Note: The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous.
The sexual content of Blue is the Warmest Colour was much discussed, dissected and debated this year, especially following its Palme D’or win at the Cannes Film Festival. Indeed, much has been made of its infamous sex scenes – and it’s not entirely clear whether the focus has been on the explicit sex scenes or the fact that the scenes depicted lesbian sex. The director, Abdellatif Kechiche has had to defend himself from comments by the actors that the explicit scenes were ‘humiliating’ to shoot, and that he ‘exploited’ them as actresses. Of course, Blue was not the only movie of this sexually explicit kind in 2013: we had sex addiction from Thanks for Sharing - a film starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Mark Ruffalo that showed characters dealing with sex obsessions in relationships. We also had explicit, Palme d’Or-winning lesbian sex scenes in Blue is the Warmest Color. Indeed, a film rarely gets onto Oscar prediction lists without a good dose of sex or violence. Journalists made much of the fact that Steven Spielberg – seen by most as the epitome of the Hollywood cinema system - was head of judges and applauded the film’s artistic merit.
As soon as motion pictures were produced and released, there was concern over whether the industry was going to be able to correctly censor and control its own output, in relation to violent, sexual or inappropriate content. This concern led to the establishment in 1909 of ‘The New York Board of Motion Picture Censorship’, a governing body that approved the content of films before they were generally released. It became popular very quickly, leading most filmmakers to send their films for review and approval. The organization changed names a few times: first to ‘The National Board of Censorship’, and then becoming ‘The National Board of Review’. There’s an indication here of how fast things were moving in the film industry – all of these changes happened between 1909 and 1914. In 1914 bills were proposed to set up the Federal Motion Picture Censorship Commission, in which was stated that no film would be granted copyright unless it had approval for its content by the FMPCC. These bills did not become law but their conception alone indicates how much influence motion pictures were understood to have. Scenes from Howard Hughes, The Outlaw in 1943 for example, were deemed inappropriate because they emphasized Jane Russell’s breasts and were thus too sexually explicit – a notion that seems quaint now, but that Hughes had to comply with (up to a point) in order to have his movie released.
Eventually, the Motion Picture Production Code was established in 1930 and ran until 1968 when it was replaced by its own classification system: what we know today as ratings assigned to each new release, such as 15, 12 or PG. This industry standard allows audiences to know what to expect from films, and gives film producers the ability to know how much explicit content and language they may use in each production. In addition to this, American organizations have been set up advocating for responsible entertainment and are often backed by parents and religious groups. However, many people believe that the proliferation of sexual content online, in movies and video games is leading us to become whole nations of sex addicts, or to at least have powerful obsessions to viewing sexual and explicit content as we arguably become more de-sensitized to it. Although there is still taboo surrounding explicit sexual content, films such as Thanks for Sharing and the media attention that surrounded Blue is the Warmest Colour are confronting this subject.
What does a film like Blue achieve?
Steven Spielberg said that he felt the film, Blue is the Warmest Colour was a ‘profound love story’, and that its message of love – regardless of it whether it’s in the context of a heterosexual or homosexual relationship – carries a very strong message. The fact that he did not focus his attention on the sexual content of the film, or particularly mention it at all, indicates a much changed ‘Hollywood’ system from the one in which Hughes had to edited out Jane Russell’s cleavage…