Total Recall

Total Recall: NC-17 Movies

With Shame hitting theaters, we take a look at some of the films that were slapped with the MPAA's most notorious rating.

by | December 1, 2011 | Comments


For almost as long as we’ve had movies, we’ve had a culture war to go along with them — an ongoing struggle between filmmakers who want to challenge, provoke, or simply tell an honest story, and audience members/lawmakers who want to protect viewers with more delicate sensibilities. To help concerned filmgoers navigate the landscape (and improve upon the outdated Hays Code), Hollywood implemented a voluntary ratings system in the late 1960s, and for the most part, it’s done its job — although it certainly hasn’t been without its detractors. The “X” designation, created as a catchall category for movies with adult content, has proven particularly problematic; despite the occasional release of “real” X-rated films (such as Midnight Cowboy, Fritz the Cat, and Last Tango in Paris), the rating quickly became shorthand for pornography.

In order to help differentiate between high art and cheap thrills, the MPAA introduced the NC-17 in 1990, and although it hasn’t done anything to improve the box office prospects of films receiving the rating, it has given an alternative to filmmakers who want to create challenging and/or provocative movies for grown-ups without dealing with the “rated X” stigma. With Steve McQueen’s Shame heading for limited release this weekend (and already courting controversy), we decided now would be the perfect time to pay tribute to the NC-17. Get ready for plenty of skin, violence, and broken taboos — and bring your ID, because it’s time for an adults-only Total Recall!

Bad Education


If there is such a thing as your average drama about the aftereffects of a Catholic priest molesting young boys, Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education isn’t it. Using the shame and betrayal of the Church scandal as a jumping-off point, Education spirals into layers of colorful, typically Almodóvarian melodrama, including a film-within-a-film, multiple cases of hidden identity, blurred gender lines, and drug use. It was all too much for the MPAA, but just enough for critics like the AV Club’s Scott Tobias, who wrote, “In accounting for Almodóvar’s identity as an artist and a man, Bad Education comes together like a bold and far-reaching summation of his career to date.”

Bad Lieutenant


Long before Nicolas Cage started hallucinating iguanas in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant “rethought,” Harvey Keitel took filmgoers into the darkest depths of man’s soul with the 1992 original. Directed by Abel Ferrara, Bad Lieutenant earned its NC-17 with 96 minutes of generally depraved behavior (not to mention full-frontal nudity from both sexes), but there was real meaning to the movie’s madness — not to mention a bravura performance from its star, who inspired Empire’s Clark Collis to write, “Keitel is onscreen for pretty much the entire movie and clearly relishes the opportunity of playing someone not so much teetering on the abyss as leaping off with a grand piano manacled to each ankle.”



He’s explored a handful of different genres, from period pieces to outright horror flicks, but along the way, director David Cronenberg has remained resolutely provocative — which made him a natural fit to adapt Crash, J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel about an emotionally bankrupt film producer (James Spader) who discovers new purpose (and a rather creepy fetish) after embarking on an affair with the widow (Holly Hunter) of a man he kills in a head-on car crash. Exploring the world of car crash porn with his singularly detached precision, Cronenberg raised a considerable ruckus with the film at Cannes — where it won a prize for “originality, daring and audacity” despite some jury members’ very vocal disapproval — and at the studio level, where Fine Line owner Ted Turner fought to keep it out of U.S. theaters. It also divided critics, although a number of top scribes were able to find beauty in the high-speed wreckage — including Roger Ebert, who observed, “It’s about the human mind, about the way we grow enslaved by the particular things that turn us on, and forgive ourselves our trespasses.”

The Dreamers


Sometimes, filmmakers venture into NC-17 territory in order to stay true to their stories by offering unflinchingly honest depictions of adult behavior. And sometimes — as in the case of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers — they push the ratings envelope simply on account of what the MPAA likes to call “nudity and sexual content.” The tale of an American exchange student (Michael Pitt) who comes to Paris and falls in with a disconcertingly close pair of siblings (Eva Green and Louis Garrel), Dreamers totters between a tribute to cinephilia, a statement on the French political unrest of the late 1960s, and an excuse for lots of weird sexual tension — a tricky blend that was appreciated by critics like Kimberley Jones of the Austin Chronicle, who wrote, “The Dreamers is infused with the same kind of wistful melancholy that made the French New Wave films so winning, and it’s all gorgeous to look at.”

Henry & June


The original NC-17 film, Philip Kaufman’s Henry & June underscored the need for some sort of distinction between bawdy pornographic fare and films that braved the line between safe commercialism and challenging art. Starring Fred Ward as Henry Miller, Uma Thurman as his wife June, and Maria de Medeiros as Anaïs Nin, the movie — based on Nin’s memoir of the same name — details the pan-sexual love triangle between the trio. Tagged with the NC-17 rating for some relatively mild stuff (including a shot of a famously explicit postcard), it delivered thoughtful subtext along with prurient thrills; as Owen Gleiberman wrote for Entertainment Weekly, “After many fits and starts, Henry & June becomes another feminist-awakening movie — the story of a lesbian attraction that, for Anaïs, is really a dawning of the self.”

Lust, Caution


What do you get when you put together a spy thriller inspired by the real-life Second Sino-Japanese War with Ang Lee’s eye for scenes of sumptuously filmed beauty? 2007’s Lust, Caution, which earned an NC-17 for its explicit sex scenes, but had more on its mind than simply the naughty bits. At heart, it’s really a piercing love story, albeit one whose stakes are raised against the backdrop of its life-or-death setting. Though some critics yawned at its sprawling 157-minute length, most scribes found Lust, Caution worth the investment — including Kevin Harley of Film Threat, who wrote, “Lee’s saucy, sumptuous slow-burner is a complex, elegant seduction, drawing on Hitchcock but putting a singular stamp on a rich spread of spies and sex, repression and sacrifice. Just don’t try those moves at home…”

Man Bites Dog


As perversely, chaotically violent as its title, Man Bites Dog takes viewers on an unrelentingly grim descent into the mind of a homicidal maniac (Benoît Poelvoorde) who matter-of-factly gives a documentary crew a series of hands-on “lessons” in his sickening craft. A sort of neo-noir/mockumentary study of the seductive nature of violence — as well as its lingering, unpredictable side effects — Dog earned its NC-17 with frank depictions of violence and sexual situations, but it offered more than just cheap thrills for critics like James Berardinelli of ReelViews, who admitted that it’s “Obviously not a movie for everyone” but insisted, “if you do venture to see Man Bites Dog, you would have to be made out of stone to miss the visceral, sardonic impact of a highly-unusual film.”



Unlike most NC-17 films, which tend to earn the distinction through serious (and frequently high-minded) efforts to push the boundaries of mainstream cinema, Orgazmo is nothing more than a comedic exercise in cheerful vulgarity — albeit one that bears the distinctive creative stamp of its director, screenwriter and star, South Park co-creator Trey Parker. The tale of a Mormon missionary who stars in a porn flick in order to earn enough money to marry his sweetheart — and ends up becoming a real-life superhero in the bargain — it won’t teach you anything about the human condition, and it probably gets about as close to the old-school X-rated spirit as any NC-17 theatrical release. But that doesn’t mean Orgazmo is without merit; as Kevin N. Laforest argued for the Montreal Film Journal, “This movie confirms Trey Parker as the Orson Welles of absurd comedy.”

A Serbian Film


At what point does a film cross over from being disturbingly provocative to being irredeemably offensive? For a sizable portion of film critics, Srđan Spasojević’s A Serbian Film crossed that line with depraved abandon, and it’s easy to see their point — there’s little you can say about the movie on a family website, and just reading the plot synopsis is enough to make your stomach turn. (Long story short, it’s about what happens when a semi-retired porn star, played by Srđan Todorović, decides to take one last job that is not what he signed up for.) For some scribes, however, Serbian had an important message to deliver underneath all of its horrific sex and violence. As Scott Weinberg wrote for FEARnet, “I admire and detest it at the same time. And I will never watch it again. Ever.”



For better or worse, Showgirls is the most widely seen film on this week’s list — and depending on your point of view, it’s either an unwatchable mess or a work of kitschy, misunderstood genius. Either way, it went down as one of the most notorious flops of the 1990s, with critics leading the charge against its gratuitous nudity, wooden acting, and unintentionally hilarious script (for which screenwriter Joe Eszterhas was paid an astonishing $2 million). A misbegotten attempt by Saved by the Bell star Elizabeth Berkley to prove she could handle more adult roles, it’s since gone on to become something of a cult favorite among deeply ironic filmgoers, but it certainly didn’t help further the NC-17 cause — although it did entertain Filmcritic’s Christopher Null, who said, “Showgirls is fun, pure and simple, as long as you don’t take any of it seriously.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Shame.

Finally, here’s the trailer for Kirby Dick’s documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, which, in the course of criticizing the NC-17 rating, was itself rated NC-17:

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