Lots of Sex at the Cannes Film Festival

Porn Studies

AFP, 5/21/06 - Sex -- in many forms and, in at least one case, unsimulated -- is heating up screens at the Cannes film festival, confirming the event's reputation for taboo-busting fare.

Five films in the official competition alone have already offered enough nudity to mark them for mature audiences only, and one, "Shortbus", by US director John Cameron Mitchell, blurred the boundary between pornography and art with its actors engaging in real intercourse.

Other movies featuring lots of skin include "Summer Palace", a well-regarded Chinese contender for the Palme d'Or prize, the British flick "Red Road", the revolting "Taxidermia" from Hungary, and the French movie "Charlie Says".

Other sexed-up features are to be found in theatres outside the main selection, among them "The Exterminating Angels" by French director Jean-Claude Brisseau -- who was convicted of sexual harassment last December for having two of his actresses masturbate for him during auditions -- and "Princess", a Danish animation that makes bloody judgement on the porn industry.

Titillating or visually appalling scenes have long been a staple of the Cannes festival, which has a reputation for European liberalism and unconventional art to uphold.

In previous years, audiences have been subjected to sex-with-violence ("Irreversible", with its real-time rape scene or "Trouble Every Day", which brings cannibalism into the mix), and sex-and-ennui (Vincent Gallo's "Brown Bunny" is the clear winner here, with its fellatio scene being the only wake-up moment in an otherwise boring feature).

Over time, directors have had to work harder and harder to make such provocations work as audiences become increasingly inured.

"Shock value evidently sells, though, and critics will always argue that the desire to shock has outweighed artistic integrity," British movie trade magazine Screen International said.

In "Red Road", a late sex scene shows all of the lead actress, Kate Dickie, as she receives oral stimulation.

But she said that was easier for her than preceding scenes where she is laid emotionally bare while fully clothed.

"I find sex scenes actually less intrusive than emotional scenes, because it's just your body and it's your physical self and nobody is getting in here," Dickie said, pointing to her heart.

"Shortbus" is perhaps this festival's most scandalous film in terms of sex. It starts with an explicit scene of a man performing auto-fellatio, and goes on to depict, or rather document, group sex, masturbation and S and M playacting.

As one of the characters tours a (real) orgy held in a New York underground art space, she is told by the cross-dressing owner: "It's just like the '60s, only with less hope."

The line captures the seen-it-all jadedness of both the performers and many of the viewers.

What's telling in his movie, though, is that after the initial sex acts, the movie settles down into an exploration of loneliness that eschews gratuitous close-ups of genitalia for a stirring affirmation of our interconnectedness -- physical or not.

More ...

John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus at the Cannes Film Festival

Reuters, 5/21/06 - In his provocative new film "Shortbus," U.S. director John Cameron Mitchell is seeking to demystify sex on screen by making it real.

Showing out of competition at the Cannes film festival, the movie set around a colorful underground cabaret-cum-nightclub called Shortbus is the culmination of a long-held ambition of Mitchell's to present sex as no more than a fact of life.

It is not the first time real sex has appeared in a film outside the porn world. British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom included it in his "9 Songs" in 2004, for example.

But in his touching exploration of New York today, Mitchell features a range of relationships -- gay and straight -- which intertwine when people searching for something more in their lives descend on the club.

The opening sequence prepares audiences for what is to come, with three different sex scenes.

One features a young man performing oral sex on himself in front of a camera, another a young man masturbating as he is whipped by a dominatrix and the third a couple having acrobatic sex in their apartment.

Mitchell succeeds in making the on-screen action less shocking than it sounds, and rather than gasps from the audience at a press screening, there was laughter at the comedy.

"This film was not pornographic," Mitchell told reporters on Saturday. "I don't think anyone got a hard-on watching this film."

SEX A METAPHOR

For him sex is a metaphor for aspects of the characters' lives, so Sofia's search for the elusive orgasm is actually a search for happiness.

Not only is Shortbus a statement about cinema, but it is also a commentary on the United States which Mitchell said viewed sex too negatively.

"I really believe our country specifically needs to take a look at that stuff. You crush something, it pops up somewhere else, it comes back to haunt you.

"To avoid looking at it, to sweep it under the carpet, to discuss AIDS programs only in terms of abstinence, to clamp down, you get trouble like the trouble you might find in the Catholic Church hierarchy."

The film, which cost $2 million to make, could find it tough to get distribution, particularly in the United States.

"We didn't really make this film to make money," said Mitchell, flanked by eight of his cast. "There are a lot of easier things we could have done if we wanted to make money."

Casting the movie was no mean feat.

The director deliberately avoided agents and professional actors and advertised instead in alternative magazines across North America.

The process of collecting 500 submissions, auditioning 40, choosing nine and carrying out workshops with them took more than two years.

Mitchell's previous film was "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," a rights-of-passage film that gained the 43-year-old director a cult following in the United States.

John Cameron Mitchell's Quotes - From the Toronto Sun, 5/29/06

On the explicit hardcore sex he depicted in his Cannes film Shortbus: “I actually like pornography. (But) I don’t really consider this film pornographic because I define pornography as devoid of artistic intent. The purpose of pornography is to arouse and I don’t think anybody got a hard-on watching this film. The erotic element is certainly not a priority.”

On performing a cunninglingus cameo in Shortbus, the gay filmmaker’s first experience ever with a woman: “It was better than craft services!” [The people responsible for beverages and snacks on the set.]

Sook-Yin Lee, Explicit Sex, America and Shortbus

The Ottawa Citizen, 5/22/06 - It is always just a matter of time before sex rears its head at a film festival, and here on the French Riviera it happens even more quickly, seeing as how it's never fully unreared, so to speak.

So it is that the hottest movies in the first week of the Cannes film festival are, well, the hottest movies. People are talking about Princess by Anders Morgenthaler, a drama in a Japanese anime style with some live action, about a man who launches a crusade against the porn industry that killed his sister. The sex is animated, but it's there. There is also buzz around Taxidermia, Gyorgy Palfi's surreal voyage into a world of excrement, vomiting, morbid obesity and bizarre sex. Key scene: a man has carnal knowledge of a knothole in a barn wall while a rooster pecks away on the other side. The verdict of the Hollywood Reporter is that Taxidermia is "likely to be viewed in its bloody entirety only by thoracic surgeons and maniacs."

Explicit sex -- with or without violence -- is an honourable tradition in Cannes, going back to such provocations as Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, Vincent Gallo's Brown Bunny and even David Cronenberg's Crash.

And now there's another Canadian connection: John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus, an explicit comedy-drama about a group of young New Yorkers on a voyage of self-discovery, most of the time with their clothes off. The cast is headed by Sook-Yin Lee, host of CBC Radio's Definitely Not The Opera, in a performance that is -- and let me be the first to say it -- definitely not.

We meet her character, Sofia, leaning stark naked on a piano and having several varieties of what appears to be unsimulated sex with her husband Rob (Raphael Barker). Although Sofia is a sex therapist -- "I prefer relationship counsellor," she keeps saying -- she has never had an orgasm, and her journey on Shortbus includes encounters with an impressively rubbery vibrator and the insertion of a vibrating vaginal egg that is activated by a remote control. In a moment typical of the movie's wicked humour, the remote gets misplaced and someone uses it to try to change channels on the TV.

Sook-Yin Lee was almost fired by CBC when it was announced she was taking the role. "There was confusion and fear on the part of my bosses," she says now, adding that she was fascinated how they all supported the idea of the film, but they all said that the boss above them didn't want her to do it. The threat of firing was dropped in the face of a public protest supporting her decision.

"It was the most beautiful thing because in the end, my bosses just went 'Phew. You are allowed to do this. Go do it.'"

Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) told a press conference Saturday that the sex in Shortbus was meant as both a metaphor for a search for love and meaning, and as a provocation against what he sees as a strain of puritanism in the U.S.

However, it was not meant to be erotic. The opening scene, for instance, in which a man performs an act of autofellatio, is meant to be part of the theme about sexual self-sufficiency and the way people are separated.

"Sex is just another brushstroke in the painting of life. Fear of sex is at the root of many problems that aren't directly connected to sex," he told reporters, adding that there is more violence in "erotophobic" countries. He quoted Yoko Ono, who wrote a letter to CBC supporting Lee, which read, "If people were having better sex there would be less war."

The movie -- which was developed in workshops among actors who improvised scenes -- includes heterosexual couples seeking connections, homosexual couples looking for love, and even some threesomes; in one case, three gay men in a menage-a-trois stop to sing the American national anthem. It all adds up to a movie that may be hard to distribute, but Mitchell said he wasn't worried about what kind of rating Shortbus might get. "I really want the ratings board to have to watch this film," he said.

He also hopes young people get a chance to watch it. Internet porn sites are the chief sexual educational tool these days, he said, and so sex is viewed as a commodity. One of his favourite lines in the film comes during an orgy scene at a sex club, when the manager looks at the writhing couples and says, "It's like the '60s, but with less hope.

"There is this disillusionment that vents itself in anger, and other negative ways, drugs. (Young people) feel powerless in the era of Bush, which is about clamping down, being scared," Mitchell said. Among other things, Shortbus is something of a call to arms.

"There are other ways of thinking, and there are still hopefully Americans worth hanging out with."

Pornstudent Comment ...

John Cameron Mitchell, said it was a comedy, not pornographic, and he didn't think anyone in the audience would get aroused to an erection. Another director, Jean-Claude Brisseau, was convicted of sexual harassment for having two actresses masturbate for him during auditions.

In a porn movie you would hope the audience got erections and it would have been laughable for porn actresses to sue for sexual harassment. So, there is a way to tell art from porn.

See also ...
Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs

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