In recent months director Lars Von Trier got cinema goers all hot and bothered with his affront to movie rating standards, Nymphomaniac. It's technically a ‘mainstream’ film, featuring Transformer's favourite Shia LaBeouf , but the film allegedly features unsimulated sex. Although Shia's co-star has recently confirmed they had 'p**n doubles', CGI and prosthetics, still nobody knows quite what to do with this scandalous piece of cinema history.
Critics have been falling over themselves to either adore or berate the film on grounds totally dissociated from its honest-to-goodness hanky-panky. The movie follows one woman's 'erotic journey' and in efforts to avoid conceding anything to notorious media renegade Von Trier, reviews of this film have been mostly focused on the film's penetration of the lead character's mind rather than the more shocking, less cerebral aspects of her life.
But despite the journalistic poker faces, the public have rewarded the film with more than its quota of shock. Shock which might be bewildering given just how often this stunt has been pulled: twice before by Von Trier himself.
The fact of the matter is that unsimulated sexual relations in films outside of the adult entertainment world is a tradition going back at least a few decades. And the overspill looks set to continue with ‘adult entertainment' actors making regular forays into the world of mainstream cinema and vice versa. Case in point; the recent Lindsay Lohan train wreck of a film, The Canyons, written by the dazzlingly brilliant Bret Easton Ellis. The Canyons is an exemplar x-rated / mainstream crossover in the person of 'James Deen' (yes, really), adult entertainer turned thriller leading man.
The motivation behind casting decisions like this must be the very same as those which invite genuine sex into the realm of well-respected method acting. First, there's the shock factor closely linked to an audience's penchant for voyeurism. Second, the breaking of these taboos forces us to ask what we’re so shocked about; because what does it really matter if uglies are bumping for real, or pretend? It all looks the same and we'll all still be there eating popcorn. Here, we've collated ten examples of mainstream film featuring actual, knowing-you-in-the-biblical-sense action, which broke the taboos - and the ratings system - and forced critics and audiences alike to wonder what the big deal is.
10 Irreversible (Gaspar Noe)
We recently took a look at some of the most shocking moments in film so those of you who’ve been paying attention will remember this little gem. Irreversible is shocking in about a million ways and the unsimulated sexual activity it hosts is pretty far down that list. So, do we remember what real sex moment director Gaspar Noe included in this film? That’s right - male self-pleasuring. Featuring? Right again - Noe himself. But this particular moment of self-indulgence was (according to Noe anyway) actually more of a political gesture. Given that it took place in a gay bar in a film full of almost-homophobic moments, Noe felt this would prove just exactly how unprejudiced he was.
9 Anatomy of Hell (Catherine Breillat)
So, the premise of this film is that Woman (that’s her character’s actual ‘name’) meets Man (likewise) during a suicide attempt. Man saves Woman and she pays him to keep an eye on her for a few days just in case. Cue lots of between-the-sheets action. Because when a woman asks to be looked after, that’s always what she really means. Hmm. BBC critic Jamie Russell offers some insight into this film, remarking that the film demonstrates commendable “commitment to…an austere intellectual discourse”. Which might explain why this particular example of unsimulated sex is so unstimulating. We may be getting somewhere in identifying a fundamental difference between mainstream film and XXX rated movies.
8 Cruising (William Friedkin)
Cruising, starring Al Pacino, has enjoyed renewed interest in the last year with James Franco leading the 'Interior. Leather Bar' project which portrays the behind the scenes’ ‘making of’ process of Cruising's racier moments. Cruising is really more about murder than sex, but Friedkin spliced scenes of actual guy-on-guy action into various scenes of the film. There’s something rebelliously delightful about this getting past censorship regulations which cut 40 full minutes of the film for intolerable sexual explicitness.
7 The Zodiac Series (Finn Karlsson and Werner Hedman)
Not one film but six films, this series of comedies from 1970s Denmark was made by the mainstream, of the mainstream, for the mainstream. So to speak. In short (which isn’t a comment on the cast) the films all featured mainstream actors and were shown in mainstream cinema. And all of them were filled with hardcore raunchiness. Denmark - from whence, interestingly, Lars Von Trier hails - also produced the Bedside series of comedies. Also mainstream (ish). Also filled with really real bump ’n’ grind.
6 Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell)
John Cameron Mitchell is maybe best known as the writer and original star of Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch and he's recently been in the public eye for his cameo appearance in the HBO series Girls. While the musical Hedwig didn’t feature anything explicit, it still covered the subject of transexuality in an encyclopaedic fashion while managing to comment beautifully on love. But before we digress further; Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 project Shortbus is a sort of amateur anthropology exercise and was explicitly designed to challenge the notion of ‘sex’ as the remit of the adult entertainment industry. Thus, live 'action' on-screen that is, according to Mitchell, “like music…a universal language”.
5 Ken Park (Larry Clark and Ed Lachman)
Ken Park, although ultimately written by Harmony Korine, is actually the nearly true story of director Larry Clark’s youth. At least, it’s based on his diaries. At its core, this is a coming-of-age tale punctuated by tragedy and trauma. And by most critical accounts, it’s a good one. A good one featuring unsimulated slap and tickle. Well, one scene of real 'self-love' anyway. The rest of the naughtiness is faked. Some Classification Bodies, though, have been more disturbed by the faked bits because the actors (all ‘of age’) were portraying fourteen year-olds. Clark, though, reckons none of this is why the film hasn’t enjoyed the circulation it deserves. That, he says, is thanks to the soundtrack. The music was used without copyright release. Hm.
4 9 Songs (Michael Winterbottom)
Whether or not 9 Songs belongs on this list is definitely up for debate. In a lot of countries, this film doesn't pass for mainstream. That said, in many others including the UK, the film (uncut) received a rating of 18 and was shown in mainstream cinema. So by those standards, it makes the cut. The film follows a couple and the breakdown of their relationship, underscored by 9 rock numbers that correspond (sort of) to the emotional place they’re both in at that time in the film. Actor Kieran O’Brien was derisive about public shock resulting from the film. He couldn’t understand it. In fact, he said he didn’t believe people were really shocked. As far as he was concerned, he said, it was just sex and he was just acting. Which begs the question, why was the only scene he refused to do one that involved him engaging in relations with a man?
3 The Brown Bunny (Vincent Gallo)
By all accounts this is a disaster of a film and you will fall asleep; it scored well under 50 on Rotten Tomatoes' tomatometer for critic and audience appreciation. On the very slight off chance you don’t fall asleep, though, you’ll catch the moment that put this film on the map - Vincent Gallo getting his jollies with Chloe Sevigny. It mightn't be the full deck, but a few bases are covered here and not in a particularly sensitive manner. This really is noteworthy only because of the distressing impact it had on Sevigny’s reputation: The film was poorly received, so without the validation of the art house crowd, her oral engagement with Gallo didn't quite manage to pass itself off as ‘art’.
2 Clip (Maja Milos)
This 2012 film is a Serbian export and has unquestionably earned its place amongst the list of shocking films this decade. Ok so it features real 'action' just like all the other films on this list. The lead actress, though, was 14 at the time of filming and she does engage in explicit activity. Clip is banned in Russia but has been shown as mainstream cinema elsewhere. Very worrying.
1 Antichrist / The Idiots / Nymphomaniac / All About Anna
Lars Von Trier was always going to make it onto this list. But to avoid making it a Von Trier specific list, we’ve just grouped together a few of his most notorious offerings. Nymphomaniac is the most recent release from Von Trier and follows Antichrist in the tradition of showing unsimulated sex, but using adult entertainment actors CGI-d into the frame. The Idiots, on the other hand, is just unapologetically explicit and minus CGI assistance, possibly something it gets away with since 1998's The Idiots is less mainstream - and earlier - than the others listed here. Von Trier didn’t direct All About Anna, but he did produce this well known example of authentic sexual engagement in mainstream film. As with so many of the other examples on this list, Von Trier’s sexy scenes generally follow or preempt some sort of hugely traumatic, tragic, gritty other event. So, if we can conclude anything here, it’s that real sex on mainstream screen seems to be ok these days, so long as it’s far too dark and terrifying to ever be titillating.