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Controversy ain't what it used to be. For all the buzz surrounding the alleged sexual explicitness of Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac, the fact that hard-core sexual imagery has never been more instantly accessible than it is now tends to dampen the sizzle somewhat.

Why would anyone go to a two-part, separately ticketed, Danish-made movie to see something you can see anywhere, any time, any way? Because you want to see the movie, apparently. But if sex has sold the movies since the first flickers, what happens when the pitch loses potency? We shall see.

In the meantime, here's a highly selective account of some of movie history's most seductive outrages, noteworthy for the barriers they breached.

Ecstasy (1933)

(Above: An undated photo of actress Hedy Lamarr)

This Czechoslovakian-made film of the sexually frustrated younger wife of an older man was exploited – and censored and banned – for its legendary nude scene, featuring a 19-year-old Hedy Lamarr. But its real outrage was the unprecedented depiction of the young woman’s orgasm, captured in suggestive closeup, and apparently the result of careful oral attention. Depression? What Depression?

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

(Above: Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in Last Tango In Paris.)

Movie actors had been simulating sex in some form or another since Ecstasy, but never before had they simulated sex acts of such a flagrantly non-reproductive nature. Nor with such outrageously blasphemous dialogue, nor involving Marlon Brando. Although dated today, it remains one of the boldest movies of its era.

Deep Throat (1972)

(Above: Porn star Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat.)

No explicit porn movie ever registered in the middle-brow mainstream with quite the same talking-point ubiquity as this tale of a sexually unfulfilled young woman (Linda Lovelace) with a displaced clitoris in the back of her throat. People who would never be caught dead in a 42nd Street trench-coat grind house flocked to see this, and it probably introduced more people to the spectacle of real filmed sex than anything that came before.

Caligula (1979)

(Above: Penthouse magazine's Bob Guccione.)

Dating back to Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith, movie makers have plundered the ancient world as an opportunity to get naked and dirty, but never with quite the exploitative relish as Penthouse magazine Bob Guccione did with his first production. After wresting the film – about Rome’s most fun-loving pervert emperor (Malcolm McDowell) – from director Tinto Brass, Guccione inserted hard-core sex footage into the movie, sparking an international scandal and boffo box office. Writer Gore Vidal was mortified, as were stars Peter O’Toole and John Gielgud.

Crash (1996)

(Above: James Spader and Deborah Unger in Crash.)

Cars, speed, sex, transgression – always close companions in the pop cultural imagination, but never more dangerously and unnervingly merged than in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s coldly creepy novel. It’s about people who are erotically aroused by car crashes, which puts death smack in the rear-view mirror. As outrageous as the sex acts seemed on paper, on screen they played out joylessly, soullessly and with almost cyborgian mechanical determination. The barriers between technology and biology had been eliminated, and sex reduced to a kind of fetishistic ritual. If people found the concept shocking, it was the tone – deadpan, detached, almost sociopathic – that really gave the movie the power to disturb.

The Idiots (1998)

(Above: Director Lars von Trier.)

The director of Nymphomaniac is no stranger to sex-related controversy. On the contrary, he has sought it like gold. Back when von Trier was still practising the low-budget, back-to-basics Dogma principle, he shot this movie about a group of people determined to unleash their inner idiot as a means of sticking it to conventional society. As incorrectly disturbing as the mock-disabled “spazzing” was, nothing beat the sequence in which the group has an orgy of an unmistakably unsimulated nature. The outcry was heard around the world, and von Trier was only encouraged to keep pushing those buttons.

The Brown Bunny (2003)

(Above: Vincent Gallo and Chloe Sevigny in The Brown Bunny.)

By the 21st century, the lines between pornography, art, mainstream and underground had been thoroughly blurred, but that didn’t stop this film, with its closeup sequence of fellatio being performed on actor-director Vincent Gallo by rising young star Chloe Sevigny, from igniting a firestorm of outrage. But was it the sexual act depicted that lit the kindling? Or was it the infamously immodest actor-director upon whom it was performed? The late Roger Ebert led the critical charge, calling the movie one of the worst he’d ever seen (and he’d seen a lot) and Gallo’s career never quite recovered. And in an interesting reversal of the usual double standard applying to explicit sexual representations, Sevigny walked away pretty much unscathed.
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