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A man sits beside you on the bus. There are plenty of other seats, but he takes that one right next to you. This is annoying, but most of us have been there. He’s not breaking any laws, just unspoken social rules. But what if he smells bad? Or what if he’s shirtless? No laws have been created around scent standards yet, once again only social rules protect you here. What if this shirtless man then proceeds to get completely naked? The more liberal of us may suggest that even this should not need to be prevented by law. But, say this naked man then begins enthusiastically masturbating right there next to you. Forget the fact that this is indeed illegal, most of us would agree that this is simply not okay. And for those who don’t, I don’t imagine this analogy should have to be pushed much further to get you there too.
The point is, although we may not all agree on where the line should be drawn, there is most definitely a point at which something goes from uncomfortable, to completely inappropriate. Throughout the decades cinema has constantly experimented with this line: testing audience’s tolerance for violence, depravity, and overt sexuality. As audiences became increasingly over-saturated with the sheer abundance of borderline inappropriate films, some films that were once shocking have now begun to seem tame. However, even by today’s standards there are some films that manage to engage with cultural taboos in ways that some of us may believe goes too far. And yet others will completely disagree. That’s exactly what makes these films so interesting.
Love 3D (2015)—★★★★½
Directed by Gaspar Noé
Despite it’s popularity, for better or worse, sex is still pretty taboo, and especially so in the world of film. Traditionally sex has been something that couldn’t appear graphically or explicitly in film. This was at first largely due to issues of censorship, but now more due to audience expectations. Sex is treated covertly, making it seem strange and alien, and not something we’d ever do.
With this in mind Gaspar Noé’s Love 3D came as something of a relief. It is an unusual experience to wander into a film screening and be greeted by a well-kempt male sex organ, but by the end, an enjoyable one. This isn’t because Love 3D was French, intellectual, and something only the chosen would ‘get’; but because it was a film that projected in glorious Technicolor exactly what loving someone looks like. If you or I were in the position of Gaspar’s characters (an American film student living in France passionately in love with Elektra—someone who also loved me) there’s every chance we would act the same. Sex, after all, is a natural part of adult relationships. And if these things happen to us in the real world, why shouldn’t they happen in the cinema?
Overall Love 3D is a masterfully shot romance in which people who look like they’re naked actually are; and after watching it I would defy you to say that the conservative, mute, dry-humping of Hollywood’s superstars is anything close to real love. People are messy and gross, but what would a taboo film be if not one that just accepts that’s how we are? Maybe it will even show you how beautiful we are.
American Psycho (2000)—★★★★
Directed by Mary Harron
This film is infamous for its depiction of a depersonalized, yuppie stockbroker who mutilates and murders as many women as he can, perhaps as an expression of his disillusionment with modern life.
American Psycho shows us what objectification truly means. Under Harron’s direction American Psycho’s protagonist Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), is an object; a flawless, muscle-bound shell. Throughout the film Bateman obsessively sculpts his appearance, from his morning crunches (“I can do over 1000 now”), to the carefully chosen fonts of his business cards. Vanity and appearances drives Bateman.
However, there is a darker side to Bateman, and it’s from here, this place of darkness, that this film earns the taboo status. The darkness lives in Bateman’s relationship with women. We are witness to a number of Bateman’s ‘romantic’ relationships, where women are not only sex objects to Bateman, but also objects onto which he inflicts brutality and harm. There’s a terrifying suggestion raised by this film that blurs the lines of objectification—where does the boundary lie between fucking her and cutting her up into lots of little pieces?
Directed by Steven Shainberg
A full decade before we learnt that every single shade of grey is in fact equally dull, Steven Shainberg’s Secretary gave us a highly underrated insight into the world of S&M. One that no piece of Twilight fan fiction could hope to compete with.
First and foremost this film is a part of the romance genre, following the emerging relationship between James Spader as Mr. Grey (no relation) and his new secretary Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal). However, the romantic aspects of the plot may be lost on some viewers as this relationship quickly progresses from workplace flirtation, to workplace spankings, to whips and chain, and just about everything else. As the other reviews have already discussed, the expression of any form of sexuality in cinema has for the most part been approached with extreme caution, let alone the expression of alternative sexual preferences. It would be easy then to focus on this aspect on the film, that being the most obviously taboo. However, it is actually the other taboos in this film that make it so significant.
One of the other great taboos of cinema has always been the depiction of mental illness. Both of the film’s main characters suffer from their own form of mental illness; most significantly Gyllenhaal’s character, having been recently released from a mental institute after a long history of self-harm. Throughout the film both characters find solace from their respective difficulties as they come together in their non traditional relationship. This is what grounds this film in the romance genre.
Ultimately—as uncomfortable as some parts of it may be for those viewers less inclined to such expressions of affection—this film simply acts to remind us that it doesn’t matter who you love, or how you love them, so long as you both are happy.
And really, what is so taboo about that?