"Notes on a Scandal" (2006)


Richard Eyre's assured psychological thriller-drama gains much of its power by using a potentially catastrophic controversy to crush down on the soul of its protagonist. Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett go head-to-head as mentally warring British schoolteachers, the latter of which foolishly gets involved in a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old student. Dench's Barbara Covett discovers this shocking affair and holds it over Blanchett's head, slowly manipulating a life-shattering turn of events while suppressing her own desires to be with her beautiful co-worker. Equal parts dizzying and devastating, the controversial relationship at the center of the film is a catalyst with which Eyre explores his themes of dangerous guilt and obsession. -Zack Sharf

"A Teacher" (2013)

A Teacher
"A Teacher"

Infatuation bleeds into obsession in Hannah Fidell's "A Teacher," which chronicles the illicit sexual relationship between a high school teacher, Diana (Lindsay Burdge), and her student, Eric (Will Brittain). While the details of their relationship remain largely out of frame, atmospheric scenes of the couple together show an opportunistic Eric just having fun while Diana becomes increasingly unmoored. Fidell treats Diana with compassion, thus avoiding what could have been troublesome tropes. Rather than answer questions, Fidell renders the story ethically complex: Diana is no more a predator than a love-starved, lonely woman desperate to evade the doldrums of adulthood by indulging in the passions of adolescence. -Emily Buder

"Last Tango in Paris" (1972)


One of the most controversial films ever made, Bernardo Bertolucci's erotic drama focuses on the relationship between a middle-aged American (Marlon Brando) and his much younger paramour (Maria Schneider) and the elicit sexual bond they form in an apartment he has rented. The X-rated film includes a handful of graphic encounters too steamy to describe in detail (although by now you've probably heard rumors of the infamous butter scene), and it's really no wonder the movie became the subject of fierce censorship based on what was considered by authorities as obscene images that masked "self-serving pornography as art." However controversial the relationship may be to the outside world, Bertolucci is more concerned about its private existence and the truth and feelings that can't be avoided when two people spark a connection that runs deeper than can be defined. -ZS

"Her" (2013)


Sometimes it takes something nonhuman to reveal our humanity. In Spike Jonze's "Her," Samantha, a computer entity voiced by Scarlett Johansson, is more emotionally sophisticated than her lover, Theo (Joaquin Phoenix). Theo is forlorn, self-absorbed and isolated; Samantha is sociable, open-minded and understanding. And so the machine reinvigorates Theo, who is inspired to travel, adventure and love again. "I feel like I can be anything with you," Theo tells Samantha. But despite her convincingly anthropomorphic qualities, Samantha is just a disembodied voice. Is Theo's love for her selfish and convenient — she is eternally patient and giving, expecting little in return — or is it a noble transcendence of being? Does he love Samantha because she's not really there, as Theo's ex-wife suggests? In vivisecting the emotional relationship between a man and his computer, Jonze explores humanity's essential organs. (Of course, it's the absence of organs that make for one of the most controversial sex scenes ever recorded, in which Johansson puts Meg Ryan's Sally to shame.) -EB

"The Piano Teacher" (2001)


Elfriede Jelinek's 1983 novel of the same name gets an appropriately erotic and shocking cinematic adaption from Austrian award winner Michael Haneke. Isabelle Huppert gives one of her most fearless performances as Erika Kohut, a 40-year-old piano professor at a music conservatory in Vienna whose sexual repression manifests in erotic habits both mild (voyeurism) and extreme (sexual self-mutilation). When Erika meets Walter Klemmer (played with boyish seduction by Benoît Magimel), a charming 17-year-old student, a mutual obsession develops that eventually leads to her complete psychological unraveling. When a promising young musician catches Walter's eye, for instance, Erika retaliates by planting glass in her bag so that her hands will be cut and her career destroyed. Few controversial relationships are as emotionally lethal as this one. -ZS

"Natural Born Killers" (1994)


As played by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, Mickey and Mallory Wilson Knox are madly in love and utterly devoted to one another, so much so that there isn't anyone they wouldn't kill for. Oliver Stone's highly controversial black comedy has a twisted couple at its center that never fails to turn heads as they execute one violent attack after another, culminating in a bloody prison breakout that ranks high on the list of most violent screen set pieces. The film sparked "copycat" crimes when it was released in 1994 and certain viewers held the belief the film glorified the acts of its twisted couple, though the manic and vile lead performances suggest otherwise. In Harrelson and Lewis' hands, Mickey and Mallory are a notorious screen couple that speak volumes to the danger and pro-violent manipulation of American media. Few Stone pictures pack a social punch like this one, and it's all thanks to the controversy. -ZS

"Crash" (1996)


David Cronenberg's divisive "Crash" forms around a controversial conceit. In the film, producer James Ballard (James Spader) and Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) develop an intense sexual connection after colliding in a fatal car crash. What follows is an exceptionally graphic and psychological exploration of attraction and fetish. While certainly embracing hyperbolic extremes in its depiction of sex, "Crash" starts from a recognizable place: An open marriage in which the sex is hopelessly boring. As Ballard and Remington try to figure out what, exactly, has happened to them, the audience gets taken on their intriguing ride of sexual unification and discovery. Cronenberg has said in the past that the goal of the film was to figure out why he was making it in the first place. As a result, its provocative ideas and considerations can't help but be reckoned with by all who see it. -ZS

READ MORE: Springboard: 'Lamb' Filmmaker and Star Ross Partridge Understands Why His Film is So Controversial