One of the most edifying discussions (and some of the most unedifying responses) of the last few months, at least in the realms of modern cinema, has asked how far a movie should go in its quest for realism?
We are far beyond the days of porno chic, when the likes of Deep Throat and Beyond The Green Door showed up at the multiplex down the road, and bands of outraged citizens piled down there to protest and wave placards around. Adult/XXX today is a world unto itself, a niche that might aspire towards the budgets and billings afforded mainstream Hollywood movies, but which knows its place in the cinematic pecking order, and has shown little inclination to break out of it.
But what happens when the boundaries blur? That may or may not have been the question asked by French director Laurence Bouhnik as he started work on his latest movie Q.
The basics. Q is the story of Cecile (actress Deborah Revy) as she mourns the death of her father (his ashes are in a tupperware container) by bedding or thereabouts almost every guy she meets. Matt (Gowan Didi), who we first meet driving her home from the funeral; her boyfriend (Johnny Amaro) naturally; one of his friends. Matt again. A businessman on the ferry.
The thing is, and this is where the fuss starts to stir, when she beds them, she beds them. No soft focus insinuation, no strategically-placed sheets or lamp stands. The sex in Q is for real. And yet this is NOT a porn movie. It is not on the top shelf with the rest of the adult fare, and while a few choice scenes have leaked out onto the XXXtube circuit, where I’m sure they have drawn many more eyes to the movie, it’s not the kind of film you’d be lining up on the DVD player as the set up to a night of hot passion.
Rather, it is a very sensitive, and beautifully realized study of grief and the way it can make people behave, of loneliness and frustration, of sexual longing, of course, but also of the obligations that someone else’s longing can sometimes make us feel. When Matt’s girlfriend Alice (Helene Zimmer) gives him a blowjob in the car...and yes, once again it’s the real thing...she’s not doing it because she’s consumed with lust. She does it because he seems to expect it, and her commentary lets both Matt and the viewer know that.
Awkward? Yes. Uncomfortable? Yes. But realistic? Fuck, yes. As realistic as Cecile’s increasingly desperate attempts to interest her boyfriend in doing something more than sleeping; as realistic as the men’s room scene where she plays Matt like a harp, only to change her mind at the crucial moment...and have him do the same back to her a little later.
All of which could have been portrayed without recourse to the realities of sex. We don’t need to see Cecile’s lips wrapped around Matt’s cock to know what she is doing...plenty of other films have played out similar scenes, and a bit of eye-rolling from the male is usually all it takes.
But would the rejection feel so ruthless if that was all we had to go on? Would Alice’s sarcastic scorn feel as weary if there was a car seat in the way of her head? Would the scene in the beach hut feel as hurried and desperate if the camera cut away to crashing waves and a jetty?
No they wouldn’t, and this is where things get interesting. Internet discussions of Q, particularly those that disapprove of its content, will tell you that sometimes, reality can be taken too far. We see people being murdered, getting tortured, or beaten every day in the movies, they say; would their perceived suffering feel more “real” if we knew that the blood and guts were genuine?
But the question is irrelevant to the issue because murder and torture at least are illegal. Sex, the last time I checked, is not. Neither is filming people having sex, at least so long as they approve the cameras. So why do we insist that sex should not be shown on screen? Or, if it is, that it be filed away in the XXX ghetto, never to show its face in polite society again?
Because it is private?
Well, so is grief. But that does not stop news teams from shoving cameras in the face of the recently bereaved and asking how they feel.
Because it is embarrassing/disgusting/rude? Well that says more for whoever feels that way than it does for the act.
Because it is gratuitous?
Not if it’s done for the right reasons. A well-lubricated anal sex scene halfway through Lord of the Rings would probably be grotesquely out of place. But what about Midnight Cowboy? And while we’re on the subject of art imitating life, anyone who has seen Mick Jagger’s 1968 movie Performance is likely also aware of the rumors that some of the sex in that wasn’t simulated, either.
And so on?? Before you ask, no. I do not want to see unsimulated sex every time I turn on the TV...but is simulated sex (which you cannot escape from) any better? (Cos I don't especially want to see that, either) If Actress A has to suck Actor B's cock as part of the story, which is the case in Q, what difference does it make whether she really does have it in her mouth, or is just kneeling in front of him with it pressed against her face, and is pretending to be doing it?
Yes, there are scenes that you would not want your children to watch, but hopefully you feel that way about a lot of other things on television and DVD, sexual content or otherwise. But please don't say that "real" sex on screen is a hallowed societal taboo, the last thing that stands between mankind and his ultimate descent into a gutter stuffed with depravity, because so were a lot of other things, including many that movies helped us to break down. Fifty years ago, married couples on TVs had to sleep in separate beds.
Q isn’t simply my favorite movie of 2012. It’s up there among my favorite movies ever, certainly within the ranks of European cinema...and as that’s a large part of what I watch, then hopefully that demonstrates just how highly I rate this movie. And how much I admire Bouhnik and his cast for having the balls and the vision to make it.
But still I am interested; what is it about Q in particular, but the whole concept of real sex taking place in a non-porno movie setting, that gets so many people bent out of shape?
Forget the reviews (many of which, even in France, were less than complimentary); I discussed the movie on my own blog back in May, and am still warding off the hate mail. And seriously, I never imagined that visitors to a site whose primary content comprises short stories and videos of people having oral sex would be quite so hostile, quite so conservative.
What line has been crossed? What unwritten rule has been shattered? What sacred cow has had its tail tugged?
I’m at a loss. And I hope you are, as well. Please leave a comment, and let me know.