Films exploring taboo subjects have existed for nearly as long as the genre of film has existed. “La Coucher de la Mariee” is generally considered to be the first erotic film and premiered in 1896, the same year as “The Arrival of a Train at Ciotat,” which is generally considered to be the first movie.
The former is remarkable for also containing the first strip tease to be put to film, a feature that was highly risque at the time. It was also fabulously popular. So it is unsurprising that other filmmakers would want to follow in its wake and push the boundary of what is culturally acceptable. As a result, explicit visual depictions of sexuality and violence have become commonplace over the decades—though precisely what constitutes an explicit depiction will vary depending on time and place. A film with explicit homosexual relationships will struggle to find release in countries like Kenya, whereas one depicting drug use might have a challenge in South Korea or Singapore.
While many of these films will likely see release, that occasionally requires re-cutting the finished product. The content that is cut in one country versus another can offer a fascinating insight into the nature of taboos around the world. Below is a brief list of films that show exactly that.
Above: The definition of an erotic film is fluid depending on where—and when—you live.
Sado-masochism is the real star of “Maitresse.”
“Maitresse” is a love story that tells of the developing relationship between a small-time crook and a dominatrix of whose landlord he attempted to rob. As they grow closer the criminal, played by Gerard Depardieu in one of his earliest leading roles, voices conflicted feelings towards her sado-masochistic profession and attempts to dissuade her away from it. But she doesn’t know if she really wants to leave it.
When it was first submitted to the British Board of Film Classification for approval, the film’s examiner concluded that while it was not exploitative as many films covering BDSM are, the explicit nature of many scenes was in excess of anything else they had ever approved, including an instance of a man graphically having his genitals nailed to a board. As such “Maitresse” was rejected. It was not until 1981, five years after its completion and after cutting nearly five minutes of footage that it was approved with an X rating. In 2003 it was submitted for approval again, and this time it was approved with an 18 rating, proving that some sensibilities do change over time.
“Matador” is a love story between people who conflate death and pleasure—with gruesome results.
Like “Maitresse,” “Matador” also offers a look at the early career of a famous actor, this time Antonio Banderas. It is also one of writer/director Pedro Almodovar’s and contains his signature approach to sex and violence. In it, a bullfighter is forced into premature retirement after being violently gored in the ring. He conflates the violent death of bullfighting with sexual gratification, and thus begins sleeping with women and murdering them upon climaxing. His girlfriend shares these violent tendencies, and the two inadvertently pull one of his bullfighting students into their sadistic love affair.
The film doesn’t shy away from depicting sex, violence, and sexual violence, with rape and murder being used throughout the plot. Despite the graphic nature of this film, however, it was not technically banned from being released in any country, though such legal battles would become familiar to Almodovar later in his career. “Matador” was edited before being released in Japan and South Korea, with it receiving strict ratings in both countries even in the form in which it was eventually released.
“Paradise: Love” highlights the phenomenon of sex tourism and some of the personal consequences.
In a similar vein to “Matador,” “Paradise: Love” and its two sequels did receive a global release, thought it was limited or unrated in certain countries. The series was originally conceived by writer/producer/director Ulrich Seidl as one single film with three parallel stories. This first film focuses on Theresa, a 50 year-old European woman who decides to travel to Kenya as a sex tourist. This particular industry is symbiotic with wealthy tourists going to destination countries to have sex with young, attractive locals. The locals then solicit money from these tourists.
That is precisely what happens to Theresa. Despite the affections she receives, Theresa is constantly insecure about her body, her age, and whether or not these men truly find her attractive. Her feelings are conveyed especially thanks to the atypical approach that Seidl takes with his filmmaking. He works with highly-structured scenes but without a traditional script, allowing the actors to work off of each other. This improvisational angle allows for some especially naturalistic scenes that would be much harder to produce using traditional methods.
In terms of its treatment of sex workers, this film was surprisingly ahead of its time in some ways.
Following Desire (Ichijo’s Wet Lust)
Another atypical film, “Following Desire” is a 1972 pink film from Nikkatsu studios. It serves as a fictional account of real-life stripper Sayuri Ichijo’s daily life.
Pink films are erotic productions that have no exact analogue in the West. Due to the Japanese film board’s policies regarding the portrayal of genitals on film, erotic filmmakers were forced to be more creative with their shot compositions and post-production editing (thus the now infamous pixilation effect to obscure sexual content in Japanese media).
This also led to said films being unexpectedly forward-minded in terms of portraying racier subjects or in handling the lives of sex workers. “Following Desire” is especially noteworthy for this, as the film’s star is a real life stripper who had achieved particular notoriety for her routine at the time. These acts included simulating lesbian masturbation, dripping hot wax on herself, and removing her clothes with a very real sword. And while the film does show much of her routine in full, it also depicts her relationship with the men in her life outside of that, as well as the recurring problems with police that sex workers were forced to deal with.
“The Brown Bunny” is one of the most famously controversial films to appear at Cannes.
The Brown Bunny
Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny” is also infamous for including unsimulated sexual acts. Specifically, an on-camera blow job as performed by Chloe Sevigny on the film’s writer/director and her former boyfriend Gallo. The scene was extremely controversial at the time. Said controversy was exacerbated by the decision to advertise the film with a billboard that depicted a still frame from the blow job scene. Said billboard was removed.
The film follows Gallo’s character Bud, a motorcycle driver travelling across America for a race. He is incapable of forming emotional attachments, and spends the duration of his trip prematurely leaving the women he meets as he remembers his former lover, Sevigny’s Daisy. This eventually culminates in the two carnally reconnecting in the unsimulated blow job scene.
Though the film premiered at Cannes to mixed critical response (Roger Ebert had famously savage words for it), Gallo later released a new cut that removed 28 minutes from the runtime, though it kept the blow job scene. This cut received more positive critical praise, particularly from Ebert, and is general regarded as superior to the original.
A thriller that manages to balance tension with romance, “Stranger by the Lake” is a rare treat.
Stranger by the Lake
Though “The Brown Bunny” only received mixed critical appraisal, “Stranger by the Lake” was met with an overwhelmingly positive reception. Like “The Brown Bunny,” though, it also included unsimulated sexual acts, as well as its own brand of controversy. Though it was released in most countries with a very strict rating, it was only released in the United States as unrated, a common trait held by more recent films on this list.
Nearly every shot of this film features fully nude men, and unsimulated sexual acts like masturbation, ejaculation, fellatio, and rimming are all common sites. As a result of this it was never released in countries that have harsh laws regarding homosexuality.
Protagonist Franck is a regular visitor to a nude beach and local pick-up spot for gay men. There he meets and befriends Henri and Michel, the latter of whom he is instantly attracted to and begins to pursue. Their budding romance is complicated when Franck witnesses Michel committing a murder. Despite this, he considers to develop a relationship with the other man. Things come to a head when an investigation into the disappearance begins. The film is then allowed to show its true colours as a wonderfully tense thriller fueled by the relationships connecting these men.
“Blue is the Warmest Colour” is one of the most real depictions of a changing relationship to be released in recent years.
Blue is the Warmest Colour
Speaking of films showing this true colour, “Blue is the Warmest Colour” is the first film on this list to focus on a relationship between two women. Receiving near universal critical acclaim, the film was nonetheless controversial both for its sexual content and for the questionable validity of its LGBT credentials.
Protagonist Adele is a teenage girl who is just reaching the point of her life where sex is becoming a reality for her. But while boys hold her attention for a moment, the blue-haired Emma is the one who really captures her attention. The two begin dating despite bullying from Adele’s school friends, and the film follows them as they grow and learn and change.
While a film that does not flinch away from showing gay women in an nonexploitative way is rare, some were critical of the way this film framed its sex scenes.
While the emotional aspect of Adele and Emma’s relationship is raw and unflinching, scenes in which they are physically intimate have a clinical distance. Julie Maroh, author of the comic that the film was adapted from, suggested that these scenes lacked a lesbian heart and suffered from being framed through the male gaze. Whether or not this is true is up to the audience, but the emotional elements of their relationship are undeniably effective.
“Pola X’s” abstract approach to taboo and eroticism is truly unique in cinema.
“Blue is the Warmest Colour” is not the only film on this list adapted from an existing work. “Pola X” is adapted from Pierre, a novel written by Herman Melville after his most famous work, “Moby Dick.” While the latter is still held as an example of creating a well-structured plot, Pierre reads more like a fever dream. That is a feeling that director Leos Carax sought to maintain in his film.
The titular Pierre is successful novelist living in a pseudo-incestuous relationship with his mother. He is also engaged to his cousin. So it perhaps comes as little surprise when a woman claiming to be his long-lost sister appears in his life and the two run off together in a whirlwind romance. The story continues to devolve into madness and depravity all around them as Pierre desperately seeks to complete his next novel, certain that it will be as much of a success as his first.
The film breaks from a traditional structure and dives head-first into passionate excess. Pierre throws away all comfort and happiness in his life until he and his sister are in living in a warehouse that is also home to a terrorist group, a mad conductor, and an orchestra constantly playing steel pipes and synthesizers. This serves as the soundtrack for Pierre’s madness. Abstract as the framing can be, “Pola X’s” taboo subject matter was highly problematic for its release in multiple countries.
A film from before Alfonso Cuaron was a major name in Hollywood, “Y Tu Mama Tambien” deconstructs a popular American film genre.
Y Tu Mamá También
Similar to “Pola X,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien” also saw problems being released in a number of countries. This time it was for both graphic sexual content and explicit depictions of drug use. Set against the backdrop of political and economic upheaval of late 1990’s Mexico, the film is a coming of age road trip story. Julio and Tenoch are two teenage boys who have resolved to travel and live as bachelors during the summer that their girlfriends are away. Upon meeting Luisa, a woman in her late twenties, they attempt to impress her with talk of a fabricated beach they could bring her to.
Though she initially declines, she receives bad news from her doctor back-to-back with her boyfriend confessing to have cheated on her. After that the three depart through rural Mexico towards the beach that Tenoch and Julio lied about. As they travel the macho posturing of the two boys eventually gives way and all three begin to bond emotionally, and then physically.
Director Alfonso Cuaron envisioned the film as a reimagining of the popular American road trip genre within a Mexican cultural context. Using documentarian-style filmmaking with a fictional story Cuaron sought to explore the cultural, geographical, and political landscape of his home country.
“The Piano Teacher” is a disturbingly morbid take story of repression and violence.
The Piano Teacher
While “Y Tu Mama Tambien” is an exploration of a culture, “The Piano Teacher” is an exploration of sadomasochism. As such it needed to be cut for release in several countries due to the sex and sexual violence that it depicted.
Erika is a piano professor at the Vienna music conservatory. Though she appears calm and in control to her peers, she has a highly problematic home life that has caused her to become highly sexually repressed. And this repression has resulted in sadomasochistic and voyeuristic tendencies, as well as fairly serious self-harm. Despite being in her 40s, Erika still lives in an apartment with her elderly mother whom she has come to resent. She spends her free time in porn cinemas and porn shops. And when she begins developing a sexual relationship with one of her students she makes it clear that she is only interested in him if he can fulfill her violent fantasies.
The film juxtaposes elegant, high-class subjects and settings with the vulgar and the violent. Erika exists at the centre of this contrast, a being in two disparate worlds for which she constantly seeks to erode the line separating them.