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13 Controversial Nude Scenes That Landed Movies NC-17 Ratings

The following article includes discussions of sexual assault, suicide, sex work, extreme violence, addiction, incest, and racism.

While there are plenty of challenging and disturbing films released every year, only the rare one is objectionable enough to warrant the dreaded NC-17 rating. While the rating itself isn't inherently a bad thing, it does limit the market of a movie considerably. This is because, unlike the standard R rating, in which a parent can accompany their child, NC-17 means no one under the age of 18 can see the film, even with supervision.

Most importantly, this cuts out the teen market. The existence of this demographic is usually why a movie is edited down to PG-13 in hopes of getting more butts in seats. While some movies like "M3GAN" are changed very little by these cuts, other examples like "Live Free or Die Hard" feel noticeably toothless compared to their forebears.

And then there are those movies that are almost impossible to cut down without losing some of their artistic merit and raw intensity. It's these kinds of movies that we're going to be exploring here, particularly in how they focus on the graphic use of nudity and sexuality. Please note that we'll be exploring several plot elements of the following movies with full spoilers, including their endings. 

Killer Joe (2011)

While "Killer Joe" might be best remembered for its shocking bursts of violence and brutality, the film also contains two shocking sex scenes. The first involves Dottie (Juno Temple), who strips down for a full-frontal nude scene early on, but the second is far more disturbing despite both characters being fully clothed. This is because Joe (Matthew McConaughey) humiliates Sharla (Gina Gershon) by forcing her to fellate a chicken bone while he grunts and moans with satisfaction. It might be one of the most disturbing sexual acts ever put on the screen, and it's easy to see why it helped to land the movie an NC-17 rating.

The movie follows a drug dealer named Chris (Emile Hirsch), who hires the titular contract killer to help him settle a debt through murder. However, the plan spins out of control as Joe becomes increasingly obsessed with Chris' developmentally disabled younger sister, Dottie. Eventually, the plan culminates in Joe beating Chris to death with the help of the latter's own family members. It's a horrific button on an unforgettable film and ensures that for many different reasons, "Killer Joe" will linger in the minds of viewers for years to come, whether they like it or not.

Shame (2011)

Sex addiction is obviously an incredibly layered topic and one that is inherently rife with explicit material. That's why it's no surprise to find the 2011 drama "Shame" on this list. The film focuses on Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a man who is constantly seeking casual sex. One of the earliest examples in "Shame" that helps to explain how it got its NC-17 rating is a montage of Brandon's hook-ups. It shows one scene after another of the character walking out of his bedroom following a fresh sexual encounter. While the lighting in the sequence is meager, each time this happens he passes the camera fully nude with nothing to block his genitals from sight.

Then there is the bevy of other sex scenes in the film. "Shame" contains countless sexual encounters, including sex in a back alley, a threesome with sex workers, and a same-sex encounter with another man at a gay bar. Still, the most disturbing element of the film might be Brandon's borderline incestuous relationship with his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan). This is because "Shame" implies that the reason that the duo has such a complicated sexual history is because they were molested together as children. Finally, the movie contains an explicit scene of self-harm near the end of its runtime, making sure to tick all of the troubling boxes one by one.

The Dreamers (2003)

While the aforementioned "Shame" comes pretty close to incestuous content, "The Dreamers" basically dives headfirst into the disturbing subject. Matthew (Michael Pitt) goes to Paris as an exchange student, where he meets and befriends twin siblings Isabelle (Eva Green) and Théo (Louis Garrel).

However, when he is invited to stay with them, he discovers that the twins really do share everything. He spies them sleeping nude together and engages in sexual games with them, where they punish one another by making them perform sex acts in front of each other. What emerges in "The Dreamers" is a passionate love triangle as all three have eyes for one another and pursue each other relentlessly, even while contradicting themselves. The film contains explicitly sexual scenes, including full frontal nudity from all three of its central actors and a sampler of all kinds of different sexual acts.

As with some of the above films, however, the most disturbing element of "The Dreamers" may be its ending, which isn't terribly sexual. The trio are discovered together by Théo and Isabelle's parents, and as a result, Isabelle attempts to complete a murder-suicide of the three with a gas line. Though it is ultimately unsuccessful, the scene remains heart-rending in its intensity even over two decades later.

Blonde (2022)

"Blonde" tells the story of Marilyn Monroe (Ana de Armas), and it doesn't shy away from the darker parts of her life. There's plenty of nudity throughout the movie, but the scene that likely tipped it into NC-17 territory is one that depicts President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson) sexually assaulting Monroe. That particular scene caused some extra controversy because it's one of the moments in the film that isn't based in fact. Several outlets reported on this, with Glamour writing, "There are no claims or records of JFK sexually assaulting Marilyn."

Biopics are tricky needles to thread, and you could argue that this one missed the mark. The response to "Blonde" was heavily divided, with some calling the film exploitative and criticizing the moments — like the shocking JFK scene — in which the film took some creative liberties. Director Andrew Dominik said he knew his film would strike a nerve with some viewers, but he was genuinely shocked that it ended up getting slapped with an NC-17 rating. "I was surprised," Dominik told Vulture. "I thought we'd colored inside the lines."

Showgirls (1995)

Paul Verhoeven is the celebrated director of classic sci-fi movies like "Robocop," "Total Recall," and "Starship Troopers." His films tend to lean into explicit violence and/or sexuality to some degree, usually to sharpen the satirical edge they all share. For his part, Verhoeven has said he hardly even gives a thought to sex in movies. "I think there's a misunderstanding about sexuality in the United States," the Dutch director told Variety

Verhoeven's much-maligned erotic drama "Showgirls" tells the story of Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), who comes to Las Vegas with big dreams of becoming a famous dancer. She starts working in a strip club and eventually strikes up a rivalry with a local diva named Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) and a relationship with Cristal's boyfriend, Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan). As you might expect based on the premise, "Showgirls" contains many scenes only suitable for adults, but one scene in particular pushed the movie well into NC-17 territory: Molly's rape.

Despite being the only genuinely decent person in the film, Molly endures a horrific sexual assault in the film's most controversial scene. Actor Gina Ravera avoided talking about the scene and the film in general for many years, but she finally opened up about the experience during an interview with Yahoo! Entertainment in 2020. "When you do a scene like that, your body doesn't know it's not real," she said. "I don't know if I would have taken the movie if I had understood that."

Lust, Caution (2007)

"Lust, Caution" is an adaptation of an Eileen Chang short story directed by Ang Lee. It follows Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei), a student attending Lingnan University in Hong Kong in 1938. She joins a drama club, and her acting skills inadvertently get her wrapped up in a plot to assassinate a Japanese official named Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) — part of the film takes place in Shanghai when it was under the control of the Imperial Japanese Army. Chia Chi tries to seduce Mr. Yee, but their relationship becomes messier and more complicated than anyone could have anticipated.

After seeing movies like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Hulk," fans of Lee's work had to be surprised that he was releasing an NC-17 movie, but he stood by his final cut. "Lust, Caution" earned the rating because of some sex scenes between Chia Chi and Mr. Yee that are graphic but also important to the story. Even the first one is beyond the realm of the R rating. "Their first sex scene is shockingly rough and moves quickly into bondage — mirroring the power relations of the occupation," said New York magazine.

Lee could have edited "Lust, Caution" down to avoid an NC-17 rating, but he held his ground and refused to cut the sex scenes. Ultimately, the rating didn't stop anyone from noticing how wonderfully made "Lust, Caution" is. The movie did well with critics and audiences, and it even picked up some awards season love, notably being nominated for Best Film Not in the English Language at the BAFTAs and Best Foreign Language Film at the Critics Choice Awards.

Passages (2023)

Every director reacts to an NC-17 rating differently. Some don't care in the slightest, and others lobby for the Motion Picture Association to reconsider its decision. Ira Sachs didn't hold back when his 2023 film "Passages" got slapped with an NC-17. "We hunger for movies that are in any proximity to our own experience, and to find a movie like this, which is then shut out, is, to me, depressing and reactionary," he told the Los Angeles Times. "It's really about a form of cultural censorship that is quite dangerous, particularly in a culture which is already battling, in such extreme ways, the possibility of LGBT imagery to exist."

The movie's distributor managed to technically avoid the NC-17 rating by releasing "Passages" unrated, but that still means the movie's potential reach was impacted. In "Passages," a man named Tomas (Franz Rogowski) upends his relationship with his husband Martin (Ben Whishaw) after starting an affair with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). The film carefully analyzes the relationships between its protagonists, but because that means seeing them at their most intimate, things get pretty explicit. There are a handful of sex scenes throughout the movie, but a long, one-take scene showing Tomas and Agathe having sex for the second time in a movie editing booth is what most likely tipped "Passages" toward an NC-17 rating.

Bad Education (2004)

Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, 2004's "Bad Education" is a heartbreaking story about navigating the intricacies of sexual identity. The movie follows Spanish film director Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez), who reconnects with his first love, Ignacio Rodriguez (Gael García Bernal), and Ignacio, now called Ángel, suggests he uses a short story called "The Visit" as the basis for a new project. Working through the story, Enrique relives parts of his childhood when he fell in love with Ignacio at a Catholic boarding school, and the two of them were eventually torn apart and abused by the school's principal, Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho).

If you were to watch "Bad Education" without knowing its rating, you'd probably be surprised to learn that the movie is NC-17. That's because, compared to most of the movies on this list, "Bad Education" isn't that graphic. The moment that gave the film its rating is a two-second clip depicting oral sex. You don't actually see genitalia on screen, but a head bobbing up and down was enough for the Motion Picture Association to give "Bad Education" the most extreme rating possible. According to publicist Jessica Uzzan, the filmmakers pushed back against the decision. The MPAA stood firm, but producers refused to remove the scene. "It's a film for adults," Uzzan said (via The New York Times).

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)

It's not very surprising that a movie called "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" initially got rated NC-17. The film stars Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks as the titular characters, best friends and roommates who are short on cash and desperate for any way to pay their bills. They decide that with the help of a few friends and strangers, they'll break into the pornography business to turn their lives around. Naturally, "Zack and Miri" has a handful of sex scenes, though most of them are a good deal tamer than scenes in other movies that made this list. According to director Kevin Smith, the MPAA took issue with two scenes in particular.

"The initial NC-17 rating for 'Zack and Miri and Make a Porno' was predicated on the thrusting in one scene, and the s**t shot," Smith told Vulture, referring to the moment in which one of Zack's friends gets covered in feces while filming an adult scene. "I made sure everything kind of worked within the boundaries. And [the MPAA] were like, 'This movie will never get an R as long as that scene is in the movie. You got to cut out the shot all together.'" Smith argued that the comic nature of the sex scenes compared to other films that had recently been released (such as "Taking Lives" with Angelina Jolie and Ethan Hawke) meant his film should be rated R. He took his case to an appeal, and (to his surprise) he won.

Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)

No matter how many films you've seen, "Blue is the Warmest Color" is likely to be one of the most intensely sexual films you'll ever watch. Following the passionate lesbian love affair that explodes between Emma (Léa Seydoux) and Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), the movie is filled with graphic sex scenes between the two, to the point that the film has been the subject of some controversy. The centerpiece of "Blue is the Warmest Color" is a seven-minute sex scene between Adèle and Emma that features all manner of different sexual acts and positions.

Indeed, it was these scenes in particular that drew some ire for the mostly well-received film. "The most discomfiting thing about 'Blue [Is The Warmest Color]' is that it ultimately feels like a menage a trois involving the actors and the camera, staged for the benefit of the director," wrote J. Hoberman of ARTINFO. Tammy Olerman of Bi*** Media agreed, writing, "Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are constantly undercut by [director Abdellatif] Kechiche's direction, which often seems more about his directorial desires than the motivations of the story's protagonists."

Elsewhere, there is a highly explicit scene of Adèle pleasuring herself while she imagines making love to Emma, a heterosexual encounter that depicts full-frontal nudity, and several other scenes that are highly sexual. While the film retained its NC-17 rating, IFC waived the ruling in New York City, where it allowed high school-aged teenagers to also see the film.  

Henry & June (1990)

1990's "Henry & June" sparked controversy when it became the first NC-17 movie after the X rating was sidelined. Written and directed by Philip Kaufman, the movie is part biopic and part historical fiction. It tells the story of American writer Henry Miller (Fred Ward) and his wife June (Uma Thurman) moving to Paris in the 1930s. There, they meet Anaïs Nin (Maria de Medeiros), and the three of them strike up a steamy affair. The sex scenes are front and center throughout the movie, and that was enough for it to inaugurate the new rating.

The real-life Miller was well known for including all sorts of debaucherous tales in his novels and short stories. His 1934 novel "Tropic of Cancer" was based on the experiences he had in Paris, and the book actually changed obscenity laws in the United States. After the novel was banned in Florida, the Supreme Court ended up ruling in the book's favor and opened the door to a new wave of steamy literature in the mainstream.

Nymphomaniac (2013)

We know what you're thinking: A film called "Nymphomaniac" is obviously going to be rated NC-17. However, that wasn't the plan from the beginning. Originally, Lars von Trier's lengthy tale about a self-diagnosed sex addict was meant to have two different versions. One is what exists today, and the other would have been an edited down version that would be more in line with a typical R-rated movie. Von Trier struggled to edit the film, and, in the end, the studio decided to back his true vision for the movie.

"Nymphomaniac" explores the life story of 50-year-old Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who's discovered hurt in an alley by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). Seligman brings Joe home to take care of her injuries, and she starts to tell him about her many wild sexual experiences. A plethora of sex scenes and close-up shots of every body part imaginable guaranteed the film's rating.

In total, there are "six instances that felt like something you wouldn't see in a hard-R," said Vulture, adding, "For a little less than two minutes, all you see are many close-up photographs of flaccid penises. There's a cunnilingus scene where you can see everything." While some viewers may have been turned away by the graphic nature of the film, even more were probably put off by the full movie's four-hour runtime. It was later released in two parts with no MPAA rating.

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Few films are as emotionally difficult to watch as "Requiem for a Dream." This intense psychological drama from Darren Aronofsky follows four characters who go from being users of their respective substances to becoming desperately and extremely addicted. As far as its NC-17 rating (the film was ultimately released as unrated), this comes from the lengths that the quartet goes to in hopes of getting their fix. Perhaps the most explicit is Marion (Jennifer Connelly), who becomes a sex worker to obtain more heroin, ultimately culminating in a series of lesbian sex acts where a group of businessmen jeer and holler at the participants with excitement.

Elsewhere, there is a brutal scene of shock therapy with Sara (Ellen Burstyn); her son Harry (Jared Leto) has his arm amputated due to an intravenous infection that turns gangrenous, and Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) faces brutal forced labor and racism after he and Harry land themselves in prison. Absolutely no one gets a happy ending, and this culminates in the final shot that shows all four tucking themselves into the fetal position in hopes of escaping their horrific traumas. While "Requiem for a Dream" may be the least sexual of the films on this list, it might also be the best and is worth watching for anyone who can handle such extreme subject matter.

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