In Honor of Nymphomaniac: 21 (5) Movies About Weird, Kinky Or Compulsive Sex

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” (both parts are now on VOD) is Shia LaBeouf’s accent that it’s a film that is totally, unashamedly, unavoidably about sex. While coitus, rumpy, intercourse, balling, humping, beast-with-two-back-making does feature in some shape or form with extreme frequency in cinema, it only rarely forms the central, wait for it, thrust of the story, likely partly because distributors (especially in the U.S.) are often accused of a streak of puritanism when it comes to sex, particularly when compared to the their much more carefree attitude toward violence, and partly because even today mainstream audiences can be put off by even a whiff of the smutty-old-man-in-a-dirty-coat connotation. Which means that furthermore, films like “Nymphomaniac” that delve into the darker recesses of human sexuality—power play, taboo fantasies and fetishes, BDSM, sex addiction, etc.—are even fewer.

We dabbled in this arena not so long ago, choosing to, um “celebrate” the grotesque and unforgettable image of Cameron Diaz grinding into a car windshield in "The Counselor," by running down 15 Weird Sex Scenes, having already run down the Best and Worst Sex Scenes. But it got us to thinking about films that took the bold stance of "Nymphomaniac" further, that built their whole narrative around shocking, discomfiting or fetishistic sex. So while avoiding tamer stuff that we’ve covered before, like in our Losing Your Virginity Movies feature, and also while trying to steer largely clear of the erotic thriller subgenre that deserves a feature all to itself someday (sorry “Basic Instinct” fans) we zipped open the eyeholes on our gimp masks and handcuffed ourselves to the DVD player, to bring you 21 films that, from comedies to dramas to uncategorizable arthouse explorations, walk on the wilder, weirder, and often more worrisome side of sex.

“Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom” (1975)
Almost certainly the most “extreme” film on this list, Pasolini's “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom” is easy to hate for its intricate, extensive, apparently uncomplicated depiction of relentless sexual depravity and cruelty, and no-one can be blamed for turning it off halfway through. But this—the last film Pasolini completed before his murder and one which ever since its 1975 release has been frequently condemned, cut and outright banned—has much more to it than pointless nastiness. An adaptation of a book by the man who gave his name to sadism was never going to get made into a ride at Disneyland, and the Marquis de Sade's book “The 120 Days of Sodom” is literally a meticulous list of taboo acts of sex and violence, with an extremely thin framing device that's abandoned halfway through: but Pasolini creates from it a film that's less about sex than it is about power and its exercise. It's not even really about fascism—the quartet of abusers could belong to almost any time or place and have no agenda beyond their own pleasure—and nor is it an examination of psychology: rather, “Salò” is about the way in which power becomes an end in itself, and one that we all desire: and its message is thus all the more horrifying in its universality. We still don't blame you if you want to watch something else instead, though. [B+]

“Eyes Wide Shut” (1999)
There are probably as many shades of opinion on Stanley Kubrick’s last film as there are people who’ve seen it. But for all it was divisive and controversial (to the point that its centerpiece sex scene was famously digitally altered for the U.S. theatrical release) it features a lot less actual sex than many films we list here, and a whole lot more psychosexual moralizing and agonizing as Tom Cruise’s successful New York doctor embarks on a personal odyssey into the heart of his own sexual darkness following his wife’s revelation that she has considered infidelity. In fact, the famous orgy scene, even restored to its original intended level of graphic-ness (not that graphic really) is perhaps the least persuasively sexy part of the film—its heightened, masque-ball ornateness does less for us than does Nicole Kidman’s tremendously brave and vulnerable “confessional” performance, for example. But that’s clearly the point; as so often at the more cerebral end of the spectrum, Kubrick here uses sex not as the endpoint of the film (except it literally is the last word) and instead employs it as the lever to pry open a Pandora’s Box of issues around intimacy and marriage and fidelity and trust. While we remain to this day more muted in our appreciation for this film than many of Kubrick’s others, there is no questioning the ambition on display, nor the laudable fearlessness of the project in its front-and-center foregrounding of sex and sexuality (especially the deviancy that can characterize even the most "normal" sexual relationship) in a way rarely seen in American cinema. [B]

“Teeth” (2007)
Literalizing the idea of the vagina dentata (toothed vagina) that was largely an invention perpetrated by old folk tales in an effort to discourage promiscuity, writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein's (son of Roy!) eye-openingly gory horror comedy is one of those ideas that we kind of can’t believe hadn’t been done before. Jess Weixler plays a young woman dealing with burgeoning sexual impulses that, she discovers, could potentially kill any sexual partners. And indeed she proceeds to do so, first accidentally in response to a rape, and then progressively more calculatedly as she works out her “power” and sets out to use it to wreak revenge on a near-uniformly rapey cast of menfolk. It’s a mark of just how committed Liechtenstein is to this agonizing concept that three different penises are bitten off during the film, not to mention four fingers, and just when we might have been feeling fatigued by all this Bobbit action, the film ups the ante by having the family dog chow down on a dismembered um, member. It’s schlocky, it’s B-grade, it’s hammy and creaky as all hell, but even with that its premise has more originality and more I-dare-you-to-keep-watching nastiness than Platinum Dunes does in its entire cynical cheapie horror remit. So if you’re looking for a sex-based slasher flick with a misandrist angle(LOL) that features exactly non of the gloss of the current crop of horror retreads, look no further. [C+]

"The Piano Teacher” (2001)
Perhaps the most abrasive and austere film in a career made up almost entirely of abrasive and austere pictures, “The Piano Teacher” sees Michael Haneke turn his attentions to sexual repression, perversions and fetishes: the result is, a decade or so on, not his finest film by some margin, but one that at least features an extraordinary and fearless central performance by Isabelle Huppert. The actress plays a piano professor from a troubled background with a long laundry list of sexual hang-ups and peccadilloes, who falls for a 17-year-old boy, eventually (after destroying the musical career of a younger rival) beginning a sado-masochistic relationship with him. It’s typically and unrelentingly punishing stuff, and it’s hard to deny that it packs a real punch in its most unsparing scenes (most notably in the scenes when Benoit Magimel’s student reluctantly fulfills her most humiliating fantasies. But when compared to, say, “The White Ribbon” or “Caché,” the psychology feels a bit obvious and pat, with the sense that Haneke is wagging his finger and shaking his head at the character rather than actually examining her. Still, Huppert saves the day: in a career full of performances of ferocity and courage, almost nothing matches up to this, and she brings a note of real humanity to a film that’s mostly lacking in it. [B-]

“Crash” (1996)
“Like a porno movie made by a computer… in a mistaken algorithm” is how Roger Ebert memorably described David Cronenberg’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel about auto crash paraphiliacs. And he meant that in a good way—”Crash” may be one of the most all-time perfect marriages of the aesthetic and thematic approach of a particular director with the philosophy and mood of his source material. Starring, for the third time on this list, that kinkster James Spader, along with Holly Hunter, Deborah Unger, Rosanna Arquette and Elias Koteas, the film is really remarkable, though for the cerebral sterility of its execution as, once again, body-horror expert Cronenberg manages to engage the brain and turn the stomach while bypassing the heart entirely. It’s a truly fascinating, brilliant film, deeply upsetting and prescient in what it suggests about our relationship with technology and how it might be in the process of breaking down our ability to connect with one another as humans. Of course, at the time it sparked outrage and a few bans (though also won the Special Jury Prize in Cannes), for its unadorned portrayal of the particular fetish of being sexually aroused by car crashes (and we have to believe in particular the scene in which Spader fucks Arquette’s leg wound), and yet it is an extraordinarily bloodless affair, cool and metallic to the touch; we can only wonder how splashily sensationalist it might have become in hands less surgical than Cronenberg’s. Thankfully, this is the version we got, and as provocative, grown-up fare, it’s close to essential. [A]

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