It was Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow Up" (Amazon) that ushered an audience for international art films in 1966. In today's figures, this stylish mod masterpiece starring David Hemmings -- and his fierce bedroom eyes -- grossed about $120 million in North America. Unheard of for such a film. People were paying attention. In 1970, Antonioni tried to repeat the film's success with "Zabriskie Point" but, despite a dreamy original score by Pink Floyd, this sendup of Vietnam-era American counterculture just didn't gel. Because by then, New Hollywood figured out how to do art films themselves.
After "Blow-Up," if you look at the art films that broke out in the 70s and 80s, most are fascinated by the combination of sex and death. B-movie king Roger Corman had faith in that formula when he bought the US rights to Ingmar Bergman's brittle chamber drama "Cries and Whispers" (Hulu) for $75k. In 1972, the arch period film took a significant domestic gross, was nominated for five Academy Awards including best picture and won for longterm Bergman collab Sven Nykvist's heavenly images. Starring the untouchable Liv Ullmann, "Cries and Whispers" is a claustrophobic, languorous creation from cinema's gloomiest mind, with three sisters moping about a Victorian mansion. So why did it succeed? It offered the crucial ingredient of foreign film appeal: a shocking scene of aberrant sexual violence that just had to be seen.
Peter Greenaway's brutal, baroque "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" (Netflix) has many such scenes. This early Miramax art film is a wicked, audacious piece of pure cinema. And while it is a visual feast filled with references to European painting, the contents are grim and ugly: scatology, mutilation, cannibalism and rape line the wall-to-wall horrors of "The Cook." Rather than bear the scarlet letter of the X, the film went "unrated," and drew a massive international audience and lavish praise from critics. Donning Jean Paul Gaultier in every impeccably manicured frame, Helen Mirren impresses as the abused wife of a brutish restaurateur (Michael Gambon).
Given its epic scope and the cross-cultural pedigree of director Ang Lee, 2007's "Lust, Caution" (free on SnagFilms) is an example of the kind of commercial art film that could-have-been. It has all the necessary fixtures: graphic lovemaking, the NC-17, an almost three-hour running time and a huge overseas success story in Hong Kong and China. Set in World War II-era Hong Kong and Shanghai, it's a period espionage thriller but also a love story, with a typically excellent performance by Wong Kar-wai fave Tony Leung. 20 years ago, this is the kind of film that could have incited a storm, a la Nagisa Oshima's "In the Realm of the Senses" (1976) and its unsimulated sex. Though by comparison, "Lust, Caution" is far tamer. What film isn't?
Which begs a different kind of question: are there any taboos left to be broken? The triumph of steamy films like "Last Tango in Paris" and "Eyes Wide Shut" leaned on carefully calibrated marketing campaigns that promised exploratory sex scenes, things you've never seen before. But audiences have seen it all. We're jaded, and the problem is that most contemporary adult movies use onscreen sex sensationally, and not because it speaks to the narrative or comes from some deep, dark and true place within the film.