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French cinema and French sexual attitudes and culture

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.

                           Roi d'Evasion

Cinema nowadays dares to depict most kind of sex attitudes. Pedophilia and zoophilia remain taboo, but various heterosexual acts and homosexuality are common enough. Violent "love" is seen as shocking when the aim is not, of course, to denounce it or feed a psychological truth (sadomasochism). Some steps: Brigitte Bardot showed most of her anatomy through various movies in the 60s (Et Dieu créa la femme, En cas de malheur, Le mépris). Sodomy appeared on screens with Le Dernier Tango à Paris by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1972 (more than 5 million entrances). Salo (Pasolini, 1975), Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971), and The Empire of Senses (Nagisha Oshima, 1971) demonstrated efficiently that cinema could show a lot without losing its artistic virtues and social value. Yet sex was mostly represented in France with a provocative, satirical approach Bertrand Blier (Les Valseuses), Marco Ferreri (La Grande Bouffe, 1973, La Dernière femme, 1976). Homosexuality appears in wide-audience cinéma in 1983 with L'Homme blessé (Pascal Chéreau). A true fellation is represented by Marco Bellochio in 1985 (Le diable au corps). Bertrand Blier deals with triolism and homosexuality in Tenue de soirée.

Social moral and religion have no positive role, if any, in these movies, that are submitted to the personal exigences (artistic, realistic, libertarian) of the directors, exigences shared or admitted by their audience. One of the last French movies criticized on religious standards was Suzanne Simonin, la religieuse de Diderot(adapted from a story by Diderot published in 1796), directed by Jacques Rivette in 1966, it presented a Mother Superior in love and deprived of scrupules. Then came Bunuel, Pasolini, Godard, The Last Temptation of the Christ was still forbidden in a few towns or villages (by the mayors), but the church tends to be very silent concerning cinema, just organizing here and there festivals of Catholic cinema.

The difference between traditional cinema and pornographic or erotic/soft porn one is more or less based on the fact that sexual scenes are made in a porn or soft porn movie to provoke sexual reactions in the public, while they serve a scenario in the traditional cinema. Hence the discussions about the Baise-moi (above) and Histoire(s) de sexe. Baise-moi was seen as a feminist movie by some, as an addition of sexual and violent scenes without any ambition but exhibition by others. It wasn't X-rated (classified as porn and violent) but forbidden to those under 18 (still an exceptional measure) according to some viewers, simply because one of the director was a respected novelist (Virginie Despentes; her co-director Coralie Trinh Thi came from the porn industry). Histoire(s) de sexe (2009) has been the first X-rated movie since 1996. Directed by two porn stars, Ovidie and Jack Tyler, it had as ambition to demonstrate how sexuality is differently lived by men and women. A group of men discuss around a diner, their companions do the same on their side, and the same stories vary a lot depending to who tells them. Lack of communication, feminine feints and polite lies, etc.  Directors and viewers contested wildly the X-rating, showing the project was based on a solid scenario, characters, ideas, and that the sexual scenes, much shorter and more natural than in a porn,  are included to serve the scenario rather than the contrary. As a matter of fact, Histoire(s) de sexe looks like a comedy in which one talks a lot. About sex, which is realistic enough. What shocks french society nowadays is sexual violence and sadism rather than simple sex. It did in 2002, when Irreversible was released, and still would.


Another reason, more political, was suggested to explain the rating. The Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand could have suppressed the X-rating, and might have been open enough to do so. But he  was accused of sexual tourism on the basis of a book where he told several years ago about his gay adventures in Asia (Bangkokgate). The last accusation might itself have been aimed to stop him from defending the director Roman Polanski and prevent his refusal of an extradition to the USA (Polanskigate). The president would certainly have considered as excessive one more accusation against his minister.

These two affairs suggest there still is an important enough porn industry in France. Schematically, the french porn cinema was successfull in the 70's (though its part of the audience fell from 15% to 5%), with directors as José Benazéraf or Jean-François Davy. Exhibition attracted as many spectators as a James Bond movie. Porn cinema entered homes in the beginning of the 80ies, and stayed there. VCR and special TV programs or channels progressively took the market; the DVDs and internet accomplished the evolution. Porn still exists, and the Hot d'Or, awards ceremony organized in Cannes during the International Cinema Festival, consecrates it. The traditional cinema borrows its actors: Ovidie in Le Pornographe and Mortel transfert, Raphaëlla Anderson and Karen Bach in Baise-moi, Rocco Siffredi in Romance ; and shows non simulated sex as Patrice Chéreau in Intimité. Another big evolution : the representation of homosexuality.

Cinema has had a large revendicitive part toward the admittance of homosexuality in the society. The question of homosexuality appeared early enough on the screens : L'Eclipse du Soleil en pleine Lune (George Méliès, 1907), Zéro de conduite (Jean Vigo, 1933), Claudine à lécole (Serge de Poligny, 1937), Un chant damour (Jean Genet, 1950 censored till 1975), Les ufs de l'Autruche (Denys de la Patelière, 1957), La fille aux yeux dor (Jean-Gabriel Albicoco, 1961), Les Amitiés particulières (Jean Delannoy, 1964), Les jeunes Loups (Marcel Carné, 1968). In the 1970's homosexuality was treated by very various directors, seriously or not : Serge Gainsbourg (Je taime, moi non plus, 1975), Claude Miller (la meilleure façon de marcher, 1975), Philippe Vallois (Johan mon été 75), 1976 ; Nous étions un seul homme978), Edouard Molinaro (La Cage aux Folles, 1978) From then homo or bisexuality made his place in two different domains : popular comedies and autor cinema. The popular La Cage aux folles had sequels in 1980 and 1985, and homosexuality (or homosexuality vs heterosexuality) became a good topic for successfull comedies, as in Le père Noël est une ordure (Jean-Marie Poiré, 1982), Deux heures moins le quart avant Jésus-Christ (Jean Yanne, 1982), La fête des Pères (Joy Fleury, 1990), Gazon maudit (Josianne Balasko, 1995), Pédale douce (Gabriel Aghion, 1996), L'Homme est une femme comme les autres (Jean-Jacques Zilbermann, 1998), Le Derrière (Valérie Lermercier, 1998), Le Placard (Francis Veber, 2000), Chouchou (Merzak Allouachen, 2002) It interested all kind of autors, whether men or women, hetero, bi or homo. Among them, Colline Serreau (Pourquoi pas ?, 1977), Gérard Blain (Le Rebelle, 1980), Joseph Losey (La Truite, 1982), Patrice Chéreau (L'Homme Blessé, 1983), Jacques Doillon (La Pirate, 1984), Yves Boisset (La Travestie, 1987), Paul Vecchiali (Encore/Once more, 1988), André Téchiné (Jembrasse pas, 1991 ; Les Roseaux sauvages, 1994 ; Claire Denis (Jai pas sommeil, 1994; Beau travail, 1999), Anne Fontaine (Nettoyage à sec, 2000), Christophe Honoré (Tout contre Léo, 2002, Les Chansons damour, 2007), Céline Sciamma (Naissance des pieuvres, 2007) Cyril Collard is an exception, with a movie received as a social phenomenom, Les Nuits fauves, in 1992. Nowadays some directors systematically treat homo or bisexuality, amongst men or women, together with heterosexuality in their movies, like André Téchiné, François Ozon (Une robe dété, 1996 ; Les amants criminels, 1999 ; Gouttes deau sur pierres brûlantes, (Water Drops on Burning Rocks) 2000 ; Le temps qui reste, 2005), Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau (Jeanne et le garçon formidable, 1997 ; Drôle de Félix, 2000 ; Ma vraie vie à Rouen, 2003 ; Crustacés et coquillages, 2005 ; Nés en 68, 2008 ; Larbre et la forêt, 2010) And an award has been created for the best lesbian/gay movie in Cannes, that was given in May 2010 to Greg Araki for Kaboom. Cannes follows the festivals of Berlin (Teddy Award) and Venice (Queer Lion) 


This evolution doesn't prevent French cinema from remaining highly intellectual, much to foreigner's surprise. In French, a relationship is often called an aventure. This should give you another idea on our adventure cinema. French people have though, wrote and read about sex for a few centuries more than Americans and see that moral and limitations evolve faster than life and art. And no one in France asks representations of sex to provide a duplication of sex: the representation must be something else, something with an analysis. Deep Throat came on screens in 1972: a womans clitoris is located in her throat. In 1975 appeared Le sexe qui parle(Pussy Talk, by Claude Mulot)  Do Americans look for an orgasmic cinema while French people look for an explanative one? The idea of Pussy Talk is an ancient one, still working. It appeared in the 14th c., attributed to Garin, and was later adapted by various authors. Its most famous illustration dates from the 18th century, when our celebrated philosopher and encyclopedist Diderot wrote Les bijoux indiscrets (the indiscreet jewels). A sultan receives a ring that allows him to make feminine orgasms speak  and they tell the truth, which causes social, scientifical, and religious crises. The novel is offered (2 euros) with the classical newspaper Le Monde (our equivalent of the NY Times), that proposes, after a collection of great philosophical works, a collection of great erotic French novels (to collect all summer long).

The USA lately got interested in vaginal monologues. Will French cinema turn more interested in simple and pure orgasm? Certainly not: the trouble around sex is too fun and passionate to be ignored. (August, 2010)


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