Today, an article in Variety details the struggle to prevent far-right wing elements of French politics from stamping Gaspar Noé’s Love with an Under-18 rating (our equivalent of NC-17 in the States). The piece is articulate and informative, and likely portends the difficulties that Love will face in other nations as well. If you’re at all interested in discussions of film standards, censorship, the treatment of sexuality in film, or things of that nature, I would suggest you give it a read. I will stay away from recounting the particulars of the story, and instead react to how I anticipate this will affect the latest offering from Noé here in the States. I may hop on an anti-censorship soapbox, as well.
Love, like the rest of Noé’s films, is not going to be a lark. It will challenge the viewer with its overt sexuality, and it was probably always destined for an NC-17 rating here in the States. Sadly, the MPAA still rules with an iron fist over the industry and absolutely hates sexually explicit images – even those between romantically-involved partners. What’s worse, sex outside of the “normal” adult relationship dynamic is generally frowned upon, as is female-focused oral sex. Love is basically a laundry list of all of these things, as it contains a Male/Female/Female threesome at the center of its plot and depicts a number of different sexual acts between these individuals. The context is immaterial to the MPAA – they’ll see the sex and slap Love with NC-17 without a second thought. This will result in a much-reduced number of theaters showing the film, which will probably hurt its overall grosses, but I don’t think that is too important to Noé. He’s never really gravitated to films with high box office potentials, instead focusing more on exploring the art of cinema in various ways.
Fortunately, I think we have a blueprint for what Love is going to look like here in the states – and that comes from Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol I & II. Now, if Love is a challenge to show in theaters due to its graphic nature and 3D prints, then Nymphomaniac was an even greater challenge. The sex in Von Trier’s film was not only similarly graphic, but also came with elements of violence, degradation, and pain (both emotional and physical). Add to that a run time of nearly five-and-a-half hours for the uncut version, and you start to see that screening Nymphomaniac is a real challenge. Enter our beloved hero: Netflix. The streaming service continues to impress by providing both the theatrical version and the uncensored director’s cut of both volumes, offering millions of people the ability to view them in their own homes. I anticipate a similar journey for Love: it may show at a few art house theaters throughout the States, but I doubt that major chains will screen it. A few months after the release, VOD services will make it available, and I don’t doubt that Netflix will be one of them (they have Noé’s other films, Irreversible and Enter the Void already, and Love is said by some to be tamer than these).
This is all good news, but there needs to be a more open defense of material like Love in our own culture. I commend the French guilds who rose to speak for the artistic merit of Gaspar Noé’s film against the bureaucrats. Having not even seen the film for myself, I celebrate their courage on principle alone at this point. Squeamish bureaucrats too often are allowed to decide that if they don’t want to see moving pictures of genitals on a movie screen, then no one can – and that is shameful. It is far worse when you realize that these individuals take greater offense if those genitals both belong to men (or both belong to women), or if the sexual relationships are outside the bonds of marriage, or any other conception of a sexual relationship deemed “not normal”. The beauty of film is in its ability to fuse imagery, narrative, and character into a single, moving depiction of life as the artists envision it. It is time to face the truth that some things which are important to life and all the stories that can be told about it may inspire discomfort – and that’s okay. You don’t have to want to see Love, nor do you have to like it if you do choose to see it. But, you do have to fight for its right to exist, and speak against government agencies willfully preventing its chance of success. If we begin to fear the content of art (or worse, let others fear it for us), then we venture into a culture where the depiction and discussion of certain viewpoints is not allowed. Such a culture stifles not only art – but ideas themselves. The result isn’t merely a world lacking naked bodies on movie screens, but one devoid of opinion and dissent on any meaningful questions.