Last night I had a somewhat rare movie watching experience, the kind that bulldozes the walls of my personal threshold and secures a spot in my darkest nightmares for weeks to come. That film was Barbet Schroeder’s sadomasochistic romance Maitresse, an unlikely love story of a dimwitted thief (Gerard Depardieu) and an enigmatic dominatrix (Bulle Ogier), and grueling as the experience was at times, its provocations were not aimless. This was a film with a very clear thesis on human desire.
Such is not always the case with the most inflammatory of films. Intent isn’t always the easiest to judge, but for every evocative affront to your senses, there are a dozen mindless ones to be found. That is to say, I love a film that can get under my skin, so long as my mental (sometime physical) anguish stirs something deeper than revulsion in me. Maitresse, as exceptional an exploration of sexual obsession as I’ve ever seen, did this for me. In its honor, I would like to present a list of 10 films bound to shatter the comfort bubble of any non-institutionalized person.
These are not all movies of quality. They straddle both sides of the aforementioned spectrum, using their powers for both good and ill so to speak. Also, what I have in mind here goes beyond the Clockwork Orange/Straw Dogs/Last Tango in Paris threshold. Like I said, put quality aside, otherwise all three of those would be making an appearance; this is a countdown of the 10 most unsettling movies I have ever seen. And I will do my darnedest to impart to you the general idea without giving away the juicy details.
Finally, let me say, I am not kidding. This is not a dare. If you fancy yourself a bit squeamish, than many of these films will make you physically sick. Is your sexual palate fairly vanilla? Then check the fuck out right now. Are you a member of PETA? If so you’ve probably spent considerable time trying to ban half these films already. But then again maybe I’m not giving you enough credit. Because some – though not necessarily all – of these films are genuinely worth the unease. Discovering which ones those are is a matter I leave up to you. Even where I find nothing redeemable you may have other ideas.
Consider these then not recommendations nor mandates, but merely a list of 10 staggeringly provocative films, surefire bets to spice up any date, night of babysitting or evening alone with your pet chicken. Don’t watch ‘em all in one place.
10. Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009)
Any hesitation on my part to put such a recent film on this list is countered by the state I was in when I stumbled out of the theater. Having spent two hours watching a miserable couple retreat to a cabin in the woods and inflict unspeakable mental and bodily horror upon each other, I was in for a dizzying half mile walk to the nearby EL station. Eerie cinematography does a lot to counter what might otherwise play out like any number of torture porn flicks.
9. In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima, 1976)
The most romantic movie ever made. If you dig autoerotic asphyxiation.
8. Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997)
More a test of psychological endurance than anything else, Funny Games still manages to tie your stomach in knots, largely as it gleefully breaks every rule you thought films has to abide by. Spoilers I shall not divulge, but Michael Haneke clearly thought it so nice he made it twice, remade shot for shot in English a decade later just to reach the coveted American audience.
7. Blood of the Beasts (Georges Franju, 1949)
Both the oldest film on the list and the shortest, Blood of the Beasts is a terrifying look inside Parisian slaughterhouses mid 20th century. Though undeniably a socially conscious effort, the effectiveness of such in your face grotesque butchery can be debated. Most frightening, perhaps, is the efficiency of it all. For the workers in such a factory, death must become a daily routine. It’s no surprise that Georges Franju would go on to make one of the most extraordinary horror films of all time, Eyes Without a Face.
6. Irreversible (Gaspar Noe, 2002)
Irreversible disorients you right from the get go, moving scene by scene in reverse through a brutal night of rape and revenge. Except it’s the revenge we see first, rape comes later, and we close on a scene of perfect tranquility, but unable to see cause before effect, it’s a near impossible film to appreciate until after the fact, if at all.
5. Maîtresse (Barbet Schroeder, 1976)
A scene early on in Maitresse where Gerard Depardieu and his partner in crime burglarize the apartment/sanctuary of Bulle Ogier’s dominatrix calls to mind imagery from The Velvet Underground’s disquieting “Venus in Furs,” as a dimly lit museum of bondage paraphernalia is slowly revealed. Then come the Rottweiler, the gaunt man in chains, and lastly the mistress herself descending the stairs. The scene sets the mood for the darkest of sexual odysseys. And be warned, it involves whips, needles, asphyxiates, urine, and just for good measure, a slaughterhouse.4. Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1973)
It’s long ago entered the realm of awkward joke among my friend circle, and I’ve truly seen this film more than anyone should admit to, but Pink Flamingos deserves it’s spot on this list not for the horrifying situations it thrusts you into alone, but for how damned dirty the whole thing feels. It’s simply something that has to be experienced to be believed and I’m right with Roger Ebert when he refers to it as not so much a film as an object. Just be sure you take a long shower after you touch it.
3. The Baby of Mâcon (Peter Greenaway, 1993)
The Baby of Macon fools you at first. Most would call it practically boring for the first half, despite the presence of a creepier-than-fuck baby and a young Ralph Fiennes. But midway through, shit takes a turn and poor Ralph dies one of the most horrific deaths I’ve ever witnessed on screen, and since maybe that’s not enough of a spoiler, I’ll throw out there that this all goes down in a manger. That’s right kids, more animals. But this is spot number 3, and no film makes it this high on graphic cattle gorings alone. But what follows does the trick, the most harrowing rape scene out there, Irreversible, Straw Dogs and Naked be damned. By that point, you would be forgiven for turning off the movie in disgust. Actually, you’re probably damned for eternity if you don’t.
But it’s all fun and games compared to the next two. In fact, I just stuck with movie posters instead of screenshots because Google images just wasn’t throwing me a bone in the appropriate content department.
2. Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980)
My vote for most unethical movie ever made goes to the infamous Cannibal Holocaust, and at least with a name like that, they aren’t fooling anybody. So the story goes that a group of documentarians disappeared into the jungle, never to return, only to have their film stock turn up on a fruitless rescue expedition. From the recovered footage, their gag-inducing journey is brought to studio execs hoping to profit off the production otherwise gone astray. The film within the film depicts the graphic rape and exploitation of natives at the hands of these arrogant westerners, peppered with repeated scenes of animal cruelty that make Blood of the Beasts look like Saturday morning cartoons. It’s barely even watchable, probably not at all if you have emotions. Oh, and it was taken for a snuff film upon initial release, the director placed under arrest until he could prove his cast was still in fact alive. Bloody insane.
1. Sweet Movie (Dusan Makavejev, 1974)
How the hell do you top that? Only with something aptly titled Sweet Movie, in which food and sexual urges seem to go hand in hand. There’s a heinous dinner party that devolves into an orgy of projectile vomiting and still that’s not the point that makes my head really spin. Nope, not when you have a deranged middle aged woman piloting a riverboat stuffed to the bursting point with candy, who Pied Piper’s the local children aboard, instigating the only scene in a movie where I’ve ever readily acknowledged that things had absolutely gone past what I could handle. Worst still is the damage this will do to any appetite, for days to follow. But hey, it does have a Criterion release after all, so it’s a mere matter of time before other film fanatics catch up with this and get to take part in the same degrading experience that I once stumbled across. Hooray for film preservation.