it’s been banned in Malaysia and Singapore due to its extreme content. In 1976, Salo was banned in Australia and New Zealand. The ban was lifted in Australia in 1993, but it wasn’t until 2001 that the DVD was finally passed uncut in New Zealand. In 1994, nearly 20 years after its release, an undercover policeman in Ohio rented Salo from a gay bookstore, and then arrested the owners for pandering. In 2006, Time Out named Salo the Most Controversial Film of all time.
Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered on the outskirts of Rome in November 1975, and like much of his art, 40 years later his death is open to interpretation, controversy, and morbid speculation.