Danish director Lars von Trier has always been known as an experimenter, both for his co-founding of the “less is more” Dogme 95 movement in the mid-1990s and for his delving into–no, make that jumping into, cannonball-style–the waters of screen eroticism, with such provocative works as Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998), and Antichrist (2009), which starred Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe.
His most recent foray into “transgressive cinema” is 2013’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. I and Vol. II. The title character, a woman named Joe (Gainsbourg), is found bruised and battered in an alley and taken in by a kindly intellectual (Stellan Skarsgård), whom she “repays” by sharing the story of her sexual awakening and a past filled with sordid encounters. Boasting an “A”-line cast that also includes Dafoe, Shia LeBeouf, Christian Slater and Uma Thurman and released as two separate films (a five-and-a-half-hour extended director’s cut will be out on DVD in late November), Nymphomaniac sharply divided critics and audiences over whether it was audacious ore merely salacious (although co-star Skarsgård was quoted as saying “If you look at this film, it’s actually a really bad porn movie, even if you fast forward. And after a while, you find you don’t even react to the explicit scenes; they become as natural as seeing someone eating a bowl of cereal.”
Whether it helped boost profits at Kellogg’s and General Mills remains to be seen, but one thing that Nymphomaniac has definitely done is keep von Trier in the company of other directors who have either tried to bridge the gap between mainstream movies and the porn industry, or took a walk on the wild side of adults-only cinema.
Such noted directors as Francis Ford Coppola, John Avildsen and Wes Craven even cut their teeth in the adult industry before they made strides in the legitimate world. In the early 1960s Coppola shot The Peeper, a short film that was eventually grafted onto a western nudie flick called The Wide Open Spaces, about a cowboy who sees naked girls when he looks at cows. The result is a 69-minute opus redubbed Tonight for Sure, made for a few thousand bucks and co-written and directed by the future Godfather auteur, then 23 years of age.
Craven, the horror meister of the goosebump-inducing Scream (1996) with Drew Barrymore and David Arquette, The Last House on the Left (1972), and 1977’s classic shocker The Hills Have Eyes, did his penance behind-the-scenes and in-front-of-the-camera (in a non-sexual role) on at least three XXX films, including the 1973 Screw Magazine-produced effort It Happened In Hollywood.
Avildsen, later helmer of underdog epics like 1976’s Best Picture Academy Award-winner Rocky and 1984’s The Karate Kid, took a dip into the hippy sex pool with Turn on to Love (1969) and Guess What We Learned in School Today (1970) before he made waves with the 1970 counterculture-vs.-authority hit Joe, which made a star of Peter Boyle.
Then, of course, there are other filmmakers who have pushed the sensual envelope even after being accepted by mainstream audiences. In some cases, they have been successful in their goal of bringing eroticism (usually dosed with controversy) to the masses, but often their experiments in the realm of sensuality have backfired with critics and audiences.
Among these envelope pushers are:
Steven Soderbergh: The Atlanta-born director scored a critical and arthouse success with his 1989 debut feature, the provocative Sex, Lies and Videotape, then moved on to more commercial fare with such hits as Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, and Ocean’s Eleven and its two sequels. Box office success, however, gave Soderbergh the financial and artistic freedom to make more avant garde fare. A key example is 2009’s The Girlfriend Experience, in which real-life porn star Sasha Grey plays a Manhattan-based escort named Chelsea who makes her clients feel like they’re on real dates—for the price of $25,000 a date. The anecdotal film follows Chelsea’s relationships –both unpaid, as with her professional trainer boyfriend—and paid, with the likes of an Internet blogger (played by film critic Glenn Kenny) and a young john who takes her to dinner and the movies. Like the interesting Bubble, an earlier low-budget Soderbergh detour into Experimentland, The Girlfriend Experience is improvised. And like the filmmaker’s incomprehensible all-star Full Frontal (2002), it doesn’t stick to a standard story structure, even with a script credited to the team who wrote Rounders and Ocean’s Thirteen.
Paul Verhoeven: This Dutch filmmaker was no stranger to adult-oriented themes even before making his mark in the United States. In his native land, Verhoeven fashioned Spetters and The Fourth Man, two films with strong violence and sexual themes that had the foreign movie-watching community buzzing. RoboCop, his American debut, ran into rating trouble because of its in-your-face violence, but it was Basic Instinct that became a landmark film due to its sensuality. The suspenser features Michael Douglas as a San Francisco police detective who has an affair with bisexual, erotically charged Sharon Stone, a suspect in an ice-pick murder. During production, Basic Instinct received protests from gay groups about its content, and after, the movie had to be cut over a dozen times in order for it to receive an R rating. Then, of course, there was the famous interrogation scene with Stone’s crossing and uncrossing her legs. Verhoeven did not shy away from sex or censorship issues post-Basic Instinct’s box office success, either. His 1995 follow-up, Showgirls, was a much-hyped NC-17 tale of sex, jealousy and deception in Las Vegas, where wannabe dancer (and Saved by the Bell alumnus) Elizabeth Berkley finds the road to success in Glitter Gulch is paved with sex and drugs. Penned by Basic Instinct screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, the film became an immediate sensation—as a very bad movie. Critics called the film’s drama ludicrous, the script rotten and the acting even worse. In other words, an instant camp classic. While the expensive production failed at the box-office, it became a DVD sensation. Years later, it even got exposure on the midnight circuit, where zonked-out theater patrons could giggle at Esterhaus’ overripe dialogue while appreciating Verhoeven’s glitzy bellyflop.
Philip Kaufman: The director of Best Picture Oscar-nominee The Right Stuff (1983) and writer of fan favorite Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) has long been known for his adventurous streak. With films such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), Henry & June (1990)–released in theaters with no rating, and the Marquis de Sade drama Quills (2000), Kaufman proved to be sexually adventurous as well, delivering films that not only pushed the envelope with their frankness, but challenging the MPAA as well. Based on Milan Kundera’s award-winning novel, Unbearable Lightness offers Daniel Day-Lewis as a womanizing Czech surgeon dabbling with politics and sexuality as the Russians are about to roll their tanks into Prague. Both Lena Olin and Juliette Binoche have heated scenes with Lewis. Henry & June, based on Anaïs Nin’s book about a love triangle between herself (Maria De Medeiros), writer Henry Miller (Fred Ward) and his wife June (Uma Thurman) in early 1930s Paris, provoked enough controversy over whether its sensuality would earn the dreaded X rating that the MPAA agreed to begin the NC-17 connotation for films forbidding viewers under the age of 17. Quills, his 2000 adaptation of Doug Wright’s play, starred Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade, imprisoned in an asylum, who manages to smuggle out his perverse writings thanks to a laundress (Kate Winslet) and a compassionate asylum overseer (Joaquin Phoenix). But a doctor (Michael Caine), at Napoleon’s behest, attempts to stop the Marquis’s writings by way of torture. While not as sexually explicit as Kaufman’s earlier works, the film works as a literate but in-your-face parable for free speech and anti-censorship.
Adrian Lyne: The former British TV commercial director has made a few films that have sparked controversy because of their sexual content. In 1986’s 9½ Weeks, Lyne brought his slickly stylish mindset to a showcase of the kinky affair between art gallery worker Kim Basinger and mysterious stockbroker Mickey Rourke. Among the highlights were the notorious refrigerator sequence, and the Leave Your Hat On dance by Basinger set to the Joe Cocker version of the Randy Newman-penned tune. Lyne didn’t stop there with his delving into screen eroticism. A year later, he tapped into the AIDS-era zeitgeist with Fatal Attraction, a cautionary look at extramarital affairs, with Michael Douglas wandering from wife Anne Archer into the clutches of hot harpy Glenn Close. He also tackled Nabokov’s Lolita, but his take on the tale of a relationship between a pedophile and the 14-year-old stepdaughter he’s fixated with saw resistance from the moral powers-the-be in the USA. It took years for Lolita to get a small opening in theaters, following a cable airing and a European release. Lyne’s last film to date is 2002’s Unfaithful, another provocative take on a verboten affair, with Diane Lane as the woman who steps out sexually from hubby Richard Gere with a foreign book dealer (Olivier Martinez). True to form, Lyne presented some scorching sensual interludes and Lane, for her efforts as the sexually frustrated wife, received a Best Actress Nomination.
James Toback: The rebel auteur has worked within the Hollywood system and outside of it, but he can always be counted on for stirring the erotic pot, no matter the arena. Fingers, his 1978 debut, stars Harvey Keitel as a boombox-carrying mob debt collector and aspiring concert pianist who learns a thing or two about how to (or not to) treat Tisa Farrow from real-life Toback pal Jim Brown. Kinky moments arise in other Toback enterprises as well, including Exposed with Nastassja Kinski and Rudolf Nureyev, Two Girls and a Guy with Robert Downey Jr., Heather Graham and Natasha Gregson Wagner, Black and White with Downey and Mike Tyson, and When Will I Be Loved, which granted Neve Campbell an image-busting role, sans clothes in the shower and elsewhere. Also, Toback’s 2009 documentary Tyson looks into the aggressive sexual behavior of troubled boxing icon Mike Tyson, who discusses his own experiences with women throughout the film.
David Cronenberg: While Canadian auteur Cronenberg has always been best known for delivering films with explicit gore, unsettling special effects, and violence not for the squeamish, he’s been no slouch in the sex department, either. Go back to one of his first efforts, They Came From Within, a low-budget shocker that clearly predicted the AIDS epidemic, dealing with parasitic bugs spread by sexual contact that permeate a Toronto apartment complex. There was Rabid, with recently deceased porn star Marilyn Chambers as a woman whose experimental surgery leaves her with a clitoris-shaped appendage in her armpit and a thirst for blood. Then there’s Crash, Cronenberg’s NC-17-rated translation of J.G. Ballard’s saga of car accident fetishists, a film that led studio topper Ted Turner to denounce the film and try to hold up its release. Cronenberg has since fashioned A History of Violence, with Maria Bello in various stages of undress, and Eastern Promises, with Violence star Viggo Mortensen as a Russian mobster entangled in an epic all-nude male wrestling sequence.
Stanley Kubrick: The world’s greatest director as “Dirty Old Man”? That’s what lots of Kubrick admirers—and detractors—thought initially when Eyes Wide Shut was released posthumously, just weeks after Kubrick died in 1999. The hype level was high, geared to the film’s supposed hyper-sensuality from the director who treaded controversial ground with his 1962 version of Lolita and 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, which was originally slapped with an X rating for violence and sensuality. Rumors abounded about what envelope-pushing material was to be found in Kubrick’s translation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella Dream Story. As far as sexual explicitness, the film didn’t come close to living up to its hype—and, in fact, the studio digitally altered Kubrick’s vision to mask nudity when it failed to receive the desired R rating. To some, this story of physician Tom Cruise trying to satisfy his repressed desires through a whirlwind of voyeuristic experiences at an orgy and elsewhere, played like an expensive, extraneously ponderous installment of Red Shoe Diaries. Others found Eyes Wide Shut a haunting, surreal saga of sexual curiosity run amuck.
Jane Campion: The New Zealand director has taken detours into the realm of sexuality with a feminist mindset on a few occasions. For 1993’s The Piano, Holly Hunter won the Best Actress Academy Award as the music-loving Scottish woman who, with daughter (and fellow Oscar-winner) Anna Paquin in tow, becomes a mail order bride for New Zealand adventurer Sam Neill. But it’s Maori-influenced jack-of-all-trades Harvey Keitel to whom she gravitates, especially when he bargains to returns her prized piano in exchange for sexual favors. In her Holy Smoke!, Kate Winslet is an Australian woman who falls under the spell of a cult while visiting India and is sent to guru Keitel for de-programming. But Harvey uses some sexual healing of the kinky variety to get the Oscar-winning actress back on track. Campion also attempted to help Meg Ryan resurrect her flagging career with In the Cut, by remaking the actress as a troubled, promiscuous writing teacher who beds detective Mark Ruffalo as he investigates a murder in her New York neighborhood. The nudity-filled police story boasting several hot-and-heavy sex scenes never found an audience in theaters, but Campion and Ryan proved they were willing to tackle their subject in unflinching, gung-ho style.
Bernardo Bertolucci: The Italian writer-director is known for his gorgeous visuals, his politically-fueled storylines and his bold examination of sexuality. He is, after all, the man who gave the world Marlon Brando in the buff in 1973’s Last Tango in Paris, the X-rated look at love, grief and sex that became a cause célèbre around the world. Also on this Oscar-winner’s resume are Luna, a film about an incestuous relationship between opera singer Jill Clayburgh and her heroin-addicted son; Stealing Beauty, in which 19-year old Li v Tyler heads to a villa in Italy to have sex for the first time; and The Dreamers, set during the political upheaval in France in 1968 and centering on the kinky relationship between an American student (Michael Pitt), a French teen (Louis Garrel) and his curious sister (Eva Green). The film received a well-deserved NC-17 rating for its explicit liaisons.