It is the nature of our society that films with strong sexual content provoke controversy. These nine movies tested the limits of what mainstream critics and audiences deem acceptable.
Last Tango in Paris (1972)
A middle-aged American widower (Marlon Brando) and a young Parisian (Maria Schneider) who meet for sex never learn each other’s names. The film’s graphic portrayal of sexual violence earned it an X-rating in the United States. Director Bernardo Bertolucci said he developed it from his own sexual fantasies. Schneider, who was 19 at the time of filming, claimed that the experience ruined her life, and that she thought of Bertolucci as a gangster and pimp. In recent years, huge controversy has arisen about Brando and Bertolucci’s behavior during one of the film’s most graphic sex scenes.
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Adrian Lyne’s version of Vladimir Nabokov’s famous novel (previously taken to screen by Stanley Kubrick in 1962) required 15-year-old lead actress Dominique Swain to simulate sex with Jeremy Irons, whose Humbert Humbert marries his landlady so he can seduce her 14-year-old daughter. Swain’s age meant that explicit sexual scenes were shot with the help of a discreetly placed pillow or an adult body double. The film had trouble finding an American distributor. Critics held the film back in Australia because they feared it would promote paedophilia, but it was eventually released.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
In Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Tom Cruise plays Dr. Bill Hartford, a doctor who becomes obsessed with having an affair after his wife (Nicole Kidman) admits that she once considered cheating on him. Hartford ends up participating in a secret society’s masked orgy. The film’s explicitness set off alarm bells. Obliged to deliver an R-rated film, Warner Bros. cut some scenes and digitally altered the orgy sequence by adding figures to block activities and body parts that would have incurred the censors’ wrath.
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Fat Girl (2001)
Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl starts at a French seaside resort where the conventionally attractive Elena (Roxane Mesquida) and her overweight younger sister Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) are vacationing. Anaïs wants to lose her virginity to a stranger, but Elena is saving herself for someone she loves. Elena soon becomes sexually involved with a young man she meets on the beach, sparking an unpredictable series of events and a brutal murder. The film was banned in Ontario, Canada for its portrayal of teenage sexuality and was variously described by critics as ‘harrowing’ and ‘brutal’.
A Serbian Film (2010)
Aging porn star Milos wants to quit the industry but agrees to take part in one last film that will provide him with enough money to support his struggling family for life. He finds he’s been enlisted to partake in a snuff film involving paedophilia and necrophilia. Banned in many countries, A Serbian Film was supposedly intended as an allegory of corruption in the Serbian government.
In Steve McQueen’s New York-based drama, Michael Fassbender plays a sex addict who cannot sustain romantic intimacy with any of his partners. When his emotionally damaged sister (Carey Mulligan) moves into his apartment, she reawakens his memories of their painful shared past. Shame’s explicitness caused one female audience member to faint at its Toronto Film Festival premiere and the subsequent notoriety affected its box-office performance.
Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)
This coming-of-age drama depicts the tempestuous romance of teenage protagonist Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and older, blue-haired Emma (Léa Seydoux). The stars’ explicit sex scenes and director Abdellatif Kechiche’s treatment of them on the set, as well as his reported harassment of other crew members, set off a small firestorm. The depiction of lesbian sexuality was additionally criticized by academics as the product of a prurient straight male filmmaker’s fantasies.
Lars von Trier’s two-part drama is the story of self-diagnosed nymphomaniac Joe (played by Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg). Tended by a stranger (Stellan Skarsgård) who found her lying beaten on a street, she recounts to him the saga of the multi-faceted and increasingly perverse erotic adventures. The light tone of the first film gives way to a dark and oppressive mood in the second. Nymphomaniac as a whole caused less of an uproar, however, than Von Trier’s previous Gainsbourg film, Antichrist (2009), with its graphic images of female self-mutilation.
Gaspar Noé’s ultra-explicit 3D extravaganza Love shows how sexual behavior can dominate human connections and is also prone to being corrupted by lies and hypocrisy. Some sex scenes were simulated, others weren’t – including a shot of semen spurting on the camera. A campaign led by a French right-wing group bumped the rating from 16 to 18 after it was released; an anti-gay Russian legislator compared the film to Mein Kampf. Noé was startled by the reaction given the less torrid response to the excessive violence in some of his previous works.