Films push boundary of onscreen sex

A bold sexual revolution is under way in cinema. No longer content to depict sex in the soft-hued, highly choreographed, and artificially lit style of the Hollywood movie, a clutch of directors have begun to include explicit, unsimulated sex in their films.

"The Brown Bunny," an unrated film opening in many art-house theaters Friday, includes a scene in which Oscar-nominated actress Chloë Sevigny performs a sexual act in such detail that perhaps even Dr. Ruth would blush if she saw it.

This month's Toronto Film Festival, meanwhile, includes the North American premières of two sexually explicit films that have already caused a stir in Europe. Catherine Breillat's "Anatomy of Hell" could pass for fare shown in a theater that deals in films rated XXX, and Michael Winterbottom, the acclaimed British director of films such as "Welcome to Sarajevo" and "Code 46," will offer up "Nine Songs," a drama that purports to show how sexual relations change over the course of a relationship. The two actors in the film have full intercourse.

Suddenly, 1995's NC-17 rated "Showgirls" seems quaintly tame by comparison.

The trend, which started in Europe five years ago, for now seems relegated to the fringes of the art-house circuit - where such "unrated" films are shown. And observers say it's likely to stay there. But they add that such films will embolden Hollywood filmmakers to up the ante on sexual content.

"I think what you'll actually keep seeing is mainstream movies pushing it a little more, inching it further and further but not quite taking you to the pornographic realm that things like 'Brown Bunny' go to," says Christopher Kelly, film critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Mr. Kelly cites last year's "In the Cut," directed by Jane Campion and starring Meg Ryan as an example of a fairly mainstream film that drifted into a more pornographic realm. Though the thriller was edited to obtain an R rating, an unrated "director's cut" on DVD includes two extras in flagrante delicto in the background of one scene.

Just 50 years ago, Hollywood films were fairly chaste. There was no need for actors to include a "no nudity clause" in their contracts because bedroom activity was depicted by vague innuendo.

By the 1970s, changing cultural mores resulted in a far more laissez-faire attitude. Films such as "Last Tango in Paris" and "Don't Look Now" explored sex in a mature, if carnally suggestive, way. Films that showed sex, such as Japan's "In the Realm of the Senses," as well as porn films, found a market as X-rated movies.

But in more recent decades, Hollywood has shied away from overly graphic images because more sex generally doesn't pay. For example, "Showgirls," despite the furor over its rating, was a box-office flop.

A 2003 study by the Christian Film and Television Commission analyzed the box-office returns of 1,120 films over four years and found that the more explicit films sold fewer tickets.

If anything, it's the independent films outside the Hollywood studio system which are likely to test the boundaries between porn and erotica. John Cameron Mitchell, director of the avant-garde indie "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," is seeking financing for a comedy that will include real sex. In the meantime, everyone is waiting to see how "The Brown Bunny" fares.

"It'll be interesting to see if Chloë Sevigny's career gets hurt by this," says Joseph McBride, assistant professor in the cinema department of San Francisco State University, who observes that "Showgirls" torpedoed the career of its star, Elizabeth Berkley. Ms. Sevigny, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for "Boys Don't Cry," parted ways with the William Morris Agency in January. Many speculated the agency had been unhappy with the actress because of "The Brown Bunny."

Hollywood has always had a snobbish disdain for the pornography industry and for porn actresses who have tried to cross over into the mainstream, Mr. McBride says, so it's unlikely that many actresses will follow Sevigny's lead.

The pornucopia of explicit movies is, in large part, a reaction to the often adolescent approach of Hollywood movies: When sex isn't being depicted comedically as a form of male humiliation - think of any Ben Stiller comedy or "American Pie" - it's treated as little more than an obligatory scene wherein actors interrupt the narrative of a story to titillate the audience.

Mr. Kelly favors the idea of directors treating sex more seriously and understanding it as a universal, defining human theme. Still, he wonders whether it's possible to include actual sex in a film without it becoming a stunt.

Every movie has some degree of reality, observes Gregg Kilday, a columnist for the Hollywood Reporter. Some actors actually perform dangerous stunts for an action scene. Similarly, when two stars kiss on screen, they're not faking the act. What precludes directors and audiences from demanding that actors engage in actual sex is taste, decorum, and social mores.

The latest wave of edgy directors deplore such artifice. "What's wrong with showing sex?" demanded Mr. Winterbottom after screening "Nine Songs" at this year's Cannes Film Festival. One argument is that scenes of actual sex in a movie can serve to heighten realism in a story.

But Mr. Kilday says the effect is so jarring for viewers that the opposite is true. "The fact that two actors may be engaged in sex somehow becomes too real, and suddenly you're not watching a fictional representation," he says.

Audience reaction of that sort is likely to check further demand for onscreen sex.

"The truth is not necessarily arrived at through the actual doing of the deed," says Linda DeLibero, associate director of film and media studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "If that were so, there just couldn't really be such a thing as art."

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