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17 Unflinching Foreign Films About Incest

17 Unflinching Foreign Films About Incest

Incest is a controversial subject, but art doesn’t exist to cater to our sense of decency or wholesomeness. Incest, being great taboo, has been taken on by many directors and writers, in order to shock audiences and ask serious questions about the nature of familial and sexual relationships. Depictions of incest in movies run a wide gamut, but always ask audiences to consider uncomfortable truths.

SPOILERS from this point on.

There are dozens upon dozens of films with incest plots, from Hollywood classics like Chinatown to indie hits like The Ballad of Jack and Rose. Yet no one does incest like the provocateurs of world cinema, and in particular, the Europeans. Foreign movies about incest handle the subject in myriad ways, from harrowing depictions of sexual abuse within families and the denial that follows to oddly touching portrayals. Watching films like Oldboy and Murmur of the Heart, we question whether incest is okay, or at the very least understandable and forgivable contingent upon circumstance.

That said, some incest films have been referred to as “the most f*cked up films” ever, some nothing more than a litany of increasingly absurd of offensive scenes. In other instances, real life relatives have played sexually inappropriate characters on film. Check out the best foreign films about incest below. You probably don’t want to watch them with your parents in the room. Unless… maybe you do?


Photo:  Dogtooth/Kino International

It’s probably kind of hard not to develop an incestuous relationship with your siblings when they’re the only people you see. In Greek provocateur Yargos Lanthimos’s bizarre Dogtooth (2010), a mother and father keep their three children completely isolated from the outside world. They are petrified of cats, which their father tells them are the most dangerous creatures in the world and that the felines eat humans.

The father is the only one who leaves the house, and he eventually brings a female employee of his home to have relations with his son. After the woman introduces the children to Hollywood movies, the father finds it unacceptable and banishes her. Subsequently, the siblings start having relations with one another.

Charlotte for Ever
Photo:  Charlotte for Ever/LCJ Editions

Serge Gainsbourg’s Charlotte for Ever (1986) is intimate. Serge actually stars in the movie with his daughter, Charlotte. There are lots of moments of Serge lurking behind her, whispering tenderly in her ear, wrapping his arms around her, etc. Although there are no intrafamilial relations on-screen, it’s certainly implied.

When the film came out, French audiences rejected it. They also called into question how autobiographical the film was, as many believed Charlotte and Serge had a sexual relationship in real life. Always provocateurs, the father-daughter duo released a song called “Lemon Incest the same year the movie came out. Some find it’s hardly a coincidence Serge used his daughter’s name in the film’s title.

Photo:  Moebius/RAM Releasing

It’s with good reason The Daily Beast called Kim Ki-Duk’s Moebius (2013) “The Most F*cked Up Movie of the Year.” It will leave you squirming in your seat. The director had to cut 80 or so seconds from the film for it to be released properly in South Korea.

In the movie, a father (JaeHyeon Jo) cheats on his wife (Eun-woo Lee) with a mistress (also Eun-woo). Catching him in the act, the wife tries to castrate the husband in his sleep. He stops her in the act, so she goes to her teenage son’s room and castrates him instead, then eats his member. The mother leaves and the father castrates himself to stand in solidarity with his son (Young Ju Seo). He then searches the web for how a man might experience sexual release without a phallus and discovers self-harm, which he teaches to his son.

You don’t have to worry about subtitles for this South Korean film because there’s no dialogue. There are plenty of screams, moans, and grunts, though. The silence in the film exacerbates the level of discomfort viewers feel.

Photo:  Festen/Focus Features

Thomas Vinterberg said Festen (1998) was “the most enjoyable project I’ve ever been involved in, even though I penetrated a layer of evil and abomination I’d never been to before.” After viewing the film, you may be left with a similar experience. While the film’s journey is entertaining and subtly comical, the underlying story is tragic and exposes horrifying family secrets.

In the Danish film, siblings Christian, Michael, and Helene come together at their family’s rural hotel for their father’s 60th birthday. The family is in disarray upon arrival, due to the recent self-inflicted loss of the eldest sister, who was Christian’s twin. At dinner, Christian announces that his father harmed him and his twin sexually, which is why she ended her life.

Psychologist Richard Gartner praised the film for accurately portraying the effects of such harm within a family:

The father denies the incest through most of the movie, and this denial is conveyed and reinforced in the reactions of those who hear the accusations. The partygoers are momentarily shocked by each disclosure, but then continue to celebrate the birthday in a nearly surrealistic manner that serves as a dramatic enactment of the chronic denial often seen in incestuous families.

Festen was the first film in the Dogme 95 movement, pioneered by Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier.

The Dreamers
Photo: The Dreamers/20th Century Fox

Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2004 film The Dreamers is twincest ménage à trois at its steamiest. Who wouldn’t want to see the young, naked, beautiful bodies of Eva Green, Michael Pitt, and Louis Garrel wrapped together in wild abandon?

It’s 1968, and American Matthew (Pitt) travels to Paris to protest the ousting of Henri Langlois from the Cinémathèque Française. While there, he makes friends with eccentric and sexually liberated twins Théo (Garrel) and Isabelle (Green), moving in with them while their parents are away. Like Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), most of the film takes place in the apartment, where the three engage in relations and philosophizing.

While there is no direct, on-screen intercourse between Théo and Isabelle, Théo enacts self-service to a picture of Marlene Dietrich in front of his sister. There’s also a scene in which Théo watches his sister undress Matthew, then cooks himself food while they have intercourse on the floor nearby. As it turns out, Isabelle was a virgin, and after she and Matthew finish, Théo checks her vagina to see whether she bled. She did, and he gets the blood on his hands.

The Dreamers is filled with so many depictions of intimate relations that Green told The Guardian her parents feared for her career, thinking she would end up like Maria Schneider, who claimed Last Tango ruined her professionally. As anyone who’s seen Casino RoyaleMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, or Penny Dreadful can attest, her career was far from destroyed by The Dreamers.

Murmur of the Heart
Photo: Murmur of the Heart/Criterion Collection

It’s difficult to describe an incestuous relationship between mother and son as sweet, but Louis Malle’s 1971 Le Souffle au Coeur, or Murmur of the Heart, is surprisingly tender. Laurent Chevalier (Benoît Ferreux), a sensitive and intelligent 15-year-old boy, is at the top of his class. His mother, Clara, is a free-spirited, gorgeous Italian (Lea Massari), and his much older father, despite being a gynecologist, has no idea how to relate to women and is extremely distant. After Laurent’s older brothers ruin his first sexual experience, he goes on a trip and catches scarlet fever, which gives him a heart murmur.

Clara takes care of Laurent as he recovers from his illness, and the two show a touching connection. She takes him on a trip to a sanitarium, where she meets with her lover. After a breakup, she looks for consolation in Laurent. A night of drinking leads to the two having intimate relations – but it somehow doesn’t seem so wrong.

Even Roger Ebert was perplexed at how this taboo moment seemed like a natural progression. He wrote:

Then Malle sets us for the final scenes so skillfully that the moment of incest, when it occurs, seems almost natural, more fond than carnal, and not terribly significant. How he achieves this effect is beyond me; he takes the most highly charged subject matter you can imagine, and mutes it into subtle affection.

Photo: Oldboy/Tartan Asian Extreme

Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) might have the greatest incest plot twist in film history. The foundation of the film is a revenge story. Dae-Su Oh (Min-sik Choi) is locked up for 15 years in a tiny room for no apparent reason, then inexplicably let out. He hunts down the man who took away his freedom and begins a relationship with Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), a female sushi chef.

The man who made Dae-Su a prisoner, Woo-jin Lee (Ji-tae Yu), is always one step ahead, having orchestrated his own revenge in planning the meeting of Dae-Su and Mi-do.

Pola X
Photo: Pola X/Fox Lorber

Leos Carax’s Pola X (2000) is loosely based on Herman Melville’s 1852 novel Pierre. The title of the film is an acronym for the French title of Melville’s book, Pierre, ou les Ambiguities, and the Roman numeral X indicates the movie was shot using the 10th draft of the screenplay.

In the film, Guillaume Depardieu plays Pierre, a mama’s boy aristocrat who falls in love and begins a romantic relationship with his half-sister, Isabelle (Yekaterina Golubeva). The film explores multiple intrafamilial relationships. Pierre is too close with his mother, Marie (an excellent Catherine Deneuve). He has no problem hanging out with his her while she bathes, for instance. He’s also engaged to his cousin Lucie (Delphine Chuilot). When Pierre stumbles upon the wild Isabelle strolling through the woods, he gives up his wealth to live in poverty with her.  If nothing else, audiences get to witness unsimulated intimacy between the actors.


Photo: Womb/Olive Films

If you want warped sci-fi involving clones with a serious Oedipal complex, look no further than Benedek Flieguaf’s 2010 film Womb. The movie has elements of Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2010) and the cautionary tale of Spielberg’s 2001 A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.

Rebecca (Eva Green) decides to bring her deceased lover Tommy (Matt Smith) back to life by carrying his clone in her womb. She raises him as a son and loves him as such, but as he enters adulthood and becomes identical to the soul mate she lost, her attraction for him is reestablished.

The film’s lack of authenticity and inconsistencies are criticized as its downfall. As Tommy grows older, Rebecca doesn’t age a day. How Rebecca was able to afford her procedure is called into question, along with her intentions. But at the end of the day, the film represents a futuristic potential reality never before addressed by cinema.

I Stand Alone
Photo: I stand Alone/Strand Releasing

Gaspar Noe’s I Stand Alone (1998) is difficult to watch, but what else could you expect from the director of Irreversible (2002)? The close-ups on extreme violence, the piercing sound effects, and the manic meltdown of a horse butcher bent on destruction might make audiences want to cry and throw up at the same time.

The butcher (Philippe Nahon) goes on a nihilistic bender, cumulating in him intimately touching his highly disturbed daughter. At the beginning of Irreversible, the butcher makes a cameo while talking to an equally repulsive friend about the pleasures of engaging in relations with his own child.

Photo: Beau-Père/Parafrance Films

You may not want to watch Bertran Blier’s Beau-Père (1981) with a stepparent in the room. The film mirrors Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) in many aspects. Like Lolita, the incestuous relationship is by way of marriage, not by blood. After the passing of her mother, 14-year-old Marion (Ariel Besse) decides to continue living with her stepfather, Remi (Patrick Dewaere), instead of moving in with her alcoholic father.

A sexual relationship develops between the two. Something that might make you feel uncomfortable about this movie: Besse, only 15 when the film was made, appears naked. Her parents allowed it, believing she was in good hands. However, they weren’t happy with the poster for the film, which featured Besse bare-breasted and sitting on Dewaere’s lap. They sued the producers and distributors, but the judge ruled against the parents, claiming the film was more exploitative than the posters.

The War Zone
Photo: The War Zone/New Yorker Video

The War Zone (1999) is actor Tim Roth’s directorial debut. Alexander Stuart wrote the script based on his 1989 novel of the same name. It’s a challenging film about a family in denial. A son, Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), discovers his dad (Ray Winstone) has been having forced relations his older sister, Jessie (Lara Belmont).

After the mother (Tilda Swinton) takes her newborn baby to the hospital because she was bleeding, Tom discovers the father has also been harming the infant and decides to expose his atrocities to the rest of the family. In the end, he commits patricide to purge the family of the monster who’s preying on them.

Ebert said of the film: “The movie is not about incest as an issue, but about incest as a blow to the heart and the soul – a real event, here, now, in a family that seems close and happy. Not a topic on a talk show.”

More The War Zone

Ma Mère
Photo: Ma Mère/TLA Releasing

Louis Garrel makes two appearances on this list, one for Ma Mère, a French-Spanish-Austrian-Portuguese film directed by Christophe Honoré. Garrel plays Pierre, a moody 17-year-old who has a seriously twisted relationship with his mother Hélène (the great Isabelle Huppert). In this tale of an Oedipus complex to the nth degree, recently widowed Hélène takes her naïve son on a hedonistic escapade while on vacation in the Spanish Canary Islands.

Ma Mère has been critiqued as comically over-the-top, with each minute seemingly an attempt to outdo the last in its level of lewdness, making a farce of transgressive art. The culmination of the film is the peak of Hélène and Pierre’s incestuous relationship, which left audience members perplexed and disturbed. The film was actually released in time for Mother’s Day.

The Cement Garden
Photo: The Cement Garden/New Yorker Video

In Andrew Birkin’s The Cement Garden (1993), brother and sister take on the role of mother and father for their younger siblings after both parents pass. Through the course of their adult roles, the siblings have intimate relations. The film is based on the 1978 novel by Ian McEwan.

The look and feel of the movie is bleak. It’s set in a cold hovel, and everything, including the characters, looks dirty. Andrew Robertson plays Jack, an unhygienic 15-year-old with serious angst. Charlotte Gainsbourg plays his 17-year-old sister, Julie. They have two younger siblings, Tom and Sue. After their father passes, their mother gets ill. Jack and Julie promise mom not to tell anyone her illness is severe, because if word gets out, the kids would be forced into foster care. When she expires, Jack and Julie make a cement sarcophagus for her in the basement.

Julie holds the reigns in the incestuous relationship, once the sibling sexual exchange kicks off. Roger Ebert thought there’s more to The Cement Garden than taboo humping, though:

The movie is not really about sex or incest, I think, but about power – and particularly about the power that some adolescent girls learn to use to seek out the weaknesses of insecure teenage boys.

Close My Eyes
Photo: Close My Eyes/FilmFour International

Stephen Poliakoff’s Close My Eyes (1991) stars the late Alan Rickman, Clive Owen, and Saskia Reeves, and is about a long-standing affair a successful man, Richard (Owen), has with his ne’er-do-well sister, Natalie (Reeves). The couple continues the affair well into her marriage to a rich stockbroker Sinclair (Rickman).

The film traverses difficult topics like incest and the AIDS epidemic, though is presented beautifully through the cinematography of Witold Stok. The moments Owen and Reeves share are particularly steamy, even if they are brother and sister. They certainly give Cersei and Jaime Lannister a run for their money.

Beautiful Kate
Photo: Beautiful Kate/Entertainment One

Beautiful Kate (2009), an Australian film directed by Rachel Ward, explores how the isolation of country life could lead to intrafamilial relationships. The film is another case of twincest, in which Ned (Ben Mendelsohn) and fiancée Toni (Maeve Dermody) visit Ned’s dying father (Bryan Brown) in rural South Australia. While there, disturbing memories of Ned’s deceased twin sister Kate (Sophie Lowe) haunt him.

Eventually, Toni discovers Ned had had an incestuous relationship with Kate and leaves him. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Newton Thornburg.

Red Cockroaches
Photo: Red Cockroaches/Heretic Films

Cuban filmmaker Miguel Coyula’s Red Cockroaches (2003) is set in New York City in a dystopian future, in which an evil corporation runs the world and acid rain falls liberally from the sky. In this milieu, Adam Zarrasky (Adam Plotch) meets and falls for a beautiful woman on the train who turns out to be his sister.

The film has a gritty, surrealist feel. It was reportedly filmed on a measly budget of $2,000, shot on a Canon GL1 digital camera, and edited with basic Mac software. Red Cockroaches is Coyula’s first film.

3 replies on “17 Unflinching Foreign Films About Incest”

I haven’t seen any of these. I guess the government didn’t want bad ideas put into my head. My daughter thanks them.

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