World Cinema

16 Unflinching Foreign Films About Incest

Intrafamilial relations is a controversial subject, but art doesn't exist to cater to our sense of decency or wholesomeness. Incest, being a 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. These depictions in movies run a wide gamut, but they always ask audiences to consider uncomfortable truths. 

SPOILERS from this point on.  

There are dozens upon dozens of films with plots regarding intrafamilial relations, 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 handle the sensitive subject in myriad ways, from harrowing depictions of abuse within families and the denial that follows to oddly touching portrayals. Watching films like Oldboy and Murmur of the Heart, we question whether these prohibited relationships are 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 offensive scenes. In other instances, real-life relatives have played sexually inappropriate characters on film. Check out the best foreign films about this taboo below.

  • Dogtooth
    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. 

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  • 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. 

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  • Moebius
    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.

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  • Festen
    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.

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