My two first films in the Panorama section made me think about sex — and cinema, two subjects (or should it be habits) I easily return to without any reason at all. The very first one, which also turned out to be our winner, was Anna Melikyan’s Mermaid (Rusalka). Not long after the start I found myself watching a voluptuous naked woman being manhandled by the waves of the sea. And with a regularity that would have made Roger Corman proud, nudity and sex appeared throughout the movie. The effect became stronger because of the film’s childish and colorful style, with the first half even looking more like a children’s movie. There is of course much more than this to the film and the finer points will be taken care of elsewhere by another jury member, but a narrow point of view can sometimes be most satisfying.
I am from Titov Veles (Jas sum od Titov Veles) by Teona Strugar Mitevska followed directly on the same evening, and here we had the same kind of nudity appearing regularly, though the style is more refined and artistic, mirroring the main character, and reflecting the more depressing subject.
All this bare skin is of course motivated by the story, it’s not that difficult to write in a plausible explanation for disrobing your characters, more film makers should learn it. But for many years too many films have missed the opportunity to show flesh, even when the situation desperately called for it. My guess is that demands for political correctness and fear of feminist attacks have put the lid on, especially if you are a white male director, the fairest game of all.
Both of these films are made by young women, in each case their second feature. This is just a hunch, and I stand to be corrected, but it looks like women more easily get away with it. Sex and death are the two dominant themes in films and much of the rest of the cultural expressions, yes; even life is full of it. And there is usually no problem including as much death and violence as you want in a film. But when it comes to sex…
Censorship and conventions in different countries put a set of limits to what is possible to depict in non-pornographic films. Most actors seem to include kissing (even very thorough kissing) in their work description, unless you are an Indian actor of course. Next comes the nipple border line, that comparable tiny outgrowth that babies go for, followed by full frontal, a descriptive expression that says more than the vague words nude or naked. There is also that strange animal, the split beaver, a rare species though in mainstream cinema. Actors often have in their contracts how much of their body can appear on the screen.
It doesn’t really matter which level you go for, the effort to stay within the chosen limits always put a restraint in the way a love making scene is played out and shot. This ‘rule’ is used to dramatic effect in Christian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, where early in the film we see one of the female main characters changing her top for no obvious reason. She has no bra, but her back to the camera, signaling to the audience that this is a film where you will see no tits. Later in the film she suddenly appears in the hotel bathroom door, in strictly speaking not a full frontal shot, only half frontal, but the lower half. This sudden breaking of the ‘rule’ strongly reflects the traumatic situation.
The audience is always self-conscience in a very Brechtian way how a sex scene is done. How much will we see and why are they moving the bed sheets around in that strange manner? Are they not supposed to be madly in love and beyond worldly matters and concerns? A film that most abundantly illustrates this principle is Y.P.F (Young People Fucking) by Martin Gero (shown in the market). What’s the point of making the whole love making ritual (divided into chapters from Foreplay to Afterglow) a subject of a feature film if you can’t go for it; never have so many bed sheets and other clothing been manipulated in so many ways in order to make the audience not see the wrong parts. And you can soon tell which actors waived their nipple clause.
Making love scenes realistic has been a problem that has occupied many serious film makers. Ang Lee stopped short of hard core in Lust Caution (Se, jie) and said afterward: Never more. Michael Winterbottom went all the way in 9 Songs (which is called “9 orgasmos” in Mexico) because the restraints irritated him. Naomi Watts has talked how difficult it was to shoot the love scene in Mulholland Drive. David Lynch gave them no direction, the cameras peeked in through holes in the walls and they were told to have a go at it for 20 minutes. This leaves it all to the actors (“Is it all right to touch your breast, Ms Watts?”) and the cowardly director hopes to get more than if he gives strict directions, which actors very much prefer in a love making scene; if it is choreographed they know what is agreed upon on. But it seems that, whichever way you do it, both the film makers and the viewers become occupied with aspects outside the actual story world whenever a physical love scene appears in the film.
Death is rarely for real in the cinema, but there are reams of tricks to make violent deaths look real. When it comes to sex the opportunities to use special effects are very limited, body doubles come to mind. So, what you are dealing with here is the real thing. So far it goes.
Both Melikyan and Mitevska seem genuinely curious how they can use sex and nudity in film and we can probably look forward to more women exploring these themes.
Mitevska has a remarkable scene where the 27 year old sister is being orally raped (she has had sex only once in her life, with the man that rapes her). The camera is in a tight close up on her face which is partly blocked by the buttocks of the man. You can vaguely see something dangling in a position that can’t be anything but the penis, but it could really be anything, and even if you don’t actually see it, you know that it, whatever it is, at one point goes into her mouth and stays there. The whole scene is disturbing, but also arousing, which makes it even more disturbing, added by the fact that it looks real, but you can’t really tell. Which also distances the viewer from the scene, the damnation of every sex scene.
Fellatio for real seems to be a darling with film makers that want to take film making to a new level. Maruschka Detmers did it in Marco Bellocchio’s Devil in the Flesh (Il diavolo in corpo), Kerry Fox did it in Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy, which gave her the best acting award 2001 in Berlin. I suppose the jury wanted to encourage this kind of behavior.
There will probably always be critics pointing out that nude men and women in films always stand for exploitation and a reduction of the human being to an object, forgetting that the whole process of acting is a use (sometimes a mis-use) of actors in order to create characters. There are a lot examples of actors extending and bending body and mind to reach the result. Their dedication to the art is often mentioned with admiration. In comparison a nude scene seems like child’s play.