Mavericks in their ability to arrest viewers with narratives that object cinema's cookie-cutter standards, here are 10 brazen auteurs every Highsnobiety reader should check out - if being shocked to the core is your thing, that is.
Cinema has a long history of courting controversy, notably dating back to 1915 where DW Griffith’s Ku Klux Klan-praising film The Birth of a Nation was one of the first to jolt more than just a few audience members with its overtly racist agenda. Whether enacted as a means to get noticed, express a political message or exert a freedom of self-indulgent creativity, many directors have built their respective careers by arousing controversy in their films.
The film industry is filled with limit-pushing visionaries, with storied directors such as Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, Bernardo Bertolucci and Oliver Stone being some of the most celebrated talents who have accumulated devoted cult fanbases all over the globe. But while this list could easily make your fingers numb from scrolling down, we've decided to reduce your chances of carpal tunnel syndrome by narrowing down our compilation to 10 of our favorite auteurs - some more obvious than others - who have and continue to provoke, shock, enrage and disgust with images that stir up your most primal senses.
Image from Love
Perhaps one of the more notable directors of the so-called “New French Extremism” movement, Gaspar Noé first shot to worldwide attention with his 2003 film Irréversible - a picture whose stagnant 10-minute long rape scene has since gone down as one of the most grueling endurance tests in cinema history. Born in Buenos Aires, Aregentina, the France-based director/screenwriter’s arresting portraits of human transgression make him a pioneer of a new style of filmmaking dubbed cinéma du corps ("cinema of the body"), which, according to film scholar Tim Palmer, employs “an attenuated use of narrative, assaulting and often illegible cinematography, confrontational subject material [and] a pervasive sense of social nihilism or despair.” With the release of his most recent project, the un-simulated 3D sexual melodrama Love, Noé has demonstrated that it’s his seamless merging of art and exploitation that garner him both accolade and disgust within the film community, proving time and again to test limits and alter modern perceptions of what is considered “artistic” filmmaking.
Image from Spring Breakers
Harmony Korine already earned his stripes as an enfant terrible at the tender age of 18, catching the eye of fellow film radical Larry Clark while skating in NYC’s Washington Square Park. Intrigued by the NYU dropout, Larry asked Korine to compose a script about his everyday life. Within three weeks, Korine whipped up a screenplay, titled Kids, that offered a 24-hour look into the sex and drug-filled lives of several Manhattan teens during the early ’90s. The film, aside from igniting Korine’s career, went on to become one of the decade’s biggest and most controversial cult films, earning it regard as both a sobering wake-up call to America and a pornographic work of teen exploitation.
After making his directorial debut with the trailer park midnight movie meets surreal avant-garde arthouse film Gummo (1997), Korine has watermarked his work with recurring motifs of absurdism, dark humor and surrealism which oftentimes unfold in situations where poverty, mental disorder and societal disfunction are prevalent, painting a portrait of what he calls the “American Landscape.” His complex and disturbing aesthetic has been subject to sharp criticism throughout his career, being tagged as everything from self-indulgent and narcissistic, to insensitive and exploitative. On looking for meaning in his films, Korine stresses that justifying the images he puts onscreen is futile, saying, “I think people will lose the film as soon as they start trying to figure out my logic or what I'm doing or while they're watching it start to dissect metaphors... I'm not really so interested in it working on a purely cerebral level. I'm much more concerned with it on an emotional level and that you leave feeling a certain way.”
Image from Kids
Social renegade photographer turned controversial filmmaker Larry Clark has a penchant in fetishizing on the morbidity of disenfranchised youth - a practice which has often called into question the artistic and social merit of his films. Since the release of his debut and highly controversial 1995 coming-of-age film Kids, critics have been keen on labeling Clark’s work as obscene, unethical and borderline child pornographic on account of their frequent and explicit depictions of teenagers abusing drugs and having underage sex. But perhaps what people find most troubling about Clark’s films is that they offer a glimpse into the deepest and darkest corners of teen angst, revealing the shocking activities engaged by depraved youngsters in realistically searing detail - a reality which, in most cases, many parents are oblivious to or choose to blatantly neglect (another recurring theme in Clark’s work.)
Image from The Human Centipede (First Sequence)
There’s probably a number of expectations that can be made before watching a film created by a director who’s been quoted saying, “I don't like happy endings in films, only at massage parlors.” Sure, happy endings may not be Dutch director Tom Six’s forte, but by the time you finish one of his films, you’ll be so repulsed that the sheer concept of a “happy ending” will be nearly impossible to digest. Though he had already established somewhat of a name for himself in his native Netherlands, Six is best known for his nauseating body horror franchise The Human Centipede, which first came into sequence in 2009. Though each film packs a different punch in its overall gross-out factor, shifting from outrageously camp to unbearably depraved, the obscene (medically inaccurate) nature of the films have consistently repelled critics and challenged ratings boards. To this day, the uncut version of the series’ second installment - The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) - is banned in the UK and completely forbidden from distribution (both cut and uncut versions) in New Zealand.
Image from Nymphomaniac
Tyrant, misogynist and egomaniac are but a mere fraction of the tags recurrently appointed to brazen Danish provocateur Lars von Trier. Since bursting onto the international film scene in the 1990s, the director has shocked, inspired and revolutionized the industry with his extreme narratives and progressive film techniques. A trailblazer of the back-to-basics experimental filmmaking movement Dogme 95, Trier’s use of sexually explicit imagery in his 1998 comedy-drama The Idiots sparked a wave of non-conformist film directors to incorporate unsimulated sex in their films. In addition, the director made history in 1998 when he began commissioning hardcore porno films through his company Zentropa, becoming the first mainstream film company to do so.
Von Trier’s audacious auteurship certainly isn’t achieved without a price. His ruthless directing methods have been known to put actors through the ringer, including Icelandic musician Björk, who, while filming Trier’s heartbreaking musical drama Dancer in the Dark (2000), was so traumatized by her experience with the director, she allegedly fled the set, ate her dress and swore to never act again. But despite the stabbing criticisms and door-slamming rejections - nodding to his famous 2011 exile from the Cannes Film Festival, who labeled him as a “Persona Non Grata” following some eyebrow-raising pro-Hitler comments - Lars von Trier has proven that he is nothing if not resilient, continuing to unleash his often misunderstood vision with stylistically perverse brio.
Image from Funny Games
Dubbed the “Minister of Fear” by the New York Times, Vienna’s Michael Haneke is perhaps one of the most sophisticated purveyors of shock cinema to date. Rather than serve a purpose to entertain, a Haneke film instead exists to confront its audience by shattering complacency in the most uncomfortable way possible, a notion the director himself can attest to. “I’ve been accused of ‘raping’ the audience in my films, and I admit to that freely — all movies assault the viewer in one way or another. What’s different about my films is this: I’m trying to rape the viewer into independence,” he once said.
His score-less films maintain an austere and bleak sterility that is oftentimes broken by some sort of brutal act of carnage, horrifying not necessarily because of its explicitness, but because of the reason behind why it was initially enacted. For Haneke, it’s isn’t enough for his viewers to simply witness human brutality onscreen, for the images must sting deep into the minds of his viewers and leave a soberingly vivid portrait - something Haneke achieves through minimal edits and an unforgivably lingering camera.
Image from Drive
Another provocative Danish export, Nicolas Winding Refyn fuses visceral genre film thrills with a seductively icy portrayal of human corruption. His hyper-stylized films seep with gore and brutality which are only made more sensational through his frequent employment of dazzling cinematography, haunting scores and spellbinding performances. Possessing a unique aesthetic that taps the stylish grit of cult euro arthouse films of the ’70s and ’80s, Refn often draws his leading characters as introverted individuals who commit savage acts, usually out of vengeance, while drifting through their respective environments - ranging from the dark corners of the modern penal system as shown in his fictitious prisoner biopic Bronson (2008), to the seedy urban underworlds of neo-noir films Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013).
Image from Audition
Japanese shock jock Takashi Miike got his big break into directing during the “V-Cinema” (direct to video) boom of the early ’90s, taking well advantage of the liberal censorship policies and creative freedom afforded by the medium. With a stockpile of films already under his belt in his native country, Miike’s international breakthrough arrived when his disturbing sado-romantic horror film Audition (1999) managed to accumulate a significant cult following in the West. Since then, Miike has garnered global notoriety for smearing his films with extreme depictions of violence and sexual perversions in an often over-the-top, cartoonish manner, often set within Japan’s criminal underworld.
His refusal to succumb to a crowd-pleasing narrative structure has him at the forefront of critical debate and fan loyalty. Miike’s films have also proven time and again to test the limits of film distributors, including his most controversial picture Ichi the Killer (2001) - a film that handed out vomit bags to its audience as a publicity gimmick - which went under countless re-edits and is currently banned from three countries (Norway, Malaysia and Germany.)
Image From Hostel
Eli Roth cemented his place as a controversial genre icon and a member of the “Splat Pack” - a collection of filmmakers known for their grisly and low-budget horror films - with his 2002 directorial debut Cabin Fever. The film is perhaps best known for an infamous scene in which a female character unknowingly shaves chunks of skin off her leg, having been ravaged by a flesh-eating virus. Though Roth has expressed dismay with the term, he is oft credited with pioneering the “torture porn” subgenre of horror with his 2005 film Hostel. The film subsequently spawned countless imitations, all characterized by gratuitous amounts of gore and sexual content. Roth’s most recent film The Green Inferno, an homage to the Italian cannibal films of the ’70s and ’80s, has already received vast criticism, and not just for its violent content – the film has been labeled as exploitative and said by some to be a reinforcement of colonialism.
Image from The Snowtown Murders
While Australian director Justin Kurzel's feature film career comprises only two films thus far, his output focuses on quality not quantity, as is evident in both of his Cannes Film Festival-screened movies, The Snowtown Murders and Macbeth. Both are steeped in violence and gore, however Kurzel is skilled in not exploiting this, rather using these elements to further the story and deliver gut-wrenching reactions from his audience. In response to Snowtown's infamous bathtub scene, Kurzel explained that he didn't want to lightly portray the horrors that took place in the Australian city, rather that what happened was brutal and sickening, and he wanted that to be expressed truthfully. Showing he can work well with both non-actors and Hollywood stars, it's no surprise the director has been entrusted with the task of bringing the much-loved video game Assassin's Creed to the big screen next year, and there's no doubt he's the right man for the job.
For more from our "Most Controversial" series, check out the following: