July 10, 2021
Insisting that audiences are tired of candy-coated coy, a new breed of filmmakers is serving up remarkably graphic films in which nudity, nymphomania, oral sex and even penetration are elbowing their way into the spotlight, writes GAYLE MacDONALD
Raw. Voyeuristic. Sexy. Smutty. Pornographic.
All of the above are adjectives that could describe a new film, Lie With Me, currently being shot in midtown Toronto in -- of all places -- a former private Catholic girls' school.
To be released in 2005, the $2-million film has tongues in town wagging because of its explicit sex. It's a closed set, so no one knows for sure how far the film's main stars -- Eric Balfour (The O.C. and Six Feet Under) and Vancouver's Lauren Lee Smith (The L Word) -- have actually gone. But sources say everything's apparently there -- full nudity, (simulated) penetration, (non-simulated) cunnilingus. There's little left to a fertile imagination.
The controversy and speculation pleases director Clement Virgo and his backers, Toronto-based distributor ThinkFilm, who say they're on a mission to shake North American moviegoers out of their puritanical boots. The press release promises the film will "explore human sexuality with a bravery and honesty not seen since [Bernardo] Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris." It goes on to promise the most "erotic and intimate film about sex ever made in North America."
High stakes and high expectations. But the filmmakers, who describe the film as essentially a love story between a young, defiant nymphomaniac (Smith) and an upstanding guy (Balfour), are rolling the dice because, they say, they fervently believe audiences are starved for big-screen sex. Real sex. Not the plastic candy that Hollywood serves up, but the sweaty, you-can-almost-smell-it kind that will leave you mulling, after the credits roll, "So did they actually do it?'
Virgo says his project is part of a sexually candid cinematic trend that is sweeping the globe, particularly Europe and Japan. He points to a string of recently released, sexually explicit films, such as Michael Winterbottom's rock-heavy Nine Songs, David Mackenzie's Young Adam and Bertolucci's The Dreamers, to name a few. All offer proof, he suggests, that sex is making a major comeback -- and a remarkably graphic one.
In the Scottish drama Young Adam, Ewan McGregor lathers custard and ketchup on his partner (Tilda Swinton) in a condiment-heavy scene that harkens back to the days when Marlon Brando reached for the butter in Last Tango. Winterbottom's Nine Songs has caused a huge furor in Britain because it insists on showing full penetration, fellatio, ejaculation and cunnilingus being enjoyed by stars Kieran O'Brien and Margot Stilley.
Bertolucci's The Dreamers got smacked with an NC-17 rating for its ménage à trois in a coming-of-age story set in Paris. And, although few have yet seen it, maverick filmmaker Catherine Breillat's Anatomie de l'enfer (Anatomy of Hell) reportedly has left some film-festival programmers feeling squeamish about a certain scene that involves -- how to put it delicately -- that time of the month.
The sensationalism of their subject matter aside, such movies, pundits say, are important because they blur the line between commercially distributed art films and hard-core porn, propelling cineastes everywhere to ponder another fine line: the one between erotica and pornography. And they have many questioning whether audiences are really craving more sex in their films.
Virgo, for one, answers with an emphatic yes. There is a constituency of filmgoers, he argues, who crave to be talked up to, who want grownup themes on the screen. "There is a return to this notion of pushing extremes, pushing the boundaries," he says, "and finding a common ground between dirty movies and high culture."
People working on Lie With Me, based on Tamara Faith Berger's porn-lit novel of the same name, have seen some early rushes, and say the sexual trysts are very realistic. "If they're acting, they're damn good actors," is how one woman put it. "It sure as hell looked real to me. It's cinéma vérité at a whole new level."
Virgo, who co-wrote the screenplay with Berger (who is also his partner), says there has been a slew of films like Lie With Me out of Mexico, France, Spain, Britain and Asia, but embarrassingly few -- if any -- out of North America. "I read Tamara's book and was struck by the thought that sexuality is part of the culture, but no one here is making films about it. We make songs about it. We see sex in movies out of Hollywood, but it's typically in a coy way," he says, pointing as an example to Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.
"Sex, Hollywood-style, is played for laughs or jokes," is how Lie With Me producer Damon D'Oliveira puts it. "We're making the anti-American Pie." In the 1970s, filmmakers around the globe (including the United States) loosened their collective britches and made mind-broadening films. Among the most notable were Last Tango, Japanese director Nagisa Oshima's In The Realm of the Senses, Ken Russell's The Devils and Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, the 1973 mystery best known for a sex scene with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie that sparked a penetrating debate over whether the couple actually had sex.
All of those films sent censors' heads spinning. But then such factors as the rise of neoconservatism in the United States, the appearance of AIDS, and Hollywood's preoccupation with packaging blockbusters aimed at the youth market essentially snuffed out most explicit sex in films, at least in North America.
Then, in the late 1990s, Europeans -- who have always had a more open-minded and uninhibited appreciation for sex -- began to shake things up. In 1998, Danish director Lars von Trier released The Idiots, which includes a scene of an orgy, and has been cited for including the first graphic penetration image in a mainstream film. The following year, one of the first erect penises appeared in Breillat's Romance.
Then along came Patrice Chéreau's Intimacy (2001), the first art-house feature in which relatively well-known actors -- Kerry Fox and Mark Rylance -- engage in oral sex. There are many more. Breillat's Fat Girl, Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien (And Your Mama Too), Julio Medem's Sex and Lucia, Leos Carax's Pola X, Gaspar Noé's I Stand Alone and Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher (which delves into sadomasochism).
The truly shocking thing about many of these films is that faces have wrinkles, and bodies have pot bellies. Breasts and bottoms sag. They are natural snapshots of real people in love or lust. Some of the actors, remarkably, aren't even all that attractive.
The aim of these avant-garde filmmakers, insists Noah Cowan, the Toronto International Film Festival's new co-director, is to use sex not simply to titillate but as a means to connect with other themes. He points to the French thriller Baise-Moi (translated, it means Kiss Me, although the film was also distributed as Rape Me), which used grisly violence and graphic sex to explore the gangster genre. And Cowan believes Winterbottom's Nine Songs is intrinsically about the musical experience. (He'd have a hard time selling that theory to the British tabloids, which called Nine Songs, which premiered at Cannes this past spring, "the rudest film ever to hit our cinemas.")
That kind of reaction makes Cowan chuckle. Filmmakers like Winterbottom, he suggests, "believe that a frank discussion of sexuality is a key to a healthy brain life."
That said, Cowan adds that he has yet to see a truly mainstream film tackle sex in an aggressive, ballsy way -- at least in recent years. "Americans are still figuring out their positions on sex and sexuality in their art forms, in their novels, films and television," he says.
Cable TV, however, is clearly an exception. Turn on The Movie Network, Bravo! or Showcase any time after 11 p.m., and you're bound to see some sweaty coupling. Samantha has swung from a trapeze, barely dressed, on HBO's recently wrapped Sex and the City. The gang at Queer as Folk (shot in Toronto for Canada's Showcase channel, and for Showtime in the United States) regularly gets good and raunchy. There's also the Playboy TV channel and Naked News TV (both gay and straight versions). The reality show Can You Be a Porn Star? debuted on pay-per-view earlier this year.
Film historian David Thomson says many good directors prefer working on cable TV because they don't have the same pressures to make commercially acceptable, rubber-stamped, prepackaged films. "Cable channels like HBO and Showtime are narrowcast for a specific audience," says Thomson, "and these directors have more freedom."
The San Francisco-based historian, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, yearns for the movie-making days before Eros died -- a time, he says, when American filmmakers explored the topic of sex with the same heady enthusiasm they now reserve for violence. Three decades ago, he notes, American directors were exploring sex in a refreshingly candid way, making the X-rated Midnight Cowboy, Straw Dogs, The Devils and Pink Flamingos.
In the eighties, America turned more conservative and began buttoning down. To Thomson, it's a travesty. "I'm not saying every movie has to be about sex," he says. "But I think it has to be a very important part of it. There should be an emphasis on sexual experience, the guilt-free, pleasurable side of it. It's very important to stress 'guilt-free,' because America is a guilt-ridden culture. It doesn't do guilt-free sex as well as it does guilty sex."
On the set of Lie With Me, Balfour is in his trailer, all muscles and tanned skin. There's a Lucifer-like, bad-boy quality to this actor who once played Satan in a car commercial. But his personality is genial and easygoing. He took this role, he says, because he wanted to do a "serious" film with something worthwhile to say. The nudity, he adds, doesn't faze him -- but the intimacy does.
"The honest answer is that sometimes it's scary. Not the physicality of it . . . but emotionally we had to make love to each other in those scenes. And that's not easy, it's very sensitive, and definitely the most difficult part for us. Porn is two-dimensional. This is so much more.
"This is not a tutorial on how to insert your penis in a woman's vagina. It's not about how to give a blow job. But, yes, this movie is very candid about the human body."