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.

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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: