The term film maudit – literally, “cursed film”– was coined for the legendary 1949 Festival du Film Maudit in Biarritz for which a jury lead by Jean Cocteau curated and celebrated a group of films criminally overlooked and neglected at the time – a lineup that included such now-canonical pictures as L’Atalante (1934), The Long Voyage Home (1940) and Les Dames du Bois de Bologne (1945). A polemical landmark in the history of postwar French film culture, Cocteau’s festival also designated as films maudit a number of deliberately shocking, outré and bold films, such as Fireworks (1947) and The Shanghai Gesture (1941).
Today film maudit is typically used to designate this latter category of edgy, troubling films and especially the mode of counter-cinema that flourished during the mid-1960s through the late 1970s. Inspired by the period’s intense socio-political turbulence and general loosening of censorship restrictions, a number of international auteurs took advantage of their newfound freedom to engage previously taboo subjects and push the loose genre of the “art film” to an adventuresome extreme. This series celebrates the golden age of the film maudit by gathering auteurist highpoints from the Sixties and Seventies whose shattering of political and sexual mores has not lost any of its power to surprise and even scandalize.
Special thanks: Howard Green, Disney.
Directed by Robert Aldrich.
With Beryl Reid, Susannah York, Coral Browne
US 1968, 35mm, color, 138 min.
Print from Disney
The Killing of Sister George was a dark, quasi-absurdist play about a beloved soap opera actress and her combative relations with two other women: her lover and a network executive. Robert Aldrich also produced his no-holds-barred screen adaptation, famously amplifying the lesbianism inherent in the original. The film’s semi-explicit sex scene and racy tone earned it one of the first “X” ratings in American cinema and the label of cult and/or camp classic. The Killing of Sister George also marks a high point for the Grand Guignol cinema that Aldrich had defined earlier in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) and a furthest expression of his continued fascination with cruelty, faded stardom and the spiked cocktail of impossible love.
Directed by Ralph Bakshi.
US 1972, 35mm, color, 78 min.
Print from the Harvard Film Archive Collection
Maverick cartoonist Ralph Bakshi (b. 1938) earned the first X-rating for an animated feature in his racy, overripe and beautifully drawn casting of R. Crumb’s eponymous feline as a sexually voracious Greenwich Village hippie devoted to drugs and freeform promiscuity. A cracked valentine to bohemian New York, Bakshi’s film was controversial not only for its explicit sexual content but also for its jaundiced view of the racial divide in the U.S. and the naiveté of the liberal establishment.
Directed by John Waters.
With Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce
US 1972, 35mm, color, 108 min.
Print from Warner Brothers
It is only to be expected that time would mellow John Waters, as his filmmaking has become more polished and the urge to shock is replaced by a celebration of naughtiness. It is bracing to look back at Waters’ early films, populated with friends from Baltimore’s early-1970s demimonde. Perhaps the most famous of these is Pink Flamingos, in which Divine works hard to maintain her title as “the filthiest person alive.” This campaign gives rise to episodes of incest, bestiality, murder and (most [in]famously) coprophilia. While the film is an all-out assault on good taste, what may be most shocking now is the rough look of the film as well as the cast’s anarchic physicality and apparent willingness to do anything.
Directed by Walerian Borowczyk.
With Sirpa Lane, Lisbeth Hummel, Elizabeth Kaza
France 1971, 35mm, color, 102 min. French with English subtitles
Print from Cult Epics
The Beast directly confronts beastiality as one of the strongest modern taboos and the inspiration for such diverse films as King Kong and Beauty and the Beast: bestiality. The Beast’s narrative leading up to the climactic encounter with the mythic beast of the title is a sort of comedy of manners about hypocrisy among the French middle classes and aristocracy in the 18th century. The film is cool, even restrained, in the manner of the contemporaneous late Buñuel. And as in Buñuel, the line between dream and reality becomes difficult to distinguish in the film’s most sexual sequences. Borowczyk began as an animator in his native Poland, but in France, he made a string of artily erotic feature films throughout the 1970s. The Beast was brought to the screen by legendary French producer Anatole Dauman, who went on to oversee a string of films maudits, from Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) to Robbe-Grillet’s La Belle Captive (1982).
Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini.
With Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto P. Quintavalle
Italy 1975, 35mm, color, 117 min. Italian with English subtitles
Print from MGM
In the early 1970s, Pier Paolo Pasolini released a series of films, including The Decameron (1971) and Arabian Nights (1974) meant to celebrate the body and sexuality. Their popularity encouraged a cycle of soft-porn imitations that disillusioned Pasolini so much that he publicly rejected his previous films and embarked on Salò as a corrective. Set in northern Italy during the last days of Mussolini’s reign, the film is an adaptation of Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. Pasolini uses the tale of amoral libertines who kidnap a group of young people as playthings and victims to launch a ruthless and wide-ranging attack on modernity as a whole, setting up equivalences between Sadean sexual license, Italian fascism and consumer capitalism. But the film’s political allegory tends to be overshadowed by its explicit and abundant nudity, wedded to images of sexual sadism and ultimately extreme violence, giving it the reputation of being one of the first “artsploitation” movies, a precursor to the likes of Funny Games (1997, 2007) and Irreversible (2002).
Directed by Jean Genet.
France 1950, 35mm, b/w, silent, 20 min.
Print from Cult Epics
The French literary enfant terrible Jean Genet was already a successful novelist when he made Un Chant d’amour, his only film. Its dreamlike narrative of a triangular relationship of love denied and lust suppressed among both jailers and convicts in a prison is notable for the mix of the tender and the brutal that characterizes so much of Genet’s writing. The sexual explicitness of Un Chant d’amour made it immediately subject to the harshest censorship. The film bears traces of the influence of Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet and Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks. Unsubstantiated rumors persist that Cocteau was heavily involved in the making of the film.
Directed by Koji Wakamatsu.
With Nobuko Yamabe, Hiroko Fujino, Tateo Zamabe
Japan 1965, 35mm, b/w, 80 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Print from Koji Wakamatsu
A rarely seen great early work by Koji Wakamatsu (b. 1928), master of the pinku eiga, or pink film – the edgy soft-pornography so popular in Japan during the Sixties and Seventies – Secrets Behind the Wall caused a scandal at the Berlin Film Festival for its eccentric yet frank exploration of sexual deviancy. Using a Tokyo apartment complex as a metaphor for a sexually repressed society, Wakamatsu peeks into the building’s dark inner chambers to discover multiple stories of neighbors acting out their darkest psycho-sexual fantasies. Secrets showcases the complex mise-en-scène and black and white widescreen cinematography favored by Wakamatsu, using interior architecture to create a series of nested framing devices. Shown here for the first time in the United States, Secrets Behind the Wall’s feverish and unbridled vision of human sexuality remains shocking and fascinating.
Directed by Fernando Arrabal.
With Anouk Ferjac, Nuria Espert, Mahdi Chaouch
Spain 1971, 35mm, color, 90 min. French with English subtitles
Print from Cult Epics
Novelist and playwright Francisco Arrabal was already considered one of the most controversial figures in Spanish literature when he boldly turned to cinema as an extension of his politically outspoken, profoundly disturbing and unremittingly dystopian vision of the modern world. In 1962 Arrabal founded the so-called “Panic Movement” with director Alejandro Jodorowsky and French animator Roland Topor (The Fantastic Planet), taking the god Pan as an inspiration to cultivate a “primitive” and blatantly non-conventional art practice that aimed especially to inject new life into what they perceived as a calcification and bourgeoisification of Surrealism, which Arrabal had known through his brief association with Andre Breton. Based on his novel of the same name, Viva la muerte is a searing cri de coeur against totalitarian patriarchy, set during Franco’s rise to power and using haunting, hallucinatory imagery to chronicle the sexual and political awakening of a troubled young boy.
Directed by Ken Russell.
With Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Reed, Dudley Sutton
UK 1971, 35mm, color, 109 min.
Print from the Harvard Film Archive Collection
Ken Russell has made a reputation for himself as a provocateur devoted to over-the-top spectacle. He has called The Devils his only political film; it has certainly been his most controversial. The film is adapted from Aldous Huxley’s novel based on the mass possession of a group of French nuns in the 1630s. The actual events appear here as the collision between religion-inspired sexual hysteria and an absolutist government. The controversy stemmed primarily, of course, from the mixture of religious and sexual imagery; even after being censored, the film was rated “X” upon its U.S. release. Recently, the censored material was rediscovered, but Warner Brothers has yet to sanction the making of a new print or the public exhibition of this footage.