So with its super-long and undeniably graphic sex scene, among other explicit moments, “Blue is the Warmest Color,” which is released this week, was always going to get slapped with an NC-17 rating in the U.S. But unlike many other films in a similar situation, its unassailable position as a near-universally lauded (our own review is here) Cannes Palme d’Or winner has placed the idea of cuts being made for the U.S. market out of the question. For which we heave a sigh of relief, of course: better for us that the film is released, with whatever certification, uncut, than we get some kind of hacked up version that scrapes an R. Still, it’s a debate that surrounds the inevitably controversial rating ever since it was introduced to replace the old X certificate, with an NC-17 assessment being regarded by many as, basically, the kiss of box-office death for anything but the most buzzed-about film. It carries with it not only the automatic reduction of the potential audience by exactly that segment of the population most likely to go to the theater, but also distribution woes that range from certain cinemas refusing to screen NC-17s, to certain video stores refusing to stock the DVDs.
Ironically, the NC-17 was introduced by the MPAA to get away from any sort of stigma—it was brought in to replace an X certificate whose real meaning had been confused by the porn industry’s wholehearted embrace of it. While initially, films like “Midnight Cowboy” had performed solidly despite the X rating, as audiences understood that it was still intended for the general public even if not suitable for children, as time went on that understanding was eroded. Appropriating its air of salacious, transgressive ‘wrongness,’ porn producers started slapping Xs all over their product, despite the fact that the MPAA had nothing to do with them, and were legally allowed to do so because the X, amusingly, had never been copyrighted. But the association then became so strong that a film that had been rated X by the MPAA because its content was deemed adult, ran the risk of being further stigmatized (and therefore avoided) by audiences who simply saw that as shorthand for ‘obscene’ or ‘pornographic.’ A tipping point was reached in the late 80s, early 90s, particularly with two films: “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” and “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.” Both of these films are arthouse, adult movies that, while featuring acts of extreme violence and grotesque sexuality, are not, by any stretch of the imagination, pornography, and rather than suffer the indignity of an X, producers of both elected to limit their films’ potential distribution even further by releasing them unrated (most theaters will not screen unrated films). The MPAA responded to the clamor for reform (and also to accusations of its increasing out-of-touchness and irrelevance) and introduced the new, copyrighted NC-17 rating in 1990.
Initially NC-17 meant “no child under 17,” though that limit was raised in 1996 to mean “no child 17 or under,” which was bad news for all those 16-year-olds looking forward to watching Cronenberg’s “Crash” in the theater. But the rating has still somewhat failed in one of its stated aims: however it has happened there is still a significant stigma attached to it, far more so, say, than to the roughly equivalent 18 certificate in the U.K.. It has led to frequent stories of films being cut for the U.S. to qualify for the less restrictive R, and occasionally, as was the case with “Blue Valentine” a few years ago, a formal challenge being lodged against the ruling. The Derek Cianfrance film rightly won that appeal and was released with an R, but many other films have had to stagger on under the burden of the NC-17. For some of them, especially in the early stages (“Henry and June” was the first NC-17 title and is still the 2nd-highest grossing NC-17 ever) it may even have been a boon, and with canny marketing the controversial rating can manufacture buzz around a picture (“Showgirls,” the highest-grossing NC-17 did this rather brilliantly). Still, for others, it’s a cross to bear, and not always justifiably—the “independent board of parents” that makes the rulings decisions for the MPAA has been known to make mistakes, after all. Here’s a rundown of 17 NC-17 films, whether they deserved the cert, and whether, more importantly, they deserve your time.
Note: several of these films also appear in our "Weird Sex" feature, which you should visit if this one gives you a taste for, you know, the hard stuff.
“The Dreamers” (2003)
What's It About? An American student (Michael Pitt) studying abroad in Paris strikes up a friendship with a pair of free-spirited French twin siblings (Louis Garrel and Eva Green) which leads to an exploration of sex, drugs, music and philosophy during the seminal Paris student riots of 1968.
Why Did It Get The Rating? A guileless romantic drama, drunk on the nostalgia for this sea-changing period held by the film’s director, Bernardo Bertolucci, “The Dreamers” is a love letter to Paris and to the filmmaker’s youth. And much like “Last Tango In Paris” three decades before it, this paean to this vibrant, electric, liberating and status-quo-challenging period of history is unfiltered and uncensored. Which means copious full-frontal nudity, the suggestion of an incestuous relationship between the open and unguarded siblings, lots of drugs and plenty of wild, sexual abandon set against the backdrop of political tumult.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17? Considering all the bush and peens liberally hanging out (oy vey Eva Green, be still my fluttering heart), not to mention wanton eroticism, and considering the puritan MPAA, yes, it got the rating one would expect in the U.S.
How Good Is It? This writer (RP) can’t speak for everyone—it’s a divisive film—and we've heard several times over that some people think the picture is just too damn precious and pretentious, but its reckless romanticism for art, ideas, music, cinema, philosophy and more is to us exhilarating, like a pure shot of intoxicating adrenaline. It’s an unapologetically beguiling film that imbues the dangerous and adventurous spirit of the times with a reverb-soaked edge that leaves you feeling woozy. And if you really love movies, and can revel in the affection Bertolucci shows for cinema (nods to Godard, Bresson, etc.), it’s hard to believe you could hate this movie. [A]
"Killer Joe" (2011)
What's It About? Southern fried nastiness. A pitch black morality-tale-cum-crime-film with hilariously dark overtones, "Killer Joe" centers on a gormless trailer trash family and their various betrayals and opportunistic moves. When the family son (Emile Hirsch), gets in dire gambling trouble, he hires a venal and ruthless cop (Matthew McConaughey) to put a hit out on his evil mother in order to collect on her life insurance.
Why Did It Get The Rating? Directed by William Friedkin (his biggest and best comeback in ages) and adapted by Tracy Letts, who wrote the original play, “Killer Joe” is a faithful no-punches-pulled adaptation. Which means it’s ferociously violent, luridly sexual, twisted and comically mean-spirited. Oh, and it’s also obscenity-laced, features full-frontal nudity from a girl who is supposed to be underage and so this ugly, tabloid-esque mouth sore is like an unapologetic sleazy assault on all the senses.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17? Holy shit, yes. This movie is queasy and vile in every sense of the word. The violence stings and disarms the comedic moments with chilling ferocity and its repugnant climax—McConaughey getting off as he makes Gina Gershon’s manipulative character suck off a greasy piece of fried chicken he has protruding from his crotch, after he’s beaten the shit out of her, no less—is utterly shocking.
How Good Is It? As abhorrent as that all sounds (and as awful a human it makes this writer seem), "Killer Joe" is terrific, a greazy, stanky slice of pulpy trash that's wickedly funny, delves in hilarious moral ironies and is gruesomely sharp. It's not for the faint of heart, as its as visceral and unflinching as any recent survival narrative, but man, as the icky tag line says next to a bloody chicken wing, "murder never tasted this good." [A-]
What's It About? Based on the writings of Jean Genet, Todd Haynes’ feature debut is an absorbing, experimental work intertwining three separate narratives in three separate styles: a Corman-esque 1950s-style B-movie about a doctor whose experiments with the human sex drive go awry turning him into a grotesque, murderous and extremely infectious leper; a meditative, sometimes violent account of a gay affair, partly told in flashback to childhood encounters, but mostly set in a stylized, stagey prison where both men are now inmates; and a documentary-style ‘investigation’ into the fictional case of a young boy who kills his father prior to taking literal flight, according to his mother.
Why Did It Get The Rating? While there is no doubt that “Poison” is an adult-themed film, it is far more psychologically disquieting and suggestive than it is explicit. However thematically, we can see how the parents’ board that judged it might have deemed the cert appropriate, as the throughlines about the eroticization of humiliation and the intertwined nature of shame and desire are probably things that a parent would rather even their mature teenagers not contend with. The rating caused a controversy, however, when the Rev. Donald Wildmon attacked “Poison” and criticized the National Endowment for the Arts for partially-funding it. In particular, he called out the “explicit porno scenes of homosexuals involved in anal sex,” which was probably a symptom of him having not seen the film, as while there are scenes of gay anal sex they are not particularly explicit nor pornographic, featuring no onscreen penetration, in fact as far as we recall, no onscreen penises.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17? Probably yes, simply for thematic content, but not for explicit sex, gay or otherwise, of which there is little to none.
How Good Is It? “Poison” is an exceptionally strong debut from one of the most interesting independent filmmakers at work in the U.S. Its knotted structure and intricate, thorny themes of sexual humiliation, untrammeled desire and erotic fixation make it a fascinating window onto the societal attitudes towards sex, even if it feels designed to be a puzzle never fully solved. Aside even from its heady, provocative themes, Haynes’ gleeful experimentation with different styles of cinema is constantly inspired and often very beautiful. In its portrayal of the psycho-sexual effects of social otherness (bullying and exclusion play a prominent role) it has been hailed as one of the founding documents of New Queer Cinema, but it’s a more universal film than that might suggest, in that it deals in, to quote one character, “the kind of misery the whole stinking world is made of.” [B+]