As a medium, film has always been torn between artistry and business – whether to challenge or entertain. The latter goal is more often reached for, and more often funded, yet film has still managed to break boundaries both on screen and off. Many of the most infamous examples retain their power to shock – and show that, even decades later, we still grapple with so many of the same societal and moral anxieties. These ten movie moments provide a blueprint for us as we continue to push the envelope.
L’AGE D’OR (1930) – Frolic in the Garden:
In terms of “mature” content, Luis Bunuel’s first feature film doesn’t go beyond the network TV standards – but when the viewer recalls its era, the staunchly moral 1930s, one can understand why it caused such controversy. The non sequitur, purely metaphorical images are jarring on their own, especially as they relate (or don’t) to the film’s protagonists – a randy couple torn apart by society. Bishops turning to bone by the sea, bourgeois party watching and laughing as a guard kills a child, a man’s fingerless hand caressing a woman’s face – Bunuel’s world is grotesque and impossible, yet full of awkward eroticism. A sojourn in the garden, as the woman licks a statue’s toes and pines after her man, may be the film’s most overtly sensual and savage moment.
PERSONA (1966): Five Minutes of Pain
As a prelude to a bewildering and unsettling film about the artificiality of the medium itself, Ingmar Bergman chose to open it with a sequence that authentically conveyed the feeling of pain. While he didn’t believe he succeeded, the series of images contained in his masterpiece’s opening – a subliminal erection, nails impaling hands, a bleeding sheep – still make a profound impact on the film we’re about to see. Even as the fictional story begins, these images remind us that what follows is false; one must doubt everything they see and hear. The effect is eternally haunting.
I AM CURIOUS: YELLOW (1968) – Love in the Afternoon:
Different from many films on this list, this movie isn’t all that graphic or disturbing – it’s just frank. Authorities in America seized it as an obscene work in 1969; and considering the angry upheaval that our society experienced in the 1960s (and we are experiencing now), the sociological facts and the bubbly, carefree sexuality make an unsettling combination. Even now, this Swedish comedy remains a thought-provoking confrontation of a classist society, and the youth who find themselves unable to confront it. This tender love scene serves as the earliest example of the film’s casual, groundbreaking attitude toward sex.
MULTIPLE MANIACS (1970): Holy Anal[no link available]
From a filmmaker whose entire career consisted of shocking people meaningfully, John Waters’ second feature contains some of his most audacious, disruptive work. Following the criminal Divine as she leads her group of depraved followers across Baltimore, the story combines Manson-esque fever and wide-ranging queerness that utterly destroys anything that the previous cinematic generation might have valued. Divine’s most sexual moment in the film – involving a church, anal beads, and a vision of Christ – seems to set the tone for the entirety of Waters’ career.
THE DEVILS (1971): An Ill-Informed Exorcism
There are few movies that make Christianity look like such destructive nonsense. Russell’s brutal set pieces don’t have much humor in them, so his most notorious film never feels cruel; it just exposes cruelty in the most visceral manner imaginable. With a manic style that forebodes Terry Gilliam and a story right out of de Sade, this film was censored for its violence and heretical themes. Perhaps the pinnacle of its madness occurs when a deranged nun, feigning possession, undergoes a hideously torturous exorcism – all to gain revenge on the priest who offended her.
THE HOLY MOUNTAIN: Jesus Factory
Jodorowsky distilled a world religions course into his technicolor kaleidoscope of a masterpiece; and considering this, his decision to place his protagonist in a factory of Jesus statues made in his image seems a fascinating choice. On the road to enlightenment, the characters must leave that icon behind – a suggestion that could have earned someone a death sentence in another century. Considering the pure insanity and brilliance that follows, this scene sets a standard that we remember throughout the film: in order to achieve true transcendence, one must first accept one’s falseness.
IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES – Sex and Violence:
The film is frank about nudity and sexuality from the beginning, a confrontational approach that its period setting makes all the more jarring. It’s so gently crafted, with soft colors and gorgeous framing. Within the story, there is genuine, complex human emotion; and it can only be justified by showing the immense pleasure that the characters give each other. As the emotion devolves into a frenzy, the film never turns away – in that way it becomes the opposite of pornography. While the finale pays off the film’s buildup of tension with a nightmarish show of ownership, the scene leading up to it – as the lovers’ feverish eroticism first crosses over into violence – is perhaps even more acute.
FUNNY GAMES (1997) – Where’s the Remote?:
In a decade when on-screen violence had reached a new level of frequency, it’s remarkable that a film can still disturb while containing almost no blood. Michael Haneke’s heinously bleak takedown of the modern thriller genre forces the audience to consider what careless violence really feels like. That Haneke has the audacity to give the audience a slim bit of hope in this scene, then retract it in a thoroughly impossible way, is proof of his boldness. The message rings loud and clear in that ending: even as casual moviegoers, we must remember the consequences of violence, even when we think it’s justified.
TROUBLE EVERY DAY (2001) – Secret Lover:
Master of film Claire Denis’s only horror movie might have initially missed its audience, as it didn’t serve the steamy thrills that critics incorrectly expected. Its subtlety and poeticism have an even stronger effect on the attentive viewer – the cannibal elements allow for a meditation on the destructive, diseased forms that infatuation can take on. By a gore-fiend’s standard, Denis’s imagery may not meet the heights of a Fulci or Miike; but its sheer realism and ugliness make it profound. The fact that the brutality comes just after a near-silent, highly-charged sex scene only increases its visceral power – Denis shows us that the two emotions are irrevocably connected.
NYMPHOMANIAC pt. 2 (2013) – They Deserve a Fucking Medal:
Lars von Trier is a tough director to celebrate. His films are as glib as they are visceral, and often feel more like petulant jokes at the viewer’s expense – something that was evident in his recent Nymphomaniac series, which started with a fiercely engaging 2 hours and devolved into repetitive melodrama by its end. Even so, the film forces us to question the grossly out-of-date morals that we place on sexuality. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s vignette of sexual torture in the second part ends with a daring speech about pedophilia – adults who prey on children are reprehensible, certainly, but what of the people who feel these desires and keep them suppressed to avoid ruining someone’s life?
NOTE: Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom is excluded from this list only because the writer did not have access to a copy; its legacy and themes are enough to earn a mention.
What films have shocked you in a transformative way? Continue the discussion in the comments!
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BEN LARNED is an independent genre writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He has written for outlets such as Blumhouse, Bloody Disgusting, WeScreenplay and ScreenCraft. His column Forbid