Calcutta International Cult Film Festival

Permissiveness in Film: Erotica or Pornography

An article by Shailik Bhaumik



Admiring a beautiful woman, Boris Pasternak, the famous Russian poet once said that to fathom the secret of her charm is tantamount to solving the riddle of life. The secret of beauty is the secret of life, which has puzzled man for centuries. Debates concerning it have never stopped throughout the history of mankind. Beauty is the pleasant which comes through the sense of hearing and sight, which is pleasant according to other senses, that is, the sense which have to do with food, drink and sexual intercourse and all such things. And the law of beauty is art.

Eroticism is one of the oldest subject matter of art. It is found throughout the world and throughout time, and yet it is one of the most controversial subjects in the history of art. In western culture eroticism is an art form invented by the Greeks in the fifth century. Nude was not the subject of art, but a form of art. To the Greeks, the body expressed above all their sense of human wholeness. In varying cultures around the world, eroticism becomes a means for telling a story or to symbolize an idea.

Cinema is a synthetic art form of 20th Century, so eroticism obviously comes to cinema naturally. If we go back to the history of cinema we will find that the first films containing nudity were the early erotic films. Production of such films commenced almost immediately after the invention of the motion picture. Two of the earliest pioneers were Frenchmen Eugène Pirou and Albert Kirchner. These films were promoted as erotic and artistic, rather than pornographic. Several early films of the silent era and early sound era include women in nude scenes, presented in a historical or religious context.

Several Hollywood films produced in the 1910s and ’20s, which contained only brief nudity, created controversy. Various groups objected to these features on moral grounds, and several states set up film censorship boards, arguing that such content was obscene and should be banned.

Europeans were more relaxed about nudity in film than the United States.  Sex and nudity found their way into modern  mainstream and artistic work also, such as  Alessandro Blasetti‘s La cena delle beffe  had Clara Calamai in what is credited as being the first topless scene in an Italian film. It was soon followed by similar scenes in the Italian films La corona di ferro (The Iron Crown, 1941) and Carmela (1942). Other noteworthy European films which contained nudity include Ingmar Bergman‘s Summer with Monika (1953), Jean-Pierre Melville‘s Bob le flambeur (1956), François Truffaut‘s Shoot the Piano Player (1960), The Awful Dr. Orloff (1961), Contempt (1963) by Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Buñuel‘s Belle de Jour (1967), and Isadora (1968).

All genres of Italian film of the 1970s and early 1980s featured abundant female nudity in a clichéd form, most of it for the local market, but some for the international market. The Italian-produced Last Tango in Paris (1973), directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, was one of the first commercial films to openly contain nudity, and led to the boom of other fashion erotic films, such as the French-produced Emmanuelle (1974) and the Frenco-German production Story of O (1975) by Just Jaeckin, the Franco-Japanese production In the Realm of the Senses (1976) by Nagisa Oshima, and the Italian-American produced Caligula (1979) by Tinto Brass.

In the recent past, it has been observed that strategies for viewing the type of sexually explicit art film made by Postmodern directors Catherine Breillat, Abdellatif Kechiche, Tinto Brass, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Pedro Almodóvar , Virginie Despentes, Nagisa Oshima and  Paul Verhoeven has changed significantly.To contextualise the relevant debates, political work on pornography is placed in dialogue with recent deconstructive gender theory and postmodern philosophy. While this hybridisation of theory problematises what pornography is. Studies on recent “Extremity” films demonstrate that the cinematic medium may call into question our habitual ways of seeing sexuality. This is done by means of denaturalisation of the sexual spectacle (Romance, 1999) or generic collage and the dislocation of ideology from genre.

The images and shots presented by a film can provoke a wide array of feelings, emotions and sensations within viewers. An emerging class of films in France has come to the forefront to challenge the traditional norms of what compromises the experience of watching a movie.

The portrayals of rape, incest, murder and mutilation are explored in depth, presented in such a manner that is so raw and unforgiving that the films even cause audiences to become physically ill. A new body of directors is leaving a mark on cinematic history in France, possessing a far different vision compared to the directors who were associated with the previous New Wave movement. Directors such as Claire Denis, Bruno Dumont, Francis Ozon, Catherine Breillat and Gaspar Noe, release highly polarized films known for their unflinching and often grotesque portrayal of issues, inciting a now stronger focus on what is and is not permitted on screen (Palmer 22).

While the “New French Extremity” refers to a stylistically diverse group of films and filmmakers, it has been described as a crossover between sexual decadence, bestial violence and troubling psychosis. This Extremity movement has roots in art house and horror cinema.

Catherine Breillat  is one of the pioneers in “New French Extremity” movement. She made her first film “ A Real young Girl” in 1975. Not until 1999 with “Romance” was her international reputation established. Since then she has made film almost annually, including “Fat Girl” (2001), “Brief Crossing” (2001), “The Housekeeper” (2003), and “Anatomy Of Hell” (2004). All of Breillat’s films focus on sexuality from the point of view of a woman. All are sexually explicit, and all of the films portray the obstacle, women face, such as men in pursuit of sexual satisfaction. The challenges for Breillat is to avoid being aggressively pedantic or exploitative about her subject. She has to succeed as a film experience. These are notable challenges, given the way in which Breillat pursues her focus on women and their sexuality. Characterization plays role and is implied through what appears to be an obsession with sex. Conventional plot focuses only on the sexual act, such as the commercialized sex in “ Anatomy of Hell” and the making of a film in “Sex Is Comedy” (2002). The consequence is a conscious sidestepping of the conventional narrative tools. This does not make Breillat’s films any easier to watch; on the contrary, it makes the films all the more brave but difficult to provocative.

The most recent film “Blue is the warmest The Color (2013)” directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, created a buzz in the world cinema. The controversial film, which deals with warfare of sexuality, wins Palme d’Or at the 66th annual Cannes Film Festival in 2013. With its much-talked about sex scenes, Blue … has thrown open a critical yet myopic debate about authority, sex, porn, and the male gaze. A cause célèbre at Cannes last year, Blue entered the festival with a rush of anticipation, and in a matter of right place and time, its story of the passionate yet doomed relationship between two young Frenchwomen screened as France’s Parliament voted to legalize same-sex marriage. But Blue…. threw a lightning rod into that discussion, with many feminist and queer critics finding it a troubling if not altogether prurient film.

Apparently some critics even timed the movie’s most provocative scene—in which Adèle and Emma tumble and groan, kiss and scissor each other—pegging the scene anywhere between seven and 20 minutes. Tellingly, no other sex scene was measured, although many last just as long; Blue’s sex scenes last, on average, around 10 minutes. That a lot of people were uncomfortable, taken aback, or struck by what Kechiche was doing in that scene—showing in tantalizing detail what we’re rarely shown in film—is due both to its novelty (a 10-minute chess scene would have felt conspicuously long) and its subject. It would have been a shock if audiences were not upset, angry, or perturbed.

Of course, sex is messy and unpredictable, vivid and exhilarating—sex scenes should reproduce this anarchy of feelings. That Blue is the Warmest Color has been attended by claims of pornography, voyeurism, and sexual gratuity is testimony to the unruly power and dimension of sex, as well as to the legitimacy of these critiques. Typically, sex is suggested, not shown, in films—and where it is shown, women’s orgasms usually occur too quickly and the sex lasts briefly, while audiences rarely see a man going down on a woman, let alone a woman going down on another. And yet the sex in Blue … can appear too plotted and coached;

Sex is infinitely more complex and more dangerous: sex poses questions, renders tangible sensation; it incites and disturbs. A sex scene will turn one on, or else make one feel ashamed, as if he watched something he shouldn’t had. And yet, filmmakers have long used sex to explore these feelings and effects. The history of cinema is marked by art house and transgressive films that have boldly used sex as its subject and story: Last Tango in Paris; The 120 Days of Sodom; Pola X; The Idiots. Released in 1978, Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses remains, in its uncensored version, banned in Japan. Even today, its depiction of unsimilated carnality would cause audiences to blush. In 2003, Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny drew ire and boos from the crowd at Cannes.

The presence of nudity in film is invariably noted by critics and censors. Today, though nudity in film is much more common, its presence in dramas is still expected to be justified on artistic grounds.

Whether or not an instance of erotic film is obscene depends on the standards of the community in which it is displayed. Similar difficulties in distinguishing between erotica and obscenity have been found in every legal system in the world.

There’s substantially more overlap between the aesthetic and the erotic than the erotic and the pornographic. Unquestionably, erotica and pornography both present the human organism in a manner that’s sexually compelling. But the aim of the pornographer is hardly to help his or her audience rejoice in the human form or in some way honour physical intimacy, or the joys of the flesh. Rather, the objective is to “turn on” the viewer. It’s less evocative or suggestive than exhibitionist. The unabashed goal is simple and straightforward: titillation and immediate, intense arousal.  If the subject a film is portrayed in a manner that focuses on their inner and outer radiance, their fleshy vitality, and the work itself seems to manifest a passionate and powerful affirmation of life and the pleasures of this world, then it is regarded as a Work of Art.