Entertainment Movies Nymphomaniac and the legacy of boundary-breaking films

Nymphomaniac and the legacy of boundary-breaking films

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Lars Von Trier’s new film Nymphomaniac is a sprawling, four-hour epic recounting the sexual history of a female sex addict named Joe (played by French icon Charlotte Gainsbourg). Starring Hollywood heavyweights like Uma Thurman, Shia LaBeouf and Willem Dafoe, it’s a twisted, kinky, disturbing and emotional artwork that’s not for the faint-hearted.

The film has been met with praise and bemusement. The New Yorker‘s David Denby calls it “a pornographic work of art … often brilliant and never simple-minded or dull”. The Guardian’s Mark Kermode describes it as “an exhausting orgy” veering wildly between “the profound, the comic and the ridiculous – not always intentionally.” Others warn that the casual delivery of a particularly taboo swear word is sure to spark walk-outs.

A two part saga that will be shown in its entirety in Australian cinemas, Nymphomaniac runs for a total of 256 minutes. That’s after the reportedly raunchier director’s cut was edited down. This is, after all, a movie from the same man who had the word F**k tattooed on his knuckles as a teenager.

But for all its publicity and scandal, is Nymphomaniac really offering us anything new? Arguably some of cinema’s most memorable moments have often been defined by films which miraculously defy censors to redefine our standards of what’s acceptable.

Blue is the Warmest Colour
Blue is the Warmest Colour

In the same vein as French festival favourite Blue is the Warmest Colour, which features a 15 minute-long lesbian sex scene, Nymphomaniac is the latest in a long string of movies using big budgets and movie stars to explore the very fringes of society. The only new piece of information it shares is that, for an industry which excels at subverting opinion and breaking taboo, sex – and lots of it – is the order of the day.

It’s a trend which kicked off in more conservative times, where indignation and shock were easy to come by with the 1929 French film Un Chien Andalou (leave it to the French, huh?). A silent black-and-white creation, it examines surrealist notions and is memorable for its jarring opening scene in which a woman’s eyeball is sliced open. Hardly your usual flapper fare.

The tradition runs all the way up to this year’s awards show darlings 12 Years a Slave, revolutionary in its accurate but disturbing portrayal of slavery, the swear-word heavy Wolf of Wall Street and the confronting AIDs drama Dallas Buyers Club.

A scene from "12 Years a Slave".
A disturbing scene from 12 Years a Slave.

Whether it be drugs, violence, teenage sexuality, homosexuality or even foul language, the film industry likes to mess with us. Each transgressive cinema offering enlightens or appalls, sometimes to the point where the status quo of filmmaking is fundamentally changed.

Here are our top picks for movies that pushed boundaries.

Gone with the Wind (1939)

It was exceptionally long (possibly paving the way for Nymphomaniac‘s epic time frame) but what made Gone with the Wind risqué was it’s use of a swear word. While the first film to ever feature a swear word was The Big TrailGone with the Wind was a far more successful movie and had greater impact. Clark Gable’s “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” wouldn’t elicit a flinch today, but back in its day was a serious subject of contention. Censors begged director David O. Selznick to change it to “darn” but he refused and cinema standards were irrevocably altered.

Annex - Leigh, Vivien (Gone With the Wind)_16

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

In the first and only X-rated film to win an Academy Award, Jon Voight gives the performance of his career as Joe Buck, a young texan cowboy who moves to New York City in the hopes of making it big as a gigolo. A series of misfortunate events leave him down and out with a band of misfits, including Dustin Hoffman as a crippled conman, and Buck is forced to place himself in compromising positions in order to survive. Midnight Cowboy looks at the destruction of hope, homosexuality, prostitution and death in such a poignant way it is often hailed as one of the great American films.


A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of a dystopian future was saturated with violence and sex and raised interesting psychological questions. Alex DeLarge and his gang of droogs commit acts against the elderly and the innocent, but what happens to Alex at the hands of authority while in prison is arguably more disturbing.


The Exorcist (1973)

Arguably the first real horror film, William Friedkin’s terrifying retelling of a real 1949 exorcism case was named the scariest movie of all time by media following its release. The spooky spider-walk scene, cut from the original film but included in later digitally remastered version, is iconic.


Kids (1995)

Every parent’s worst nightmare, this film, written by Harmony Korine and directed by Larry Clark, witnessed the loss of innocence of several teenagers. Delving into issues of sexually transmitted diseases and drug use among American youth, it ended with the chillingly telling line, “Jesus Christ, what happened?”.


Trainspotting (1996)

Danny Boyle’s black comedy was a hard-hitting look at the consequences of drug addiction in Edinburgh. A bleak tale of poor decisions, it also delves into the topic of AIDS and heroin abuse and is an excellent look at the desperate lengths people will go to when in need of a fix.


All about my mother (1999)

The Spanish precursor to Dallas Buyers Club, Pedro Almodóvar’s celebrated film looked at a number of taboo subjects with its inclusion of a heterosexual-transsexual relationship and a pregnant nun suffering from AIDS. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and was a compelling, role-reversing drama with a brilliant performance from a young Penelope Cruz. Appropriately, Almodóvar dedicated the movie to “All actresses who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother.”


Irreversible (2002)

If there was ever a moment for mass walk outs of a movie, the ten minute-long rape scene in this jarring French film was it. Working backwards from a violent, homophobia-ridden club scene, the film follows Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) as they seek revenge for the brutal rape of Marcus’ girlfriend (Monica Bellucci) in a train station. If anything, it looks at the horrifying effects of rape and the repercussions of a single decision.


Thirteen (2003)

A semi-autobiographical tale of writer and star Nikki Reed’s experiences on the cusp of adulthood, Thirteen looked at the complexities in the mind of a teenager in an all-too-real way. Perhaps it was the fact that audience knew the majority of the action was real, or maybe lead actresses Reed and Evan Rachel Wood were way too convincing, whatever the reason, this movie received backlash for its portrayal of youth. The examination of the issue of self-harm, a largely overlooked subject at the time, was particularly memorable.


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