Barely Legal: 30 Nearly Pornographic Mainstream Films


Arriving on a wave of high anticipation, hype and bag-headed public appearances, the first "volume" of Lars Von Trier's two-part, five-hour magnum opus Nymphomaniac will start rolling into theaters on March 21st. (Vol. 2 doesn't arrive until April 4th, though you'll be able to catch both chapters on video-on-demand starting on March 20th.) Never one to shy from provocation — he's more likely to sprint towards it — the Danish director's chronicle of one woman's sexual awakening is littered with spankings, fellatio, a ménage à trois or two, sodomy, masturbation and good old-fashioned humping. Though some stunt, er, parts were employed, you are basically watching actors like Charlotte Gainsbourg and Shia LeBeouf engage in the sort of unsimulated activities you associate with porn stars. (LeBeouf even sent in a homemade pornographic videotape for his audition.)

Whatever Happened to NC-17 Movies?

Despite the abundance of explicit sex on display, however, Von Trier's film is not pornography. Rather, it's the latest in a long line of films that have pushed the envelope in terms of what can be shown in "mainstream" films and not be considered the sort of movie that requires you to give your credit card to a Web site in order to watch. These films are cast with A-list movie stars and directed by world-class filmmakers. They are designed to play in multiplexes and art houses. Some have been imported in as prestige foreign films, and others have been produced and distributed by Hollywood studios. But the 3o films here all share one thing in common: They all come as close to being pornographic as mainstream films will allow. Read this NSFW list with someone you love.

'I Am Curious (Yellow)' (1967): Full-frontal nudity, steamy threesomes, one-for-the-money shots — these movies pushed the envelope and still played multiplexes

'Medium Cool' (1969) Cinematographer-turned-director Haskell Wexler's mix of narrative and nonfiction (including actual riot footage shot during the '68 Democratic Convention in Chicago) is fueled by the tension of watching performers interact with real situations. One scene in particular, however, struck the MPAA board as a little too real for their tastes: A naked-as-jaybirds romp between future Tarantino favorite Robert Forster and Marianna Hill, with the two of them ending up literally between the sheets. The almost documentary-like feel of their tryst earned Wexler's movie an X, though he'd claim that the rating was more reflective of the political rage he portrayed onscreen. We still think the you-are-there canoodling in the buff may have had something do with it, Haskell.

'Women in Love' (1969) Ken Russell's majestic adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's novel was one of the outré director's more somber, "respectable" films – save for the naked wrestling match between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed, considered by many to be mainstream cinema's first instance of full-frontal male nudity. It's also the stuff of acting lore: Both actors kept trying to back out of doing the scene, until one night they got drunk together and went for a joint pee, during which they were able to check each other out and realize there was nothing to feel self-conscious about. (Or maybe there was: Reed spent his time in between takes off to the side, as he put it, "trying to get a semi on so that it would look more purposeful and stop all my girlfriends saying ‘why bother' and deserting me.") Seen today, the homoeroticism is undeniable regardless of the scene's supposedly plantonic male-bonding intentions. It's a man-on-man sex scene in everything but name.

'Last Tango in Paris' (1972) It may not have been as momentous as Stravinsky's The Rites of Spring (as Pauline Kael notoriously claimed at the time), but Bernardo Bertolucci's seminal film was a watershed how sex was depicted on film. The Italian director originally wanted French stars Dominique Sanda and Jean-Louis Trintignant to play the leads; Sanda had just gotten pregnant, however, and Trintignant wouldn't do nudity. So the director enlisted newcomer Maria Schneider and, in a casting coup, Marlon Brando — with the latter quickly turning this tale into a riveting, expansive meditation on his own screen image. His character is a widower who's been beaten down by life, and who uses his anonymous, athletic and often creative sexual encounters in an empty Parisian apartment as his way of escaping from the world. Audiences weren't used to seeing a major movie star having fingers shoved into his rectum, and though its sex scenes seem somewhat tame today, the film's exploration of how carnality can destroy boundaries is still something to behold. And you'll never hear the phrase "go get the butter" the same way again

'Don't Look Now' (1973) Nestled inside Nicolas Roeg's blood-chilling paranormal thriller is one of the best sex scenes ever committed to film. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play a couple relocated to Venice after the accidental death of their daughter. Before becoming unraveled by an English psychic claiming spectral visions of their child, the two stars disrobe for a night of marital bliss. The details are one thing (a pocket of saliva gleaming on Christie's neck, an exchange of grins accompanying a change of positions), but it's Roeg's intercutting between the act and its after-moments that makes the sequence so sublime. What makes the film near-pornographic, you ask? Sutherland later claimed that he and Christie actually made love on camera during the sequence — a statement that's been refuted and resubstantiated many times over the years, but which still lends the scenes an odd voyeuristic thrill.

'Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom' (1975) In the early 1970s, Italian poet-novelist-critic-filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini had conjured up a box office phenomenon with his "Trilogy of Life" – earthy, sex-filled adaptations of The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and The Arabian Nights. But for his follow-up to the lively, colorful trilogy, Pasolini made one of the most shocking, degenerate films of all time. Set during Mussolini's short-lived reign in the titular Northern Italian republic, Salò depicts four officials who imprison groups of young men and women and then proceed to sexually humiliate, torture, and murder them in grotesque ways. It's an incredibly hard film to watch, by design: Pasolini wanted to rub the viewer's face in this horrifying allegory of what he felt capitalism was doing to human beings. Given the horrific, no-holds-barred sadomasochism on display, we'd say "Mission Accomplished."

'In the Realm of the Senses' (1976) Porn, as we all know, played in seedy theaters full of dudes in dirty raincoats (prior to the video revolution, at least). Porn did not play at the New York Film Festival — so the fact that the presitigious event would program Nagisa Oshima's look at a real-life murder case involving a maid, her employer and their all-consuming sexual frenzy meant it was not porn, right? Despite the NYFF's seal of approval and the fact that one of Japan's greatest filmmakers had made this very explicit docudrama, the film's sequences of actors very much engaging in coitus noninterruptus were still too "hot" for customs officials, and the festival's later screenings were stopped. Legal battles would eventually see the courts ruling on the side of Senses being art and not smut, and the movie is now rightfully recognized as a true-crime classic. But if there was ever a film that challenged the notion of art versus porn, it was this one.

'Caligula' (1979) The only feature from Bob Guccione's Penthouse Films International watches as the eponymous emperor (played by Malcolm McDowell) leads Rome with both an indiscriminate sword and promiscuous cock. It's an attempt to combine the "best" of both tony ancient-historical epics (Gore Vidal wrote the script) and skinflick set pieces, but guess which side wins out? Caligula carousels through incest, rape and necrophilia, pausing only to let its heavyweight cast — McDowell, Helen Mirren, Sir John Gielgud, Peter O'Toole — chat with Penthouse Pets novel or find novel uses for piss and spunk. Hedging his bets, Guccione grafted six minutes of hardcore sex onto the film, mostly via an orally fixated orgy sequence; the result feels like the sort of unholy union that might even give the degenerate Roman figurehead pause.

'Cruising' (1980) Trying to track down a serial killer who is picking up men in S&M clubs, detective Al Pacino goes undercover into the gay subculture of New York and, as one does when they submerge themselves in their part, gets in way too deep. Director William Friedkin reportedly went in a little too deep as well, and was forced to cut about 40 minutes of footage (!) before the MPAA would change its original X rating to an R —which still didn't stop him from including lots of man-on-man action and intimations of someone being fisted. The film provoked protests from the gay community for its questionable depiction of homosexuality and the city's leather-daddy scene; the notoriety contributed to Cruising flopping spectacularly upon release. Since then, however, its reputation has been somewhat redeemed, and it has become something of a time capsule for a certain late '70s New York downtown subculture.

'Querelle' (1982) Rainer Werner Fassbinder's final film is at once one of his most personal, and one of his most reviled, with even his biggest admirers bristling at its garish artificiality and Tom-of-Finland-inspired set design. (Bring on the giant-penis architecture!) But this stagebound, stylized take on Jean Genet's novel is also profoundly intimate and sad, its intense scenes of homosexual sex jutting up against its arch performances and otherworldly atmosphere. It's less an adaptation of a book than a fever dream Fassbinder had after reading it, complete with nocturnal emissions.

'Henry & June' (1990) Now notable more for the context surrounding its release than for its content, Philip Kaufman's adaptation of Anaïs Nin's memoir was the first mainstream movie to earn an NC-17 rating. Though meant to salvage artful erotica from the pornographic ghetto of the X rating, the designation quickly became the kiss of death — numerous newspapers refused to even carry ads for this relatively tasteful (if unashamedly sexual) literary love story starring Fred Ward as the libidinally adventurous novelist Henry Miller and Maria de Medeiros as the gradually unbound Nin. All of the film's ecstatic grunting, moaning and thrusting had moral watchdogs crying indecency, though scenes involving a very young, very naked Uma Thurman as Miller's wife (and Nin's lover) didn't stop her from becoming a bona fide movie star later on.

'Crash' (1996) Filthy in the best possible sense, David Cronenberg's adaptation of J.G Ballard's near-future novel of vehicular desire surveys the wreckage of modernity and digs up taboos — car-accident fetishes? inter-wound penetration? — that most of us didn't even know existed. From high-speed, high-impact orgasms to exploring the erotic potential of leg braces, the sex scenes here manage to be both icky and disconcertingly arousing. Consummately seedy leading man James Spader is a bourgeois professional permanently perverted by a near-death experience, while character actor Elias Koteas turns in one of the randiest performances in film history as a slithering scarfaced greasemonkey. It won a prize for "audacity" at Cannes; Ted Turner found the movie so degenerate that he tried to have it banned from ever being released.

'The Idiots' (1998) Lars von Trier has been thumbing his nose at society and good taste for long before Antichrist and Nymphomaniac, and his only Dogme 95 film helped garner him his first true taste of controversy. It's a bleak black comedy about a group of adults who act like developmentally disabled people in order to both liberate themselves from, and get up in the face of, bourgeois complacency. One of their provocations involves having group sex – which, naturally, the director shows in characteristically unflinching fashion. (There's also a shot of an erect penis, which was digitally blurred upon the film's release in the U.S.) The film got into ratings trouble in some countries as a result – but by later Von Trier standards, it practically feels like a Disney film.

'Eyes Wide Shut' (1999) Stanley Kubrick's swansong averted an NC-17 rating thanks to director-approved digital inserts that obscured pornographic acts during the much-discussed Venetian-masked orgy sequence. The scene still feels remarkably smutty, though the film's steamiest moment would barely qualify as PG-13. After each indulging in extramarital flirtations at a lavish holiday party, Tom Cruse and Nicole Kidman get high in their bedroom and talk about desire. Provoked by her husband's disbelief that she could ever be sexually tempted, Kidman parks on the carpet in white skivvies and delivers a jealousy-stoking monologue for the ages involving a summer getaway, a studly naval officer, and a purred vocal delivery. In terms of potency, Cruise's subsequent sexual odyssey pales in comparison.

'Pola X' (1999) Leos Carax's achingly personal adaptation of Herman Melville's "Pierre, or the Ambiguities" tells the story of a moody young man (Guillaume "Son of Gerard" Depardieu) who retreats from a life of high society to live as an impoverished novelist in bohemian Paris. Things heat up when a raven-haired beauty (Yekaterina Golubeva) emerges from the woods, claiming to be his sister and casting a spell over our slumming hero. Carax had emerged as the young French filmmaker to watch in the late eighties before burning out during the making of The Lovers on the Bridge (1991). For his "comeback" film, he had his actors engage in what appears to be unsimulated sex that's both tender and ravenous. In the dark of their squalid squat, their writhing bodies are undistinguishable, evocatively blurring lines between art and savagery — as good a description of this feral, highly charged drama as any.

'Baise-Moi' (2000) "The movie is not for masturbation," said one of the two female directors of this French revenge thriller. "So it's not porn." Fair enough. But considering that the filmmaker who said this, Coralie Trinh Thi, had acted in porn films, and the leads — Karen Lancaume and Raffaela Anderson — had also graced Gallic stag movies, and the duo can be seen engaging in some unambiguous oral sex and copulation, well…you can see how that might confuse folks. Shot in a dingy, lo-fi style and graced with a soundtrack that might have been pilfered from Epitaph's back catalog, this violent, gleefully vulgar story is more punk grindhouse flick than typical male-fantasy porno. (Our own Peter Travers colorfully compared it to another tale of female empowerment: "It's Thelma and Louise with actual penetration!") Yet Baise-Moi is still banned in several countries, and the sheer amout of actual fucking onscreen brings this within spitting distance of being a genuine, if highly nihilistic, skinflick.

'The Center of the World' (2001) He (Peter Sarsgaard) is a computer genius who's made a mint working in Silicon Valley; she (Molly Parker) is an exotic dancer who he pays to spend three days and nights with him in Las Vegas. She offers him lap dances, he wields his financial worth like a scepter and director Wayne Wang treats the whole thing like a philosophical treatise on the link between capitalism and carnal demands. Then either the Deadwood actress or her body double —it's difficult to truly say — plays a game of hide-the-lollipop, and suddenly, the movie enters a whole other realm of sexed-up power games.

'Intimacy' (2001) Patrice Chereau's 2001 film, based on stories by Hani Kureishi, riffs on Last Tango in Paris and focuses on a man and a woman who meet weekly to have anonymous (and unsimulated) sex, and whose lives are complicated when one starts to learn more about the other. Like Tango, it also forces you to reconsider both the concept of authenticity in sex scenes and how they function: After watching the raw, in-your-face quality of the copious sex scenes in the film, do you feel like you know more about these characters, or less? Regardless, the scene in which Shallow Grave actress Kerry Fox fellates costar Mark Rylance onscreen immediately gained the film notoriety and arguably stalled her career. The actress still contends it's the best work she's ever done.

'Y Tu Mamá También' (2001) Long before he explored space in Gravity or the glories of long takes in Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón investigated the mathematical possibilities of a hot-to-trot threesome in this millennial sleeper hit. Though Ana López Mercado's ample bosom serves as the tantalizing bait for both the audience and her horny young traveling companions — Gabriel García Bernal and Diego Luna — it's the pent-up desire the boys have for each other that drives the story towards a very hot, very cathartic, and ultimately terminal group session at the end of the road. The long, lingering climax earned the film a release without an MPAA rating, so as to avoid the dreaded NC-17. It also made its two male leads stars.

'The Dreamers' (2003) Years after the existential provocations of Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci made this sex-drenched, surprisingly generous look back at the era of the French New Wave and the May 1968 riots. American Michael Pitt shacks up in a Paris flat with sensuous (and somewhat incestuous) twins Eva Green and Louis Garrel, and a variety of imaginative couplings ensue. In typical Bertolucci fashion, the possibilities of cinema and sex seem limitless – both liberating and terrifying -- but the political turmoil of the world outside soon brings everybody back to reality. The film didn't do the kind of business that Last Tango did, but it was notable for being a rare instance where a studio-owned distributor (Fox Searchlight) was willing to go with the allegedly financially poisonous NC-17 rating.

'Ken Park' (2002) Did Larry Clark's most controversial film not got a proper release in the U.S. because it was just too provocative – depicting unsimulated sex (including fellatio) between teenagers, threesomes, bondage, incest, as well as shocking violence? Or was it just an issue of music clearances? We may never know, but this dark, Harmony Korine-penned portrait of lower-middle-class suburbia – looking at several different skate-punk teenagers and their complicated (or, more accurately, "messed up") relationships with the parental figures in their lives – is twisted even by Clark/Korine standards. It says something about a film when the best-adjusted character in it is the guy who's sleeping with his girlfriend's mom.

'The Brown Bunny' (2003) A memo to aspiring filmmakers: You can spend a large amount of your running time doing virtually nothing — hell, you can even be as narcissistic as anyone in showbiz — so long as you cap off your movie with a starlet blowing you onscreen. That's the main takeaway from writer-director-actor Vincent Gallo's pet project about a motorcycle rider who does, well, not much more than brood. But the reason we still talk about this movie (beside the fact that it gave birth to a world-class spat between Gallo and critic Roger Ebert) is a lengthy scene near the end in which Gallo's costar, Chloe Sevigny, puts Vincent's "money" where her mouth is. The fact that Gallo apparently used a prosthetic penis for the scene doesn't make it any less uncomfortable to watch, nor does the fact that the scene actually does serve a purpose (somewhat) in the big picture. You're observing a well-known, highly talented actress debase herself in one unbroken shot. You'd probably feel less icky if you were actually watching porn.

'9 Songs' (2004) British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart) updated the arthouse erotica of the 1970s for the mid-aughts by framing this roughhewn romantic tale as a mash-up of contemporary indie rock and explicit penetrative sex. Featuring live performances by Franz Ferdinand, Elbow, The Dandy Warhols, Primal Scream and others, the film is a fascinating, at times even enlightening consideration of how the arc of a relationship can be marked by its sexual encounters. And unlike most of its forebears, 9 Songs is genuinely interested in female pleasure, lingering longest — and most powerfully — on actress Margo Stilley's mid- and post-coital face.

'Shortbus' (2006) You can't make a sex-positive movie without sex, and John Cameron Mitchell's follow-up to Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) is nothing if not sex-positive. Tracing the love lives of several Gothamites who converge at the Brooklyn salon that gives the film its name, Shortbus shows all manner of lusty goings-on — hetero, homo, couples, threesomes, singles going steady — and spares no details. Unlike a lot of the films on this list, however, Mitchell's horny ensemble dramedy doesn't treat its protagonists' sexual shenanigans as mere fodder for shock value; here, fucking and sucking equals character. Yes, viewers who aren't used to seeing men ejaculate all over each other or extended scenes of cunnilingus may start squirming in their seats, but Mitchell's group-therapy vibe diffuses the fact that you're watching people actually have sex. He's made a template for feel-good near-porn.

'Lust, Caution' (2007) Hoping to sabotage Imperial Japan's occupation of their native China, a group of radical students recruit a beautiful young woman, Chia Chi (Wei Tang) to entrap and assassinate high-ranking collaborator Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). All goes as planned until they fall into a torrid, agenda-scrambling affair, which director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) explicitly depicts in all of its rigorous, almost scary physicality. The film earns its NC-17 rating both for the uncommon length of these scenes, and for how violent, and face-flushingly good, the sex seems.

'Enter the Void' (2009) French enfant terrible Gaspar Noe's virtual reality epic is a tripped-out journey through the beyond, in which a dead junkie's soul rises out of his body, floats across a neon Tokyo and returns to watch over the sister — a Tokyo stripper played by a very naked Paz de la Huerta — that he promised to never leave. And since this is a Gaspar Noe film,the soul's chosen method of reincarnation and reinsertion into life comes via a close-up of a penis as it enters a vagina – shot from inside the vagina – and a journey through the cervix. Wow.

'Shame' (2011) Before he made 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen made this dark drama about a Wall Street sex addict (Michael Fassbender) as he goes through the motions of a life in search of the ultimate act of pleasure. Unfortunately, given that he looks like Michael Fassbender, such meaningless sex is all too easy to be had —and has a lot of it onscreen he does. In the midst of all the one-night stands, the visits to prostitutes, and the lunchtime porn binges, this poor, broken soul searches in vain to forge connections and heal psychic wounds. And in characteristic fashion, McQueen doesn’t flinch from the particularities or the textures of this world – the film is replete with sex and nudity (including the much-remarked upon "Fassmember"), none of it pleasurable.

'Weekend' (2011) Before Andrew Haigh created the HBO comedy hit Looking, he made this movie about two men hooking up over a long weekend. What at first seems simply like a hot one-night-stand slowly grows into something more personal, with both men being frank about not wanting to be in a relationship yet talking themselves into a series of frank revelations and undeniable rapport. Along the way, the sex scenes become more explicit, with one shot involving a man ejaculating all over himself leaving little to the imagination. But the sequences are as intimate as they are intense, and we're invited to view the two men getting it on as an expression of deepening connection and desire.

'Blue Is the Warmest Color' (2013) Last year's Palme d'Or-winning cause celebre, about a young French woman's (Adele Exarchopoulos) coming-of-age as she meets a more experienced lesbian (Lea Seydoux), has garnered both praise and criticism for its unflinching, explicit sex scenes and its generally positive portrayal of a lesbian relationship. Is this an honest look at the growing love and eventual heartbreak between two young women? Or is it compromised by the fact that it's made by a man, stars two heterosexuals, and features sex scenes that might be a bit too titillating? (Can it be both?) Regardless, this touching look at young women falling in and out of loves will be forever judged by one particularly extended sequence in which the actresses pleasure each other in various positions for a looooong time.

'Strangers by the Lake' (2013) Set exclusively on a lakeside cruising beach in the south of France, Alan Guiraudie's slowburn thriller follows young Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) as he falls for the same mustachioed stud (Christophe Paou) that he suspects of murder. What's radical and refreshing about the film is how commonplace, or even unremarkable, male nudity and gay sex are allowed to be. Which isn't to say that furtive sex in the bushes isn't thrilling, or that the film skimps on hot scenes of backwoods hook-ups. But it's somehow even more thrilling to encounter it as a regular feature of the spot's natural landscape instead of some exotic type of wild life.

What about Alien, Stripetease? - Editor

Source: www.rollingstone.com/movies/pictures/barely-legal-30-nearly-pornographic-mainstream-films-20170318

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