Viewpoint

The thin line between porn and art

Critically lauded and award-winning films too may have sex scenes that are gratuitous and exploitative

When is sex not sex? When it is in a critically well-received movie, of course. That is when sex - the physical act between two people - becomes something else.

What it becomes, no one can really say. Because an artistic movie can exploit sex. The award- winning Blue Is The Warmest Color certainly does. Sex in a critically acclaimed film can be gratuitous, in a loose sense of the word. Blue fits the bill here too.

In the version I watched overseas, there remained intact the "strong, prolonged and explicit sexual scenes", according to notes published on the Media Development Authority's Films Classification Database, which gave it an R21 rating after eight minutes of sexual material were removed by the film's distributor.

The clipped scenes were gratuitous, exploitative and unnecessary to the storyline, and any other word you might like to use to say that its inclusion was probably made for commercial reasons.

What compounded the problem, in the eyes of the MDA, was that it was same-gender sex, of which "explicit portrayals" are not allowed here.

Do you see the problem?

The guidelines presume a question: What is the purpose of the film - to make money or to make art? And the MDA uses that yardstick to decide whether Singaporeans get to see it or not.

The guidelines followed by the Board Of Film Censors (a department under the MDA) draw a clear line between "pornographic" and "non-pornographic" elements in films, illustrating it with language that includes the words "gratuitous", "offensive" and "exploitative" - all words that can be applied to Blue. And yet, here it is, opening in cinemas this week, albeit with snips.

Though nothing in the MDA notes attached to Blue's R21 rating acknowledges that the film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year, that factor must surely have been in the minds of the persons in the Films Consultative Committee who awarded it the R21 rating.

Would Blue have been allowed here if it had not won the Palme d'Or? What if it had won a lesser award, say, from the Toronto Film Festival? What if director Abdellatif Kechiche had not submitted it to any festival at all?

That old saying about porn - "I can't say what it is, but I know it when I see it" - is not as helpful as it might appear. The categorically pornographic Deep Throat (1972) gained chic appeal in the mainstream, and acclaimed Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci's explicit Last Tango In Paris (1972) was met with gushing from noted critics such as Pauline Kael, who called it "powerfully erotic" and "liberating". That film has since not been remembered for much beyond one scene of uncomfortable intercourse.

Blurring the issue is that artistic intent matters not beyond a certain point. Multiple award-winning film-maker Lars von Trier's cause celebre film Nymphomaniac (2013), a two-parter, will probably never make it to Singapore because of its themes of deviant sexuality.

Meanwhile, explicit M18-rated South Korean and Thai films are screened here with some regularity. Having seen one or two of those, the only thing artistic about them is their talkiness and occasional pretentiousness.

Trying to ascertain a film's intent is, at best, difficult and, at worst, creates an atmosphere of denial and duplicity. It assumes that artistic film-makers do not care about making money when they do, only perhaps to a lesser degree than a smut merchant.

For some of the reasons described here, the Restricted (Artistic) or R(A) rating was dropped some years ago in favour of sharper categories such as M18 and R21. Yet somehow, R(A)'s ghost clings to the language of the guidelines, making them trickier to interpret and implement.

It is time that ghost was fully exorcised.

johnlui@sph.com.sg

Blue Is The Warmest Color opens here tomorrow.

Do you think that Blue Is The Warmest Color is exploitative? Write to stlife@sph.com.sg

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