Sunday, June 24, 2012

Severine Benzimra: French cinema and French sexual attitudes and culture

State of French Cinema: French cinema and French sexual attitudes and culture
by Severine Benzimra

French sexual attitudes and culture have wildly evolved within the last 20 years. A TV documentary which premiered on June 14th on M6, one of the free French channels, should help us grasp the breadth of the evolution.

Les Français, lamour et le sexe (French people, love and sex) is based on the latest statistics, interviews, and the analysis of sexologist Pascal de Sutter. The first episodes deal with the way French people make love: seduction, preliminaries, and positions; orgasm and fantasm. In the midst of the evening, more than 3 million people were watching - about 21% of the audience.

French cinema naturally mirrors these evolutions, sometimes in a confused way. Sexual repression provokes artistic provocation; cinema might seem less "advanced" (especially to people claiming for an equal treatment of teenagers and grown-ups, gays/lesbians and heterosexual people) in France than in the USA for this reason. Globalization can lead to self-reflection but also to some alienation. When watching US movies, French people often ignore that some scenes were censored in the USA or that a movie was X-rated. Some might consider a kind of race toward freedom is open.

Censorship officially disappeared in French cinema in 1974. It was the end of the Gaullist period and the first year of the presidency of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing; the government wasn't so liberal yet. At the end of 1975 a law was adopted concernng pornographic and extremely violent movies. Porno movies couldn't be shown in traditional movie theaters; they were reserved for specialized theaters. The next major move was made in 2000 with the restriction of some movies to those over 18 (after the Baise-moi affair). Before this, movies could be forbidden to viewers either under age 16 or 12.

French directors aren't interested in making familial movies, lets admit it. Movies for kids are mostly animated or made for TV. Beware if you want to take the pony-club class to see Dance with Him; they might leave laughing about the effects of some perfumes on a stallion or of a lady training with a mechanical horse, or the heated discussion of gluteal muscles. Some parents will consider these better topics than others, but there's no consensus. What Americans call family movies are called kid's movies or --exceptionally-- all-audience movies in France (for movies about nature especially, like Jacques Perrins' Peuple migrateur). In December 2009, the town of Libourne organized an election of the best family movie. Seven of the 16 selected films were foreign movies: Star Trek, Ice age 3, Slumdog millionnaire, Harry Potter and the half-blood prince, Up, the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and Gran Torino. The French movies selected were two movies on nature (Home, Loup), two movies inspired by mythical books (Le Petit Nicolas, Lucky-Lucke), some comedies (Neuilly ta mère, Rose et noir), the very funny French James Bond (OSS 117, Rio ne répond plus), a Jeunet movie (Micmacs à Tire-Larigot), and the very commercial Arthur et la vengeance de Malthazar (produced by Luc Besson).

The French approach to onscreen sex differs from the American approach mainly through its form rather than its content. American directors tend to make "pretty" scenes, while French people shoot them more naturally (less filters, music, cuts). An exception: love scenes in Claude Brisseaus movies, like between the actresses of Les anges exterminateurs.

Americans tend to shoot very handsome and young actors, which isn't the case in France. On the contrary, the representation of teenagers having sexual intercourse is considered more shocking. Ken Park was forbidden to the under-18, an exceptional measure: the sexual scenes were considered a bad encouragement for teenagers (risk of AIDS contamination, etc.) as for adults (pedophilia, etc.). Shouldn't sex be attractive? Oh, no but it must be personal. Sexual scenes aren't supposed to, on this side of the ocean, attract the audience. They represent a part of the life of the character that it is necessary to represent. They aren't meant to excite. Sexual excitation is linked to imagination to be provided by all-audience movies (meaning not the audience of pornographic/erotic movies) if it can be provided by a movie, an idea on which French people wildly discuss and disagree. Most French people would tell you that the image neutralizes the imagination in this field and suggest you to read, or ask someone to read you erotic littérature. It might seem that the subjectivity of beauty (its effect on libido) is much more emphasized in the USA. French actors and actresses don't wish to be called sex symbols. To be "attractive", "sexy", or "hot" is not a compliment in France - traduce it and it might well be received as an insult. Especially "hot." If you look hot because you want it, you are vulgar (and thus not so hot). If you're an actor/actress who looks hot without wanting it, you're a bad actor/actress. Cold can be hotter - see Grace Kelly in Hitchcock's movies, Romy Schneider in any movie, or Catherine Deneuve - they strike one's imagination. A perfect body is cold, secretive, tends to hide itself, while an overweighted, underweighted, aged body is seen as much hotter. The hero of Le roi de l'Evasion (below), a 2009 movie by Alain Guiraudie, a large 43 year old man, had four partners: a "beur" (French-North African) girl, and several elder men.

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