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Graphic Sex Scenes on Film Causing Little Fuss--for Now

CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Without much apparent fuss, one of the last great movie taboos is being tossed to the winds.

Recently, in film after film from France and Scandinavia, the boundaries between hard-core pornography and regular art-house movie fare have been all but erased.

In “Intimacy,” a new, unreleased-in-the-U.S. British film from French director Patrice Chereau, a taxi driver’s wife and a barman meet regularly for a Wednesday-afternoon rendezvous in the barman’s flat. Their object: passionate but seemingly impersonal sex.

In 1997’s “Life of Jesus” and 1999’s “L’Humanite,” from director Bruno Dumont, we see country couples copulating in apartments and open fields.

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In 1998’s “Romance,” from maverick filmmaker Catherine Breillat, we watch a woman’s deviant sexual odyssey though promiscuity into a world of sadomasochistic games.

In 1998’s “The Idiots,” from revolutionary Dogma 95 filmmaker Lars von Trier, the cast engages in an all-out orgy.

And in this year’s “Baise-Moi,” from Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi, two French female outlaws go on a sex-and-violence road spree that often suggests a hard-core “Thelma & Louise.”

These subjects aren’t necessarily new to the screen. “Intimacy’s” plot strongly echoes those torrid apartment rendezvous in “Last Tango in Paris,” a film whose fatal sexual liaisons and soul-baring dialogues between Paul (Marlon Brando) and Jeanne (Maria Schneider) shocked the moviegoing world in 1972 and ’73.

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But what’s different about these films--and others like Leos Carax’s “Pola X” (1998) and Gaspar Noe’s “I Stand Alone” (1998)--is their visual frankness. In “Last Tango,” Brando and Schneider just pretended to have sex. In “Intimacy,” Kerry Fox and Mark Rylance really make love on camera--for at least 35 explicit minutes.

Obviously, in the world of international film--where total sexual candor on-screen seemed to retrench during the AIDS era--things have been heating up again. The reasons? Perhaps it’s the success of Dogma 95, the low-budget, spartanly produced, sexually open Danish films produced by Von Trier’s cheerfully revolutionary filmmaking cadre. Or perhaps it’s the need to recapture markets lost to the American blockbusters.

So all these films keep crossing boundaries, showing penetration, oral sex or intense foreplay, despite the fact that clear intent is serious, not pornographic, and in some cases, not even particularly erotic. Many people who’ve seen “Intimacy"--including Chicago Film Festival director Michael Kutza, who tried, unsuccessfully, to get it for his October fest--agree that it’s no exploitation film. “‘Intimacy’ is very explicit, but it’s also very natural and unglamorous,” Kutza says. It’s a serious drama, with some serious sex.

Films Daring Without Being Outright Explicit

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A few non-explicit European films are more daring these days too--even when they don’t go all the way. At this year’s Cannes International Film Festival, grand prize-winner “The Piano Teacher” explored with fierce intensity--in scenes that made audiences squirm--the obsession of a music teacher (best actress Isabelle Huppert) for her top student (best actor Benoit Magimel). Claire Denis’ “Trouble Every Day” was about a couple (Vincent Gallo and Beatrice Dalle) afflicted with a virus that made them devour their lovers during sex. (To tell the truth, that one made me squirm.)

Yet what’s remarkable about all these movies, especially the sexually explicit ones, is how little fuss they’ve caused. Despite the full-frontal liaisons in “L’Humanite,” “Life of Jesus” and “Romance,” the movie world hasn’t reacted with outrage--or even much interest. May Rice and John Irwin may have raised more ire--and more calls for censorship--with their pioneering close-up smooching in the 1896 Edison film, “The Kiss,” than any of the explicit new films so far.

If you consider the seismic cultural shock waves set off in the ‘70s by “Last Tango” and the incendiary, genuinely hard-core “In the Realm of the Senses,” the reaction is astonishingly low-key, even among film critics and professionals. No doubt, though, this catalog of candor will eventually shock viewers already convinced that modern society and culture are way over the line--and who worry that American examples are sure to follow. In a way, they already have, in Wayne Wang’s “Last Tango"-ish “The Center of the World” (2001), which uses body doubles for the sex scenes, and in another 2001 Cannes film, Todd Solondz’s “Storytelling,” whose explicit scenes were self-censored before release with optically added red blocks. (For the American release of “The Idiots,” silly-looking floating black rectangles masked the orgy action.)

So why the lack of furor? According to Jeff Lipsky of Lot 47, which distributes some of the candid new films (including “Trouble Every Day”), the lack of an outcry is good. “How can we be so hypocritical as to complain about sexuality on-screen while we tolerate bloodshed and violence of every kind?” he asks. And, according to publicist Ziggy Kozlowski of L.A.'s Block-Korenbrot, who worked on “Pola X,” there is a simple reason for the lack of reaction. “It’s because most of these films really aren’t all that good--or, if they are good, aren’t that provocative to audiences,” Kozlowski says. “If the movies were as powerful as ‘Last Tango’ or had as big a star [as Brando], you’d hear more about them.”

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Where is the movie ratings board during all this? Actually, although you would think the new wave of explicit art-house films would have created a run on the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s NC-17 “adult” classification, almost all the new sexually explicit films are being released unrated. By the filmmakers’ or distributors’ choice, they’re bypassing the MPAA’s rating process. And although MPAA Chairman and Chief Executive Jack Valenti hasn’t commented on any of these movies, he has said that he would welcome a test of the NC-17 rating by a truly “excellent and artistic” adult film.

Since the well-deserved scrapping of the old Production Code in the ‘60s, we’ve seen many barriers fall, from the prostitute’s bare breasts of 1965’s “The Pawnbroker” to the full female nudity of 1966’s “Blowup,” to the ultra-bawdy high jinks of 1967’s “I Am Curious, Yellow” and 1972’s “Pink Flamingoes.”

The motives are often a mix of the mercenary and idealistic: Audiences continue to like to watch sex and filmmakers like to explore it on-screen. Fox and Rylance aren’t even the first “legitimate” actors to clearly go all the way in a serious above-ground art film; Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda, as a hot gangster and his geisha, Sada, beat them to it in Nagisa Oshima’s inflammatory and engrossing 1976 “In the Realm of the Senses"--which is a classic.

According to Kutza of the Chicago fest, it was the Dogma 95 films, in a way, that helped start this trend, because they were provocative and cheap to make and often focused on strong sexual situations. Those films were a direct reaction to huge, bloated Hollywood super-productions, with their glossier sex and phonier plots.

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Still, speaking as someone who has successively watched the breaking of one movie taboo after another, I think I know why there has been so little excitement about these new films. We’re too used to broken taboos. We’ve become unshockable, in a way.

These days, the controversies about movies tend to revolve instead, absurdly, around how much money they made and why, and less about their content or effect--unless they anger special-interest groups or break the laws of political correctness. The political line on these new movies isn’t always clear. They tend to be maverick leftist or even libertarian pictures about social outsiders--"Romance” and “Baise-Moi” are feminist--but they don’t really make the kind of clear, daring statements that films of the ‘70s did. They’re often preoccupied with sex-as-transgression rather than sex-as-liberation.

Although I’m all for candor and honesty, and all against censorship, I’m not an admirer of most of the new sexual wave, except for Dumont and Dogma movies.

Mixing Artistry, Graphic Scenes

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Artistic quality is a prime consideration here. Throughout the history of censorship controversies, it’s almost always the films (or books) that mix graphic scenes with artistic brilliance that create the real firestorms. As director Sydney Pollack told the Observer, “What’s interesting in a film is sexual expectation or sexual tension. If you actually show graphic sex, something is diminished, unless you’re a great artist.”

Pollack rightly suggests that it’s not so much the sex that moves audiences; it’s the emotions driving on the characters and the artistry. And these films haven’t yet moved us enough.

Sexually frank movie scenes can be both good or bad. They can be good because any kind of dramatic candor is welcome in movies--and because the best films are usually those (including “Tango” and “Senses”) that face life most honestly.

But they can be bad because when sex becomes too explicit, the artfulness--and even the passion and eroticism--often goes out of it. Of all the new films, only the half-blurred, shadowy scenes in “Pola X” struck me as sensually riveting. All the others are (deliberately) almost mundane in their staging and shooting: raw, bald, sometimes even consciously off-putting or scary.

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So how far can today’s movies go before the next pressure group explodes?

“It’s bound to happen,” Lipsky says. “But that doesn’t mean it should happen.”

What many people believe, though--and I do myself--is that when a real cinematic genius gets hold of the new freedom, there will be a memorable furor. That may be something to see.

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Michael Wilmington is the movie critic for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.


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