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.
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.
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
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.)