European Sexual Cinema
Seeking Out the Erotically Subtle
Sex has always been more present in European cinema than American film. Perhaps this has something to do with a long tradition of the nude in European painting; perhaps it is a consequence of a libertine streak quite at odds with American puritanism. If American film reflects a notoriously violent nation, Europe suggests much more the licentious and the free.
Let us not exaggerate our claims here, but if we think of many great European filmmakers - from Ingmar Bergman to Jean-Luc Godard, from Luis Bunuel to Michelangelo Antonioni - the sexual has been vital to their world. None of them have retreated from showing nudity, and all of them have been fascinated by erotic desire. Bergman has often focused on the dynamic within a couple that becomes toxic: hatred so evident but desire still residual and troublesome inShame and Scenes from a Marriage. Affairs are frequent: The Passion of Annaand Persona. Bunuel was always interested in the fetishistic and the furtive: from the shoe obsession in Diary of a Chambermaid, to making out in the garden after the guests have arrived in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie. Godard can offer the sexually perverse as in the verbally explicit scene in semi-darkness in Weekend, and the production line sex scene in Slow Motion. Antonioni manages to show sex as alienating and aloof, as in Blow Up andIdentification of a Woman.
In Erotism, Georges Bataille says: "Sexual reproductive activity is common to sexual animals and men, but only men appear to have turned their sexual activity into erotic activity. Eroticism, unlike simple sexual activity, is a psychological quest independent of the natural goal." If some might wonder whether we should be watching sexual behaviour on the screen, we might insist that cinema is a very good place to observe the gap between reproductive activity and the psychology of desire: cinema is nothing if not safe sex. We might also be reminded of a Norman Mailer remark where he says it isn't our bodies that would stop us having problems with making love, but our minds. The bodies we see on screen in many European films are beautiful, but still there are problems with sex.
In Sex and the Cinema, Tanya Krzywinska, says: "in many films that deploy realist aesthetics, love and romance [like Summer with Monica, Betty Blue andVirgin] are often absent...or they operate as unattainable ideals that ultimately cause pain." In Jean-Jacques Beineix's Betty Blue, the title character possesses a fragile mental state even if she has a body 'made for sex'. In Catherine Breillat'sVirgin, the teen of the title wants to lose her virginity on her own terms: she doesn't want to give it someone who will take it because she loves him, but hands it over to someone whom she does not. If European film frequently shows nudity and sexual encounters, it does so aware that the body can show the workings of the mind.
All the filmmakers we have mentioned thus far have been interested in cinema as a space in which the sexual can be explored, but they wouldn't quite fall into the category of erotic filmmakers. Others, especially Walerian Borowczyk, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Just Jaeckin and Jose Benazeraf made the erotic their raison d'etre. This can be a shrewd and often crude commercial move. As Krzywinska says: "mainly because of the commercial market-driven framework within which cinema often operates, the representation of sex and sexual themes often adopts conventionalised patterns in formal, moral and communicative terms." One reason why we had so much erotically oriented work in the sixties and seventies was because censorship had loosened up enough for the erotic to be socially acceptable, but where pornography hadn't quite become the proliferating medium that it is today.
Robbe-Grillet was clearly the most high-minded and high-brow of the erotic filmmakers of the time. A hugely respected novelist who also wrote Last Year at Marienbad for Alain Resnais, Robbe-Grillet, in seventies films Eden and After,Slow Slidings into Pleasure and Playing with Fire, chose to fill "my palace of dreams with young and beautiful girls, from Sade to the illustrations in sex shops and Greek statues. This stuff is the material of our myths. I see the condemning of this subject, which I have suffered, a good example of puritanism: the unconscious censorship of pleasure which is, without doubt, one of the censorships of the middle classes, whether they describe themselves as radical or not." (Immoral Tales) His films have a very precise aesthetic, often allowing figures to be caught in fixed postures, with colours containing their own value. In one scene in Slow Slidings into Pleasure we see the leading character literally paint herself: not a self-portrait on a canvas, but painting red directly on her body. In another scene, a character lies on the ground while she has eggs broken on her torso, and a bottle of red liquid poured over her. The yellows and reds start bleeding into each other.
The other major erotic filmmaker of the time was Borowczyk; like Robbe-Grillet it was as though he wanted to make the erotic content of his dreams manifest in filmic form. "He directs from a precise shooting script and chooses very carefully all the objects that feature in the frame, giving the same weight to everything that appears on the screen - whether it is an actor's body or an inanimate object." (Immoral Tales) This gives Immoral Tales, The Beast and Behind Convent Walls great erotic potential. The attention to mise-en-scene creates the erotic not as the dead centre of the sexual organs, but the bed post, the crucifix, phallic vegetables all capable of providing sexual satisfaction in an environment that suggests a properly erotic world.
Part of the problem with pornography is that it doesn't generally find the balance between the body and the mind: it cannot create the potentialised mise-en-scene evident in the best of erotic cinema, and thus reduces itself to what Linda Williams in Hardcore would call "the frenzy of the visible", never more pronounced than in the male orgasm that usually brings a pornographic scene to its conclusion: a pornographic happy ending. "The money shot...succeeds in extending visibility to the next stage of representation of the heterosexual sex act: to the point of seeing climax. But this new visibility extends only to a knowledge of the hydraulics of the male ejaculation." If pornography can seem like such a claustrophobic, small-minded world, that isn't accidental. It doesn't, like Robbe-Grillet and Borowczyk's work, expand our erotic imagination, it shrinks it to express our biological needs. There are of course pornographic films that are more visually adventurous than most (Marc Dorcel productions for example), but they still conform to the demands of male sexual release as the point and purpose of the scene.
When we watch scenes even from fairly standard erotic films like Emmanuelle,The Story of O and Frustration, we see an attention to colour and form, to outside locations and interior design, usually missing from pornography. Yet eroticism's collapse in the face of the pornographic isn't all bad news. It has regenerated itself in interesting ways. When we look at many of the seventies films, many suggest the sexual politics indicating the objectification of women and the gaping male gaze. There were problems here; a too limited perspective. Into the eighties and nineties films from Pedro Almodovar like Matador andHigh Heels, and Claire Denis (Chocolat, Beau Travail), for example, asked us to look at sexuality from the female and gay angle too. In Denis' work, especially, the notion of the gaze became a complex thing, with the look and the touch indicative of an erotic cinema that absorbed the tactile. Sound suggested a feeling for bodies that was absent in the earlier films that were based so much more on a certain frigid look.
Perhaps the frenzy of the visible that would lead inevitably to the pornographic allowed other filmmakers to search out different areas of the sexual. That the frenzied visibility find itself unequivocally expressed in porn can allow for the erotic to be much more equivocally expressed in what has been called a cinema of the senses. It allows cinema to express Bataille's belief that sex is both of the body and of the mind. Not so much the frenzy of the visible, but the transfigurative nature of desire. A desire that isn't reduced to one thing, but expands outwards to incorporate 'dissident' sexuality explored in the most exploratory of mise-en-scenes. As Denis would say of her work, in a book by Martine Beugnet, "I always consider that to make a film - all that energy, all that money - is to put the camera in the direction of people I want to see and not the people I watch on TV." (Claire Denis) Equally, not the people we find in porno movies either. There is still a space in cinema for an exploration of the erotic, far away from the televisual narratives that rarely explore the subtlety of sexuality, and the pornographic that usually thinks of nothing else.
© Tony McKibbin