The History of Cinematic Kinkiness, in 20 Films

Stills from The Piano Teacher (2001), Secretary (2002), and Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989). Photo: Canal +, Two Pound Bag Productions, Miramax

This weekend, BDSM — the all-encompassing term for bondage, submission, sadomasochism, and other unconventional sexual practices — goes mainstream with the eagerly anticipated release of Fifty Shades of Grey. While the film may not be as explicit as its source material (reportedly, author E.L. James wanted it to go much further), it’s nonetheless sure to inject some perversion into Valentine’s Day. When it comes to pushing sexual boundaries, however, Fifty Shades is hardly a groundbreaking work. For the better part of the past half-century, filmmakers outside the porn arena have been mining men and women’s strange and eccentric impulses in stories that aren’t merely aiming for heat but outright hedonistic craziness. Which isn’t to say that the saga of debonair Christian Grey and impressionable Anastasia Steele isn’t another important milestone — just that, as the following rundown of cinema’s 20 most notoriously kinky landmarks makes clear, it’s following in a long, scandalous tradition.

Ecstasy (1933)
Sure, by today’s standards, Gustav Machatý’s 1933 romance Ecstasy seems to be nothing more than a tame relic. Yet the film, starring Hedy Lamarr, is not only the first mainstream motion-picture to depict intercourse but the first to dramatize a woman’s orgasm as well. While both of those acts may take place offscreen — the director instead focuses on his actors’ enraptured faces — it marks the true beginning of cinema’s love affair with sex.

Belle de Jour (1967)
While salacious filmmaking blossomed courtesy of '60s sexploitation artists like Russ Meyer, it was the master of surrealism, Luis Buñuel, who truly kick-started 20th-century cinematic kink with 1967’s Belle de Jour, the tale of a bored housewife (Catherine Deneuve) who invigorates her day-to-day life by becoming a prostitute. Nothing overtly raunchy takes place onscreen, but fantasies of rape and domination abound, and that buzzing box that Deneuve receives from her Asian customer — whose contents are never revealed — remains an unforgettable totem of mysterious, deviant desire.

The Devils (1971)
While Buñuel traded in beguiling suggestions, Ken Russell delivers full-blown, in-your-face carnality with 1971’s The Devils, a legitimately bonkers, based-on-real-events saga of a 17th-century priest (Oliver Reed), a hunchbacked nun (Vanessa Redgrave), and a witch-finder (Michael Gothard). To describe all the erotic madness found in Russell’s controversial rape, orgy, and degradation shocker would take almost as long as it does to watch the film itself. Yet for pure kinky insanity, nothing quite tops a finale in which Redgrave’s broken woman of the cloth pleasures herself with the aid of a burnt femur bone.

Last Tango in Paris (1972)
Russell’s The Devils may have decimated traditional notions of decency, but its reach was relatively small compared to the following year’s Last Tango in Paris. Director Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 headline-maker about an American widower (Marlon Brando) who begins a torrid affair with a younger, married woman (Maria Schneider) is a stark and steamy portrait of dominant-submissive dynamics. Though 43 years later it remains most memorable for its butter-lubricated sequence, the entire film is a slow, mesmerizing descent into physical and emotional abuse.

The Night Porter (1974)
Sadomasochism binds a concentration-camp victim (Charlotte Rampling) and her Nazi-guard lover (Dirk Bogarde) in Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, which depicts its characters’ affair both during World War II and years later, when Rampling’s victim reunites with Bogarde’s SS officer in Vienna, where he’s now working as a night porter. It’s a tale of S&M-style power relations that’s all the more kinky for being set during a global tragedy, with Cavani using her button-pushing premise for an alternately exciting and uncomfortable investigation of the relationship between authority and pleasure, humiliation and contentment.

The Story of O (1975)
director Just Jaeckin’s 1975 adaptation of Pauline Réage’s 1954 novel is about a woman named O (Corrine Cléry) who’s trained in the ways of sadomasochistic love by her companion and then passed around like a sex slave to other men who pierce, whip, and brand her. Despite the filmmaker’s self-serious approach to such wannabe-outrageous material, female objectification and exploitation don't get much more severe than this, with O being turned into a veritable compendium of orifices for her various masters to use and abuse as they see fit.

Salò, or the 100 Days of Sodom (1975)
Pier Paolo Pasolini didn’t live to see the release of his final film (he was murdered shortly before it hit theaters), but the boundary-pushing legacy of Salò continues to this day. Based on the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, this story about four fascists who kidnap, torture, rape, and degrade an assortment of teenage boys and girls during the fall of Mussolini’s reign is still a work of eye-opening extremeness. Its innumerable perverse sights — if you don’t want to watch sexualized, feces-eating madness, this is not for you — make it perhaps the most wickedly kinky film ever.

In the Realm of the Senses (1976)
If Salò has a competitor for the kinky-movie throne, it’s Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, which abounds with unsimulated sex of an increasingly wacko nature. Inspired by a true story, this infamous 1976 Japanese import about a brothel servant’s affair with her boss’s husband is a parade of intercourse, oral sex, autoerotic asphyxiation, and — in perhaps the film’s most memorable scene — castration. That this chaotic carnal material is not being “faked” by the actors certainly enhances its jaw-dropping power. Regardless, the sheer depth of fervor on display, highlighted by the man asking the woman to insert an egg into her vagina and then figuratively lay it, is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying.

9 ½ Weeks (1986)
Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger do nasty things to each other for approximately two months in 9 ½ Weeks, Adrian Lyne’s drama about a Wall Street broker (Rourke) who strikes up a scorching affair with an art-gallery employee (Basinger). Their relationship soon escalates to intense heights, with sex in public places giving way to even more daring means of turning each other on, replete with blindfolds and, memorably, the inclusion of a horsewhip during a striptease.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
Director Steven Soderbergh broke onto the scene with this fantastic 1989 indie debut, which revolves around a man (James Spader) who videotapes women discussing their sexual histories and fantasies. That pastime is the jumping-off point for a bracing examination of sexual hang-ups and voyeurism, none of which leads to much in the way of explicit material. Instead, those themes flow naturally from its three-dimensional characters’ warped, screwy, and alternately funny and poignant struggles to reconcile cravings of both a sensual and romantic nature.

Boxing Helena (1993)
Turned into a punch line even before its theatrical release thanks to lawsuits filed by its original leading ladies (Madonna and Kim Basinger), Boxing Helena charts the twisted lunacy that ensues when a surgeon (Julian Sands) who’s obsessed with a local woman (Sherilyn Fenn) decides, after she’s in a car accident, to amputate her limbs and keep her all to himself in his home. Unsurprisingly, their relationship is fraught with serious issues, and first-time director Jennifer Lynch (daughter of David) barely keeps her material from turning outright laughable. Still, few films — mainstream or fringe — have ever hinged on such a bizarrely kinky conceit.

Spanking the Monkey (1994)
Long before he garnered Academy acclaim with Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, David O. Russell made a name for himself with a black comedy debut that — despite its masturbation-euphemism title — is actually about something far less acceptable: incest! Spanking the Monkey’s tryst between a lonely young man (Jeremy Davies) and his mother (Alberta Watson) is anything but titillating. Instead, its indecent subject matter is the vehicle for a sickly sweet depiction of maternal affection warping into something manipulative, cruel, and altogether unbecoming.

Crash (1996)
Not to be confused with Paul Haggis’s 2004 Oscar-winner, David Cronenberg’s 1996 Crash concerns the gnarled ties that bind together a group of paraplegics who are turned on by car crashes. A story of wounded individuals (Holly Hunter, James Spader, Rosanna Arquette, Elias Koteas, and Deborah Unger) damaged in ways even they don’t quite understand, it’s a film of cold, clinical eroticism, one in which irrational internal fetishes and crippling external wounds smash into each other in forbidden ways. As when Spader has sex with Arquette’s leg wound, it’s a haunting portrayal of compulsion and self-destruction that’s practically dripping with deviancy.

Conspirators of Pleasure (1996)
Czech auteur Jan Švankmajer is world-renowned for his stop-motion animated films, though his most darkly surrealistic effort may be 1996’s largely live-action Conspirators of Pleasure. Explaining its plot is far from easy — it has to do with a handful of Prague residents who build effigies (i.e., physical symbolic representations) of their desire out of chicken heads, porno magazines, and other random materials, and then engage in all manner of masturbatory rituals. Yet even that description doesn’t begin to express the full-blown strangeness of Švankmajer’s film, which is steeped in symbolic snapshots of people struggling with longing and need.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Stanley Kubrick’s final film was misleadingly sold to audiences as some sort of sex-filled erotic opus, when in truth, it’s a dreamlike study of lust and alienation refracted through the prism of a couple’s (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) unraveling marriage. Still, the masquerade-ball orgy sequence — which was digitally altered in order to obscure more graphic acts, and thus to help avoid a dreaded NC-17 rating — remains a stunning vision of anonymous, uninhibited sex as simultaneously enticing and harrowing. It delivers a wallop of honest-to-goodness kink to a film that’s otherwise far more interested in thoughts about sex (and romance, intimacy, and unions) than about the act itself.

The Piano Teacher (2001)
Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher is as chilly as the rest of the Austrian director’s oeuvre, fixating its icy glare on a piano instructor (Isabelle Huppert) with a fondness for self-mutilation fantasies. Those come to fruition via her relationship with a promising teenage student (Benoît Magimel), which only begins after the teacher cripples the boy’s former suitor (also a piano prodigy). It climaxes with Huppert’s older woman getting her self-destructive wish by being beaten and raped by the boy. It’s aberrant, punishing stuff, made compelling by a mesmerizing lead performance by Huppert as a woman incapable of quelling her darkest urges.

Secretary (2002)
James Spader may be the king of contemporary American erotic cinema, and he’s in fine form in 2002’s Secretary, playing an office boss whose fondness for being in control manifests itself in S&M-themed ways with his assistant (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Though their budding relationship comes to involve spankings, self-injury, and other assorted BDSM encounters, director Steven Shainberg (adapting Mary Gaitskill’s novel Bad Behavior) uses his subject matter for a rather upbeat and amusing story about a man and woman whose abnormal fantasies ultimately allow them to become their true selves. Sexual idiosyncrasies have never seemed so liberating.

Team America: World Police (2004)
Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police is an action-movie spoof and political satire starring marionettes on the trail of terrorists linked to (now-deceased) North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il. Yet it achieves a sort of XXX nirvana in its peerless sex scene, in which two puppets go at it in so many different filthy ways, and with such go-for-broke enthusiasm that the film puts many actual pornos to shame. At once smutty and silly, the moment is an ecstatic celebration of sex in all its unbridled, absurd glory.

Shortbus (2006)
Like both Secretary and Team America, John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus is a euphoric tribute to gonzo sex. That it features unsimulated relations between a host of straight and gay actors certainly enhanced its notoriety at the time of its release, though what makes the film kinky isn’t just its hard-core nature but its cavalcade of threesomes, S&M-style flogging and domination, orgies, and pansexual experimentation — all of which is designed not just to turn on audiences but to reveal fundamental truths about the story’s wayward characters.   

Nymphomaniac (2013)
Split into two “volumes” for its theatrical release (and available in a more explicit 5.5-hour original cut), Lars von Trier’s epic sex-addict drama finds a young nympho (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recounting her misadventures to a lonely bachelor (Stellan Skarsgård). Those stories involve symbolic fishing lures, rampant promiscuity, violent masturbation, and a prolonged encounter with a man (Jamie Bell) who, at his customers’ request, ties women up and then positions them just right around his office, the better to viciously paddle them. Von Trier’s film is one giant provocation masquerading as a serious character study, but when it comes to kink, it more than delivers the goods.

It goes without saying that honorable mentions abound, not least: Lorna (1964), Caligula (1979), Crimes of Passion (1984), Body of Evidence (1993), Exit to Eden (1994), Sliver (1993), Bound (1996), The Idiots (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), Sleeping Dogs Lie (2005), Antichrist (2009), Sleeping Beauty (2011), and Killer Joe (2011), which taught moviegoers the most unsavory use for a KFC drumstick.