What was once X-certificate in film is fast becoming run of the mill. Stephen McGinty considers how it has come to pass that so much has been laid so bare in the service of so many
WARNING: This column may contain contorted allusions to the act of sexual intercourse that some readers may find offensive on grounds of taste and/or literary style. Those of a nervous disposition, who are blessed with a prudish nature or who do not wish to discuss the gymnastics of the bedroom over breakfast may wish to turn the page now. This column has been certificated “18” by the British Board of Film Classification and, if it had been turned into a successful documentary and broadcast by Channel 4 in the early Eighties would no doubt be accompanied throughout with a red triangle, that moral beacon that attracted a new generation of teenage boys to French cinema in the hope of witnessing a young lady misplace her clothes. You have been warned.
Remember Cinema Paradiso, the Italian film about a boy who befriends the projectionist at his local cinema in a small Sicilian town? The film was set in the early 1950s when the priest would arrive to censor each new film prior to its public debut, every time the cleric saw a passionate kiss he would ring his handbell so as to prompt the projectionist to snip out the offending scenes. When the films were finally shown to the townsfolk there would be outraged cries of frustration as the films skipped over every kiss or embrace. The final scene of Cinema Paradiso, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, sees the boy now having grown up to become a successful director who has been bequeathed a roll of film following the projectionist’s death. He sits in the dark of his private screening room and his face conveys a mixture of delight and wonder, sadness and grief as every censored kiss, every warm embrace or shy move towards the bedroom door rolls through the gate of the projector and onto the screen. The scene is a love letter to desire, romance and the magic of the cinema.
Yet I wonder how Cinema Paradiso would work if updated and set in the near future? Instead of an interfering priest with a handbell, the snips would be made by the official censor, with some wielding the digital scissors with more enthusiasm than others, but if they were to watch Romance, The Brown Bunny, Irreversible, Baise-Moi, The Idiots, 9 Songs and Intimacy to name but a few, our new director would eventually be sitting down in his darkened screening room to view an eye-watering compilation of intimate acts that would not only scare the horses but leave their manes white with fright. Where in the 1950s it could be shocking to some if a couple kissed for too long or if an unmarried woman sat fully dressed on a bed in the company of a fully dressed man who was standing at the time and even wearing a hat, today the boundaries of cinema are being pushed by actors and actresses having actual penetrative sex.
Next week the new film by the Danish director Lars Von Trier is released in Scotland. Nymphomaniac Volumes I & II is a four-hour film, released in two parts, that tells the story of Joe, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who is found beaten up in an alley by Stellan Skarsgård to whom she then relates her tale of unquenchable desire. In one curious scene Joe’s character, as a schoolgirl displays the various amatory uses to which classroom appliances may be used before standing fully clothed in front of a map of Scotland where she points out “Glasgow” and “Aberdeen”. (I don’t honestly know why, but this is, as we are frequently told, Scotland’s big year and perhaps Mr Von Trier felt it necessary for us to receive a curious directorial nod.)
What makes Nymphomaniac unique, as far as I can tell, in cinematic history is the director’s decision to digitally unite the faces and bodies of mainstream actors with the, shall we say, “parts of shame”of professional porn stars so that the sex scenes are fully rounded. While it certainly makes for an inventive use of CGI to match up these bits and bobs the question is to what effect? It can be argued that there is an honesty, a lack of artifice, in such scenes that is missing in the traditional choreographed Hollywood fumble. This is certainly the claim of those who admired Blue is the Warmest Colour which won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. The French film was a four-year love story between a teenage girl and an older female artist. The sex scenes between the couple were extremely graphic and prolonged but, according to many critics, were integral to the film’s emotional success, a note on which Steven Spielberg agreed, for as president of the jury at Cannes he insisted that the top prize went to not only the director, as was customary, but both actresses.
Some directors have long wished to feature genuine sex in a movie. Brian de Palma had just such a plan for Body Double, his Eighties thriller before realising that, at the time, it was impossible to secure funding, as well as a mainstream release. Such was the secrecy surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut that rumours began to circulate that audiences would actually get to see the marital deed being done by Tom Cruise and his then wife, Nicole Kidman. Instead Kubrick created a masterpiece that warned of the dangers of transgressive desire and the importance of fidelity.
Yet the world has changed. Mainstream society is saturated with sexual imagery with which we are all increasingly comfortable. The advent of HBO has led to a huge increase in nudity in dramas such as True Blood and, most enthusiastically, Game of Thrones, whose producers coined the term “sexposition” to describe the fantasy drama’s use of sex scenes to convey plot heavy dialogue. Young actresses are under increasing pressure to strip at the whim of the producer and director if they wish to secure a role. There has, however, been a curious twist in that while television drama has become more sexually adventurous, Hollywood movies have become more chaste and it has been convincingly argued that Basic Instinct would not be made today.
My feelings about actual sex scenes in movies is not that they should be censored – adults should be able to watch what they choose within the law – but that it is unfair on the actors and, in particular, the actresses. The history of cinema is littered with actresses used by directors for certain scenes and while the male directors go on with their careers they have been left branded. Maria Schneider certainly felt this way after starring in the infamous “butter scene” with Marlon Brando in Last Tango In Paris.
As she explained: “I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can’t force someone to do something that isn’t in the script, but at the time, I didn’t know that. Marlon said to me: ‘Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie’, but during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated and to be honest I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.”
When she died three years ago Bernardo Bertolucci said: “Maria accused me of having robbed her of her youth and only today am I wondering whether there wasn’t some truth to that.”
The two French actresses in Blue Is The Warmest Colour have also said they would never work with the director again and regret the scenes. While a director can argue it is a simple human act, if an actor is prepared to jump out of a plane, or run along the top of a train, then what’s so difficult about making love on camera? He, and it is largely a he, is being disingenuous. Humans have complicated relationship with sex which remains the most intimate and private of acts. As Joe explains in Nymphomaniac, “sexuality is the strongest force in human beings”. Actors and actresses should always be entitled to claim: “It was only acting.” Everyone needs a figleaf.