The most important scenes in these movies aren't necessarily explicit, but their treatment of themes like sexuality and abuse have raised many discussions.
When it comes to writing, I've always thought about fiction as a safe space to explore hard subjects. It all starts with a problem, a situation that can be confusing, or a character whose motives I want to understand better. Rather than looking at their situation from my own perspective, it's better to put myself in their context and setting in order to let the story move forward from that point of view. When we watch a film, we end up following the path that another creative person decided to build in order to understand someone else's mind. Some writers and directors are riskier than others, and some dare to tackle precisely the subjects that we avoid to keep ourselves safe.
It takes bravery to create something that will almost guarantee multiple interpretations and more than a few hostile responses. We, as an audience, need to be brave as well by daring to have our morality disoriented, our ethical background challenged, and our identities ripped apart by insightful analysis. These movies and their most controversial scenes are an example of this creative risk.
Elle, Paul Verhoeven (2016)
Elle is a film about power dynamics. Throughout the movie, we see the protagonist, Michèle, deal with the trauma of a sexual assault on her own by changing the locks on her house, buying pepper spray, and a small ax. Each scene gives us a sense of who she is and how she relates to others, including her attacker. Little by little the movie reveals the background that clarifies her behavior. In its most controversial scene, Michèle and her friends are in the middle of dinner at a restaurant when she decides to tell them about what happened a few hours earlier: a masked man broke into her house to attack and violently rape her. She tells it with a calm voice and an indifferent expression, eager to change the subject and order the food.
Some critics argue that the way she deals with the assault and the portrayal of a relationship between her and her attacker, trivializes sexual violence. But this argument misses the point of the film: every sexual assault survivor has coping mechanisms and a history of their own. This movie focuses on Michèle's reactions, providing insights into her psyche and shedding light on a difficult subject. Elle raises questions rather than offering clear-cut answers. It's our job to think about the culture that surrounds these events, and our own reactions to them.
Gummo, Harmony Korine (1997)
Gummo follows the lives of a group of characters that live in poverty and spend most of their time indulging in destructive behavior and criminal activities, like killing cats for profit. Simultaneously realistic and dream-like, this cult film is filled with disturbing scenes. In one of them, two young boys enter the house where a shirtless man receives them. They then proceed to pay him to have sex, one after the other, with his mentally-disabled wife. The man checks if she's ready to receive them and the dialogue continues in a casual manner.
What is the purpose of scenes like these? Some critics find it unnecessary, morbid, and exploitative. What I do know is that the film isn't unrealistic. Omitting real-life situations, upsetting as they are, can be a disservice to everyone. Writers and directors like Harmony Korine take inspiration from their lives and the real people they meet, and we need to give space for those real experiences in art.
Dogtooth, Giorgos Lanthimos (2009)
Great comedy is able to tackle hard subjects in a way that realistic movies can't. Dogtooth will make you laugh while you wonder why such a tragic story has such comedic tones. It starts with the three main characters reciting a series of words with unrelated definitions. We later learn that those words aren't random. They're an example of how their parents filter all the information from the outside world, a world they've never seen beyond the limits of their garden.
In the most disturbing scene, the brother sits naked inside a tub in the bathroom, and his sisters join him. The three of them look tense and uncomfortable as he coldly touches their breasts and buttocks. It feels like an exam, like an evaluation. He has to choose between the two of them. It happens after their father decides it isn't safe to send a woman to the house to sexually satisfy his son. Therefore, one of the daughters has to fulfill that role. What are we supposed to feel when we see the brother touching his sisters to decide which one he likes best? Especially if we consider that he doesn't know what he's doing because his parents have him in the dark. The importance of this scene is that it reveals how a moral compass can't help at all to understand the characters and their forcefully constructed reality as it slowly falls apart.
Happiness, Todd Solondz (1998)
Happiness is not a happy movie. Each scene takes us through the deeply intimate experiences of people that can be superficially classified as "deviant monsters" by news outlets. But even after we witness their mistakes and the things they do to themselves and others, we still feel sympathy for them. Films like Happiness are hard to watch because they question our morality, and by doing so, they expand our capacity for empathy and understanding.
In one scene, a family man is eager to get his family to go to sleep. We see the way in which he procedurally drugs his wife and son the night his son's friend, a very young boy, stays at their house for a sleepover. The boy wants to watch TV, but the man wants him to eat a sandwich. The man insists a couple of times, and the boy eats it. At this point, we know that his plan is to molest the child as soon as he falls asleep. The assault is omitted. However, we're left with the heartbreaking aftermath. While the scene is bone-chilling by itself, the fact that it doesn't characterize a person who commits a harmful act as a one-dimensional monster or as a villain who needs to be punished invites us to question the way we perceive these types of characters. Luckily, the director Todd Solondz wasn't afraid to show the intimate and tender side of these characters, creating a brilliant film as a result.
We all need time to process real life events, and the same thing happens with fictional ones. We don't have to decide immediately if we love or hate something, and we don't have to choose between extreme sides that erase the gray areas of a work of art. The point is to discuss why these movies make us uncomfortable and what can we do about that discomfort.
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