Elles out April 20 - Cinematic Taboos

April 16 2012

Anne (Juliette Binoche), a well-off, Paris-based mother of two and investigative journalist for ELLE, is writing an article about student prostitution. Her meetings with two fiercely independent young women, Alicja (Joanna Kulig) and Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier), are profound and unsettling, moving her to question her most intimate convictions about money, family and sex.

Elles, the powerful new film from Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska, is released in UK cinemas this Friday April 20th and with its topical subject matter of teenage prostitution and female intimacy, we got thinking about a number of movies which have been groundbreaking in tackling taboo subjects in the name of art...

Monty Python’s Life of Brian – 1979

Labelled blasphemous and sacrilegious upon release and in the months before, the Python’s Life of Brian saw Graham Chapman star as the eponymous hero Brian, whose life is shown to parallel that of Jesus Christ. 

The film is heavy with religious satire and famously culminates with a crucified Brian whistling, along as his fellow sufferers sing ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’.  Many religious activists picketed the film, calling for its ban from British cinemas and in some cases they succeeded; its 30 year ban from Aberystwyth was finally lifted in 2009.

The Last Temptation of Christ – 1988

In this controversial adaptation of the 1953 Nikos Kazantzakis' novel, Willem Defoe and Barbara Hershey play Jesus and Mary Magdelene in Martin Scorsese’s tour de force.

The film portrays Jesus as a self-doubting, guilt-ridden man who reluctantly comes to except his fate after struggling to deal with many forms of temptation.  His human fallibility, sexual visions with Mary Magdelene and scenes which show Jesus indifferently making the crucifixes for other condemned prisoners, caused outrage amongst reviewers, fundamentalists and The Vatican itself, with one French group throwing Molotov cocktails into a Paris cinema screening the movie.  But all controversy aside, the movie is beautifully acted and flawless in its direction, just as you’d expect from any Scorsese movie.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover – 1989

Peter Greenway’s 1989 tale of adultery, capitalism and murder is a highly stylised, visually stunning movie.

It’s brutally uncompromising, full of sumptuous images, but also over-the-top, gaudy and violent and could be seen as a modern fable which explicitly states Greenway’s criticism of Thatcherism.   Michael Gambom plays the gluttonous thief of the title Albert Spica, with Helen Mirren as his mortified wife.  Dealing with themes of adultery, excess, sadism and cannibalism, the film lingers in your mind long after viewing, whether you want it to or not.

Naked – 1993

Mike Leigh’s rather brutal movie about life and relationships in London’s underbelly, was far removed from Leigh’s usual movies. 

As David Thewlis’ Johnny roams the streets of London, after fleeing from Manchester to escape a beating after raping a woman in an alleyway, he spouts diatribes of philosophy and judgements at passersby.  Seemingly bringing havoc to all who come across him, Johnny imposes upon ex-girlfriend, Louise, only to open old wounds with his destructive and reckless ways.

The Cement Garden – 1993

Based on the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan, the majority of the action in this film takes place in an ugly concrete house with a large cemented basement, the garden of the title.

Two children are left to fend for themselves after both their father and mother die.  Having to look after the home and their two younger siblings, they eventually give in to their secret desires and fantasies.  The themes of incest and sex are dealt with maturely and it which never vilifies nor condones the actions of Julie and Jack.

Much like Kids this film can be seen as a window into what children could get up to if let to their own devices and without parental supervision.

Kids – 1995

Full of anti-hero 17 year old children, this film revolving around a group of teenagers going about their daily lives in New York City, stunned critics and public alike when it opened in 1995.

One of the main characters Telly, played by Leo Fitzpatrick, is hellbent on a quest to sleep with as many virgins as possible, even discovering that he is HIV positive does not cause him to curb his ways.  Kids can be seen as a glimpse into what children get up to behind closed doors, albeit an extreme glimpse.  This is every parents worse nightmare; under aged children indulging in alcohol, drugs, swearing and copious amounts of sex, all rolled into 91 minutes of screen time.

The Piano Teacher – 2001

A man’s boundaries are pushed to the very limits in Michael Haneke’s adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s novel of the same name.

Starring Isabelle Huppert as Erika, a well-respected, highly talented teacher at a famous music conservatory in Vienna, the film tells the story her student Walter and their mutual obsession.

Living with her domineering mother and without a husband or lover, the audience is introduced to the true Erika, whose sexual repression manifests itself in visits to porn shops, voyeurism and eventually, sadomasochistic fetishes such as sexual self-mutilation.

Secretary – 2002

Based on the short story Bad Behaviour by Mary Gaitskill, Secretary tells the story of the working relationship of a lawyer, James Spader and his self-mutilating secretary, Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Rife with themes of sadomasochism, Gyllenhaal’s Lee appears to have found the perfect life partner in Spader’s domineering E. Edward Grey, and ultimately; vice versa. 
This is a tender, unique love story, its bold and unflinching and doesn’t (and shouldn’t) apologise for it and leaves you with the sweet notion that there really is someone for everyone, despite any needs or frustrations

Anti-Christ – 2009

After losing their only child, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg retreat to a cabin in the woods to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city and to allow She (Gainsbough) to concentrate on writing her thesis.  Soon strange things begin to happen....

This art-house thriller, directed by Lars Von Trier is notable for its scenes of violence and self-mutilation and some may say misogyny.  Despite incredibly brave performances from both actors, the film has been labelled ‘torture porn’ from some critics, audiences booed at screenings with some even going so far as to laugh as the end credits rolled. Alongside 2010’s A Serbian Film, this is cinema at its most extreme.

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