BBC Culture

Ten taboo-breaking love scenes

About the author

Christian Blauvelt is deputy editor of BBC Culture.

  • The Abyss (1910)

    The love scene has been a part of cinema right from the beginning. One of the first movies ever screened was simply called The Kiss (1896), a 47-second smooch – newspaper editorial writers were scandalised. By 1910, film storytelling had developed enough that a love scene could serve as a crucial part of a narrative. Actress Asta Nielsen’s stunning seduction of a circus performer in the Danish film The Abyss, in which she grinds her hips against him while taking part in a gaucho dance, radiates sexual heat. It’s a sex scene with clothes on, the moment Nielsen’s character metaphorically consummates the relationship. She was the sexual aggressor – and audiences in Europe and America were shocked. The scene was censored throughout parts of the US. (Motion Picture Distributors)

  • Notorious (1946)

    With the establishment of the Hollywood Production Code in the early 1930s, directors were limited in how much sexual behaviour they could depict on screen. There wouldn’t be a Hollywood movie like Ecstasy, the 1933 Czechoslovakian film that showed Hedy Lamarr nude and having an orgasm, for decades. But clever filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock found ways of subverting the Code. He decided to include “the longest kiss in movie history” in his film Notorious, despite the Code’s decree that Hollywood kisses must be limited to three seconds or less. So rather than just one long kiss, Hitchcock had Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman pucker up intermittently while locked in an embrace for two and a half minutes – during which time they also move around an apartment arm in arm, talk on the phone and discuss a chicken dinner, with the kissing serving as punctuation for their dialogue. Hitchcock may not have actually violated the Code, but he certainly did in spirit. (RKO Radio Pictures)

  • Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)

    Depictions of sex in American cinema loosened up considerably during the 1960s after studios stopped enforcing the Production Code. But an independently produced film that helped kick off the Blaxploitation craze, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss song, went further than any American film to that point. It featured unsimulated sex, as Melvin Van Peebles, also the director of the film, makes love to several women while his character is on the run from law. Most controversial of all, he placed his naked 13-year-old son Mario Van Peebles in one scene to depict his character as a youth at the moment when he lost his virginity to a prostitute. (Cinemation Industries)

  • The Devils (1971)

    Britain didn’t lag behind the American underground cinema in opening up new sexual frontiers. Ken Russell had already courted scandal with the nude male wrestling match he staged in Women in Love, but The Devils took it a step further. A tale of religious hysteria and sexual panic in 1600s France about a town the Church believes is infested with demons and witchcraft, the movie shows nuns engaged in an orgy, while surrounded by Christian iconography. In one scene Oliver Reed portrays Jesus as he’s taken down from the cross only to be ravished by a lusty Vanessa Redgrave – this two years before The Exorcist and 16 years before The Last Temptation of Christ provoked outrage for mixing sexuality with the sacred. (Warner Bros)

  • In the Realm of the Senses (1975)

    The Japanese film from master provocateur Nagisa Oshima paved the way for Lars von Trier’s Antichrist in its depiction of sexual violence. It shows the evolution of a torrid affair, through unsimulated sex, between a damaged man and woman in 1930s Japan, whose sexual lives build toward greater and greater extremes including erotic asphyxiation. Like the notorious real-life incident from 1930s Japan on which it’s based, the movie’s final love scene culminates in castration and murder. (Surrogate)

  • Blue Velvet (1986)

    David Lynch’s film is full of disturbing moments – including an agonising sequence in which Dennis Hopper’s nitrous-oxide huffing maniac rapes Isabella Rossellini. But its ‘love scene”’ in which Rossellini demands the film’s hero Kyle MacLachlan beat her, is nearly as disquieting. Few films before Blue Velvet had examined the power dynamics of sexuality to such visceral effect, and a number of film critics, including Roger Ebert, couldn’t accept that. Ebert famously wrote, "[Rossellini is] degraded, slapped around, humiliated and undressed in front of the camera. And when you ask an actress to endure those experiences, you should keep your side of the bargain by putting her in an important film." (DEG)

  • Howard the Duck (1986)

    Marvel Comics’ irreverent fowl got the big screen treatment in a film produced by George Lucas, but this was not exactly child-friendly entertainment in the manner of Star Wars. It flirted with unsettling ideas about inter-species romance, or outright bestiality – something rarely ever depicted on film. Howard is shown to be quite a libidinous duck who reads a magazine called Playduck and attempts and nearly succeeds in seducing human Lea Thompson. In one almost-steamy scene he gets her into bed and, after she says “I can’t find the right man,” utters the immortal line “Maybe it’s not a man you should be looking for”. Though they are affectionate with each other, thankfully no actual feathers fly. (Universal Pictures)

  • Kids (1995)

    Director Larry Clark and screenwriter Harmony Korine wanted to make a film that showed teenage promiscuity in American urban life. The result was unflinchingly raw – and extremely controversial as it featured actual teenage actors playing teenage roles, while the tradition has often been for older actors to play such parts. The opening moments alone comprise an extended love scene between a 17-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl. Clark said that he hoped to make a movie that would be the cinematic equivalent of The Great American Novel. The Washington Post, however, called it “virtually child pornography”. (Miramax International)

  • The Brown Bunny (2004)

    Vincent Gallo’s reverie on grief, about a man examining the various stages of a relationship that’s caused him regret, may be the ultimate cinematic lightning rod. It not only drew boos at Cannes, Roger Ebert declared it to be the worst film in the history of the festival. One scene in particular left the audience stunned: an extended sequence in which Chloe Sevigny performs oral sex on Gallo. One can argue that it reveals the codependent nature of their relationship and is essential to the story – but the close-up framing and extended duration of the scene made some think that art had become pornography. (Wellspring Media)

  • Team America: World Police (2004)

    South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone created a blistering satire of US foreign policy – along with Hollywood celebrity culture and filmmaking clichés – in Team America: World Police, staged entirely with marionettes. One moment particularly stood out and caused the film nearly to be slapped with an ‘adults only’ rating in the US: a love scene between two of the puppets. Using the aesthetic of a children’s film in an aggressively sexual way drew controversy, though the directors defended it by saying that simulating a hook-up between the puppets reflects the joking way kids actually play with their toys. Particularly acrobatic, the scene’s duration was one and a half minutes at first but Parker and Stone had to cut it down to 50 seconds until the US ratings board would give it a less restrictive classification. (Paramount Pictures)