Netflix’s new original Marilyn Monroe movie, Blonde, marks the streaming service’s first NC-17 rated movie, due to its graphic depiction of sexual assault (as well as a point-of-view shot of a fetus in the womb). The Motion Picture Association’s most severe rating has long been known as a both a box office killer and a publicity gift, but this movie from director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Killing Them Softly) doesn’t have to worry about theater tickets.
Blonde will, after all, be seen primarily by people at home via Netflix, and the movie’s grim and gorgeously-shot story is shaping up to be a critical lightning rod, bringing it all sorts of added attention. But will it bring more prestige to the NC-17 rating’s long and controversial legacy?
Below is a small collection of the most infamous—and therefore must-see—NC-17 movies.
Henry & June (1991)
It’s fitting that the first film to receive the NC-17 rating was, technically like the largely fictionalized Blonde, a biopic. Even more so, Henry & June was based on the very famously banned autobiographical accounts of 1930s American author Henry Miller, his tempestuous marriage to June Miller, and their love-struck affair with notorious Parisian erotica writer Anaïs Nin.
The sex scenes hardly seem beyond today’s average late-night Cinemax movie, but in 1991, the sex scenes were considered graphic. It definitely set the tone for sex scenes being scrutinized even more than violence, which says a lot more about American attitudes being at odds with the rest of the world, particularly France. One also can’t help but notice that a lot of the more sexually daring NC-17 movies are set in Paris.
The grandmother of all art-house softcore films, this French “drama” follows a lusty young woman as she travels through European high society being seduced by various men and women. Originally rated X in 1975, this movie was reclassified shortly after the release (no pun intended) of Henry & June. But Emmanuelle is really on the list of legendary NC-17 movies because it inspired one of Seinfeld‘s best long-running gags, the fictional movie—and, later on, hit Broadway musical starring Bette Midler!—Rochelle, Rochelle, about “a young girl’s strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk.”
The least sexy but sexually explicit movie on the list, Showgirls is one of the most famous worst movies of all time and the first NC-17 film to get a wide release in mainstream theaters. Put on your best “Ver-sach” dress and pick up a big bowl of dog food for this satirical, sleazy story about a naive drifter named Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley’s most famous role after her wholesome Saved By the Bell stint in the ‘80s) stripping, screwing, and high-kicking all who stand in the way of her dream of becoming the best damn topless showgirl in all of Las Vegas.
You’ll definitely feel something as you watch Kyle MacLachlan flop around with poor, misguided Nomi in a swimming pool. Paul Verhoeven mixes all the titillation of Basic Instinct with the biting dark humor of RoboCop and Starship Troopers for a cult classic that is really not to be missed. Nor to be watched sober.
Y tu mamá también (2001)
Spanish for “And Your Mother Too,” this 2001 Mexican indie film from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban director Alfonso Cuarón is as sexy as it is poignant. It’s a coming of age story about two teen boys played by Gael García Bernal (Werewolf By Night) and Diego Luna, the latter of Star Wars: Rogue One and currently starring in Andor, on a road trip across Mexico with a very hot but terminally ill older woman.
The three see the best and worst of their country’s political strife and humanity, do drugs, and have scorching hot sex with one another along the way. In 2001, Cuarón sued the Mexican version of the MPA for the film’s NC-17 rating, which he considered illegal political censorship. It ultimately prompted the ratings board’s transformation into an independent organization free of government involvement. Y tu mamá también is a winner on all fronts.
No, not the forgettable 2004 Oscar winner for Best Picture; this is the other one. The good one. Based on the novel by English speculative author J.G. Ballard, this might be David Cronenberg‘s very best work, expertly mingling body horror and sexual fetishism in a chilly, almost dystopian world of glass buildings, chrome fenders, and concrete highways literally colliding against vulnerable, sweaty, bleeding human flesh. James Spader stars as a car crash survivor initiated into a feverish cult of fetishists who get off on traffic accidents, their scars lovingly, graphically worshiped in many unique configurations.
This film was infamous for the walkouts it accumulated during the Cannes Film Festival, but Cronenberg was awarded the prestigious Special Jury Prize, though director Francis Ford Coppola, chairman of the judging committee, was so repulsed by the film he refused to hand over the award himself.
Bad Lieutenant (1992)
Harvey Keitel is no stranger to controversial cinema or full frontal nudity, playing a pimp in Taxi Driver and a very lusty frontiersman in The Piano, but this dark thriller from Italian director Abel Ferrara has it all. To call Keitel’s unnamed police lieutenant merely “bad” is the understatement of the century. He snorts coke, plants drugs at crime scenes, owes several thousands of dollars to bookies, and most distressingly rapes underage girls he pulls over for minor traffic violations.
His best shot at a kind of warped redemption comes when he goes on a mission to find the suspects who brutally assaulted a nun. It’s the kind of over-the-top grimy, vintage New York story that gets under your skin in the worst way. But it’s most certainly memorable.
Killer Joe (2011)
French NC-17 films are full of sex, but in the States, it’s the violence that must go further to earn the infamous ratings. Matthew McConaughey stars as the titular hitman in this blackest of black Southern Gothic thrillers from The Exorcist director William Friedkin. The dark humor can’t lighten the tone when Joe goes on his hired killing spree, with an insurance payout and multiple double-crosses on the line. But we bet it’s Gina Gershon’s distressing assault involving a chicken drumstick that most likely put Killer Joe over the top for the ratings board.
Still, this film ushered in a new era of the McConaughaissance and paved the way for the Texan golden boy to move from rom-coms into prestige dramas like HBO’s True Detective.
One might think a movie where Michael Fassbender plays a sex addict might be erotic. Think again. The feel-bad movie of its decade, Shame, from director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Widows), really earns its title as Fassbender’s ad exec has one empty, compulsive encounter after another. Women are seldom lauded as brave for getting their clothes off on camera, but Fassbender really plumbs some depths in this nuanced performance of humiliation, sexual trauma survival, and family dynamics. It’s one of the more beautiful films on this list that viewers will only stomach watching once.
Danish director Lars von Trier is well acquainted with the NC-17 rating; he directed Nymphomaniac, after all. But while that very long, very explicit film was, in its warped way, a manifesto on love, Antichrist was its dark mirror. Willem Dafoe, no stranger to baring it all onscreen, and Nymphomaniac star Charlotte Gainsbourg portray a couple going through some serious marital woes after the tragic and accidental death of their child, culminating in an act of self-mutilation so horrid and graphic, four theatergoers reportedly fainted during an early screening at Cannes.
In fact, the horror film was so violent and sexually explicit, von Trier didn’t even bother submitting it to the Motion Picture Association for its obvious NC-17 content, and the film was released without a rating at all and made it to home video with two versions, a heavily edited “Catholic” cut and an unabridged “Protestant” version.
A Serbian Film (2010)
This is indeed a Serbian film about a past-his-prime porn star who accepts the lead role in an “art school movie,” only to realize he is being forced to participate in a snuff film. There is about all of the -philias and -isms once can imagine up to and including incest, necrophilia, and pedophilia.
Banned in Malaysia, the Philippines, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, and Norway, director Srđan Spasojević defends the film as a parable, “a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government… It’s about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotize you to do things you don’t want to do. You have to feel the violence to know what it’s about.” Be that as it may, this is one movie guaranteed to make even the most hardened gore hound avert their eyes.