The soft caress of a lover’s palm; The fire that rages only when your eyes lock; The electric current pulsating through two bodies at once–this is sex. Two are united, and it is beautiful.
Unless, of course, a film that attempts to capture it in full is demonized with an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. Today, Blue is the Warmest Color—the winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—received the strict rating for “explicit sexual content,” due to what is reportedly a lengthy sex scene involving two women that the author of Blue Angel (the graphic novel Blue is the Warmest Color is based on) compared to a scene of pornography.
What is the difference, then, between pornography and an explicit sex scene? The viewer’s intent, whether that be to get off or simply enjoy a narrative, gives the definition some flexibility. Sure, a sex scene in a film can be titillating, but people don’t watch films the same way they watch porn. We’re looking to fill something emotional with film, and something purely physical with porn.
Some have dubbed the scene “gratuitous” and “unnecessarily long.” I’ve yet to see it, but I have a hard time believing that a sex scene of such length could possibly read as exploitation. If something is emphasized in a narrative film (a general term I’ll use to mean anything other than pornography)—whether it be a single unbroken shot in the vein of Children of Men or a seemingly unending conversation between husband and wife in The Tree of Life—there’s justification in a filmmaker’s insistence to hesitate; to make us watch; to fixate upon some fleeting act we wouldn’t pay any mind to otherwise. If context justifies a 20-minute sex scene, then context justifies a 20-minute sex scene. Plus, I find it increasingly hard to believe that a Cannes jury consisting of Steven Spielberg, Nicole Kidman, Ang Lee, and Christoph Waltz would select a pornographic sexploitation flick for the Palme d’Or.
That’s where the mystery of sex comes into play, at least for the American public. It’s often questionable how films are increasingly violent (not necessarily gory, mind you) yet the MPAA seems to have gone lax, forgiving heaps of violence and consistently punishing nudity for simply existing; a bare breast in film is a bare breast that belongs to an actress. Slapping a film with an R-rating for “exposing” what’s real in turn demonizes the sexuality of a woman (I use the example of female nudity because it’s far more prevalent in American cinema than male nudity) and subconsciously creates a barrier for the audience; it says that this is something that should be guarded, secretive, and ultimately objectified.
For the aggressive American society and its people, sex is simply more mysterious than violence. Conflict is something people associate with on a daily basis. Whether it’s berating a retail employee or arguing with family, the “spectacle of conflict,” as I’ll call it, often leads to the glorification of battle. Violence is a direct product of conflict, and American culture has become desensitized to violence as it’s accepted as an integral part of simply finding a solution. If we don’t get what we want, we automatically victimize ourselves, and instigate conflict to achieve it. We see it on reality television shows week after week. After all, we’ve been force-fed them for well over a decade now, it only makes sense that a younger generation thinks that the appropriate way to solve a conflict is to overturn a table a’la Bravo housewife.
For that, we understand violence for its accessibility, but sex is still vastly mysterious to many people. Especially homosexual sex, which is not an act the “majority” has experienced. Blue is the Warmest Color is a film which depicts lesbian sex—a sexual act far more acceptable to American males than gay sex, mind you. An NC-17 rating carries negative connotations, but hopefully that’s not to say that homosexual sex is automatically more risqué than heterosexual sex in the eyes of the American public, it’s simply othered for no other reason than a lack of relatability.
There’s a great deal of outrage at the MPAA’s decision to bestow the NC-17 rating upon Blue is the Warmest Color, particularly by people who claim that the rating is an infamous kiss of death for a film’s commercial viability—especially going into Oscar season, where such a rating is widely believed to have cost Michael Fassbender a Lead Actor nomination back in 2011 when Shame garnered the actor huge awards buzz. Outside of France, Blue’s country of origin, I don’t believe the commercial viability of the film existed in the first place. The United States, while on a fantastic path toward change and equal rights for its LGBT citizens, harbors a much more hostile social climate than those in Europe. Homosexuality is far more along the lines of “other,” and the difference between an R-rating and NC-17 will likely have little impact on the film’s grosses. I can only speak from experience when I say that films in my hometown of Pittsburgh played Shame when it was released, so if NC-17s are finding their way to C-market cinema screens, we have little to worry about in terms of how much of an audience Blue is the Warmest Color, a film which appeals to those old enough to legally see it, will reach.