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17 Films Rated NC-17: Did They Deserve The 'Certificate Of Doom'?

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist October 24, 2013 at 4:01PM

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.
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Shame

"Shame" (2011)
What's It About? Michael Fassbender plays a sex addict living in New York City whose life is further complicated when his sister (played by the usually quite wholesome Carey Mulligan) comes to visit. It's basically an addiction drama, except it's an extreme hankering for sex instead of booze or drugs that our main character is fighting against.
Why Did It Get The Rating? There is a whole lot of sex. Like, a whole lot. The opening sequence of the movie is Fassbender walking around his apartment completely nude and pissing on screen (and for real). Mulligan also shows full frontal nudity (in the most unflattering way possible), and there are various partners that come into Fassbender's life who fully disrobe. The most disturbing sequence, and the one in where the possibility for an R-rating flew out the window for good, involved Fassbender hitting bottom and going to a crazily sleazy underground sex club. It's there that he engages in raw, unprotected gay sex. (A similar sequence happened in "Rampage," a movie that opened around the same time. It goes to show you can't keep a good sex dungeon down.) There's also a graphic sequence where Mulligan tries to commit suicide. Ugh.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17? Eh, maybe. Americans are notoriously squeamish about sex, so it's not a surprise that the hammer came down on "Shame." The question, if we discount the importance of the attempted suicide factoring into the rating, is if there was enough sex and whether or not that sex was hardcore enough. And it's hard to feel like either apply. Maybe the nonstop sex and nudity on cable TV shows has dulled us to such things, but we're not entirely sure that with "Shame" the punishment did fit the crime.
How Good Is It? The movie is absolutely wonderful—moving, disturbing and sad. Fassbender is a compelling addict and director Steve McQueen, whose newest movie "12 Years a Slave" was released in limited release last week, shoots the film beautifully. It's McQueen who allows you to experience the deep sadness and the kind of propulsive kick of each new sexual encounter, in a truly incredible way. [A-]

Crash”

"Crash" (1996)
What’s It About?: Car accident survivors convene to learn about an entire subculture of victims sexually aroused by automobile accidents in this J.G. Ballad adaptation.
Why Did It Get The Rating?: While there are no radically graphic moments of sexual intercourse in the film, the pervasive undercurrent of sexual tension was enough to alert the MPAA that this is a film dealing almost entirely with sex. And also, let's be honest, the kind of sex it deals in plays a part here.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17?: Honestly, this is a film about sexual experimentation beyond standard expectations, so the material is only going to be understood and appreciated fully by the truly sexually adventurous, which excludes those less experienced with physical intimacy, i.e. a large majority of those under the age of seventeen. “Crash” is erotic, but in a fairly abstract sense, and should the material fall into the hands of a younger audience member, it’s likely to be immensely confusing. Also, James Spader was in this, “Sex, Lies And Videotape” and “Secretary,” so we feel confident saying that you really should be of a certain age to see Spader on the big screen (making his casting in 2015’s “The Avengers: Age Of Ultron” even more amusingly perverse).
How Good Is It?: “Crash” is a hyper-specific movie about a hyper-specific concept, and as per director David Cronenberg’s standards, its focus is at times surgical, suffocatingly clinical. His trademark black humor is in short supply as he focuses on those fatalistic enough to test the boundaries of their mortality by continuing to flirt with car accidents. It furthers Cronenberg’s fascination with the growing connections between man and machine as well as the idea of danger being the ultimate aphrodisiac, and though these concepts are borrowed from Ballard’s work, “Crash” never feels like anything less than Cronenbergian through and through. Despite its self-serious nature, registering as one of the more academic entries in a rigorously fascinating filmography, “Crash” is worth a look to see this elaborate, fascinating subculture brought to life, complete with boundary-pushing moments of lust that no doubt tickled the sensibilities of the kinkier cinephiles in the audience turned on by major actors playing out some of the stranger kinks captured onscreen: what happens with amputee Holly Hunter’s stump is something that is quite possibly burned onto your retina. [B+]

Bad Lieutenant

Bad Lieutenant” (1992)
What’s It About?: Harvey Keitel plays a strung-out NYC plainclothes cop who has a crisis of faith when tracking down the murderer of a nun.
Why Did It Get The Rating?: Probably something combative director Abel Ferrara said. “Bad Lieutenant” has a pervasive amount of foul language, and a couple of moments of suggestive sexuality, including a lewd moment when Keitel masturbates as he instructs a couple of girls to perform suggestive, relatively benign (for an NC-17 movie) clothed sexual acts. Though it mostly earned its notoriety for the extended scenes of Keitel naked, feral, hairy and decidedly unaroused.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17 Rating?: A movie like “Borat,” which features significantly more full-frontal male nudity, skated by with an R-rating more than a decade later. So no. Even with that full-frontal material, “Bad Lieutenant” feels a bit more explicit because of the presence of Keitel, who somehow makes foul language seem more harsh than intended. When he breaks down in a church, his sweeping, vulgar condemnation of God feels like genuine full-stop blasphemy even to agnostic audiences: when Keitel drops an “F” bomb, he means it. The MPAA probably thought they were penalizing this film with the restrictive rating, but chances are Ferrara openly courted such controversy, given his outspoken defiance of industry “etiquette.”
How Good Is It?: Put “Bad Lieutenant” in a 90s time capsule, and open it in a couple of decades, and you’ll give audiences a good idea of where independent filmmaking was at the time. Despite the significantly higher profile for this film compared to Ferrara’s other material, it still feels like an intimate picture, a small character piece about one man coming apart at the seams. While the Werner Herzog-directed remake has a funny, surreal, more humanist side, this is a dark, psychologically complex film with a rougher, uglier edge. It may not be one of the dirtier films ever made, whether or not it lives up (or down) to its NC-17 rating, but it's surely one of the angriest. [A-]

"A Dirty Shame"
"A Dirty Shame"

A Dirty Shame” (2004)
What’s It About?: A sheltered suburban housewife responds to a bump on the head by becoming a nymphomaniac and leading a small-scale sexual revolution in her tiny neighborhood.
Why Did It Get The Rating?: Various scenes of sex-based gags and references, and the severely swollen breast implants carried by a promiscuous girl played by Selma Blair.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17?: Absolutely not. John Waters has done nastier things and pursued much dirtier storylines. “A Dirty Shame” feels more like the envelope being slightly pushed in accordance with an era permissive not only of “South Park” but also filmmakers like the Farrellys reaching the top of the box office. Waters had eluded the ratings board with some of his smaller, under-the-radar efforts: it’s possible slapping one of his more commercial films with the restrictive rating is some sort of childish payback.
How Good Is It?: While there’s no Divine to spice things up, and it does seem like Waters is holding back, it feels he has two spiritual companions with the film’s stars, Tracey Ullman and Johnny Knoxville. As the newly liberated libertine, Ullman gives a performance of cheeky abandon, seemingly game for a series of elaborate dick-and-vagina yucks requiring a performer who can thrust herself into onscreen sex tricks while maintaining an innocent enthusiasm. And as a traveling sex fiend, Knoxville captures the lawless debauchery of Waters’ id run wild, in one of the funnier screen turns from the lead blunt object of “Jackass.” Much of “A Dirty Shame” feels recycled from bad standup and rejected cable softcore debauchery: at times, the low-rent titillation is less John Waters and more Jim Wynorski. It’s Ullman, Knoxville, a dimly sarcastic Blair, and spirited character actress Jackie Hoffman who provide the film with the sort of spark that makes it mildly appealing mall-crowd Waters, more of a poppy cover song than a real-deal album cut. [C]

This article is related to: Features, Feature, Blue is the Warmest Color


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