ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

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French Sex issue

Erich Kuersten

What is it that make the French such better lovers than Americans (at least in the movies)? Is it the spring air of Paris? The seductive musicality of the language? Or is it that, to the French, casual sex is natural and normal, while here it is hypocrisy and prurience that is normal, as casual sex is condemned and judged by day, then secretly, ashamedly, drunkenly indulged in by night.

Perhaps sex is to the French what guns are to America, part of the national landscape. As Marlene Dietrich famously noted: "In Europe, sex is a fact, in America an obsession."

As Americans adrift in a consumerism-gone-wild simulacrum, we're so wrapped up in the chasing and desiring that fuels economic growth that even the 'actuality' of sex itself pales in comparison to the erection of consumerism which must always be stiffer and is never allowed a final end-all release, until finally it collapses in defeat and Madoff goes to jail.


If we Americans do hook up, say in a one-night stand, rather than smile and forget it and/or start a long-term casual affair, we have to call all our friends and discuss it in detail, agonize about how best to break it off or why they're not returning our calls. A single night of drunken passion leads to months of discussion until the realization comes that the sex really just an excuse for endless sitcom chatter with friends. We may consider what we did 'wrong' and blame it on drinking, as unlike the French we never had wine as children and so learned moderation, or we may boast and crow, and sulk later since the admiration of our peers is never 'enough'.

The French scoff at such drama over so unimportant an event. After all, it's just sex. Who cares so much about whether the other person is rich or attractive? But a gun, now that's something the French can get excited about, like the John Wayne, d'accord?! Ka-Pow! Zip! When the French shoot guns, it's still somehow like a comic book. The tougher a French gangster tries to be, the more cute and cuddly he becomes with his little gun. The French don't have America's sexual frustration to fuel their fury, their guns are too often caught empty. As I'll discuss in my essay this issue on Catherine Breillat, I think a lot of this has to do with drinking ages and parental permissiveness reducing the phallic power of sexual transgression. The French need to compensate with hardcore violence and fire arms just as we compensate in the sack with fake French accents and platters of bread, fresh fruit, wine, and cheese by the bedside. In America we can go to jail for sleeping with someone under 18, but if we teach a 14 year-old to shoot a semi-automatic, we're just being American.


I realized a lot of this watching Roger Vadim's Blood and Roses (1970) the other day. Based on an 1876 lesbian Gothic French story by Fanu, Carmilla, it is a film that's been mostly unseen since the early days of VHS in this country, but even on the faded DVD-R I saw, Vadim's ease with the jet set world of expensive balls, crumbling ancestral villas, beautiful gowns, incest, casual sex and acceptance of inter-dimensional weirdness shows through. I mention Vadim because to me--and I assume at least a few other Americans-- he's the ideal of what we would want our lives to be like, were we French. And even if like me you can't stand Vadim's other films, like Barbarella or ...And God Created Woman, you might find something cool hovering in the margins of Blood and Roses.

As an semi ex-libertine myself, I recognize that Vadim's conveying an atmosphere of socially sanctioned decadence with the relaxed confidence of someone who's been there. The swanky jetset masquerade party out on the lawn of the ancient Karstein estate; the fuss made over a dull display of fireworks; the emotionally vacant Carmilla (Annette Stroyberg, i.e. Anette Vadim) wandering off to the family crypt on her brother's wedding night, her dress trailing off behind her, into a the tomb of her ancient (female) Karstein relative, her heart beating like mad on the soundtrack... suddenly her eyes widen in terror! Ah! but then fadeout and in the next scene it's dawn and she's taking a long stroll across the estate back to the party, where the guests are just now leaving!

You just don't see people leaving parties at dawn in American movies, at least not very often. Nowadays no one in the USA dares stay up all night, they have kids! They have jobs! They have to go to church, or the firing range. Anyway, in the post-Goodfellas world, filmmakers seldom bother to hang around anyone place long enough to make it to the dawn. It's too transgressive for them, too outside the box (outside of NYC of course, which never sleeps). In America we've even dubbed such a walking home at dawn journey 'the walk of shame,' as if we should be ashamed of living like a vampire lesbian in a Vadim film! It's the thought that such a thing is shameful that should make us ashamed.

French Sex issue

The key thing with Vadim--both his meager power and staggering kinetic impotence as a director--is that the opaque glamor and complete lack of urgency or importance in his films is what the jet set languor is really all about. An easygoing member of Parisian cafe society, Vadim makes films that are notoriously inert, and it's clear why: he's just too satisfied.

He's got nothing to obsess about necause he already has or has had everything, including at least three of the most beautiful women who ever graced a movie screen (four if you count Annette, and you should), and he's made damn sure the whole world knows it. An amiable social butterfly nature has allowed him to enjoy life without excess drama, but without drama, your audience dozes. He was a Jew who had to hide from the Nazis, but it wasn't too bad for him, just enough it would seem to lend him a steely courage in the face of beauty so overwhelming that ordinary men might faint, but not enough that he has something to say.

I don't think Americans are afraid of beauty and sex, we're afraid of our desire for beauty and sex, afraid our desire for it will be quenched one day like a candle without which we are blind.

If we gave into that awful moment of surrender, which (as T.S. Eliot notes) an age of prudence can never retract, we'd have nothing to get us out of bed in the morning, nothing to make us run to the airport at the very last minute to catch Drew Barrymore or Jennifer Anniston before her flight takes off, nothing to keep us buying DVDs and sublimating, nothing to bring us urgency. We'd in effect cease to be Americans. Everyone would tell us "you have a very European attitude."


This is because America hinges on the command to enjoy, and the one essential commodity that can legally have no price tag is sex, and so it has us hypnotized, the one thing (here at least) you can't see in a shop store window. Yes, we may have sex in 'real life' but I'm talking mainly about real life mirrored in movies, wherein we go running after sex and dollars like the stumbling Jerry Lewis.


Americans don't like that the French like Jerry Lewis (look closely at Ike Turner's expression above), and that's perhaps the reason our rich wives drag us to the bourgeoisie period adaptations at the Paris Theater, so that we can get cultured and distance ourselves from the Lewisness inside us. And though we're dreading all the subtitles or bad dubbing, Vadim whispers in our ear like a sly apache as we stand in the ticket line: "Don't worry, monsieur, the girl in this film... she is beautiful."

Americans have a thing where when they want to be romantic--when they want to smolder--they talk in a French accent. "Ahh my love! Come away with me to zee Casbah." Since a lot of French movies used to come to us dubbed by voiceover artists, we'd also get these facile but deep, modulated, perfectly enunciated speaking voices as well as the real French accents of American films with Charles Boyer or Chevalier; in the former there is the hesitations in speaking, in order to conform to the lips of the actors as closely as possible... "Oh my love, your hair, it is so... beautiful...." With real French actors speaking English, the hesitations and formal syntax indicate its status as a second language, wherein 'beautiful' may be unnatural for one raised in a smooth poem like the French language. In a French person's mouth, "beautiful" stretches out, slowing down the flow, so that both the listener and speaker relax, and fall into a non-lingual sexual awareness, heightening their lovemaking ability. No doubt America can one day catch up to France's level of sophistication, and maybe this issue of Acidemic can help!


Vive La France!

Erich Kuersten
September 2, 2010

c. 2010 Acidemic

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