Film: High libido on the Lido

Has cinema finally learned how to do sex? Visitors to this year's Venice Film Festival have been finding out.
In the run-up to this year's Venice Film Festival, which continues on the Lido until 11 September, the buzz was all about sex. Some wag in the Italian press even renamed it the Venice Porn Festival. Among the erotic treats in store for Lido audiences were Korean sado-masochism, Italian widescreen fellatio and the sexual fantasies of middle-aged Belgians. If new festival director Alberto Barbera - who had previously turned the Turin Film Festival from a tiny provincial event into an important second- league date on the European calendar - was angling for press coverage of the "Sex in Venice" variety, he certainly got it. But he was also offering festival audiences a golden opportunity. In 11 days on the Lido, with a programme stretching from the glossiest Hollywood pap to the furthest arthouse fringe, we were being offered the chance to find out whether cinema had finally learned how to do sex.

Cinema, of course, is a dream factory. But it is a dream that claims - in most cases - to look like life. Neo-realism came and went, but it did encourage the expectation that, outside of certain genres and special cases (sci-fi, film noir, Peter Greenaway), actors should walk, talk and eat like ordinary people. Greta Garbo's uncannily mannered voice signalled the divide between film and life like a neon sign. These days, voice coaches contrive to provide even Michael Caine (in Lasse Hallstrom's The Cider House Rules) with a rural New England accent to go with his role, keeping his Cockney staccato down like a ferret in a shoebox.

Sex coaches, however, are in short supply. ("Look, Michael, this is how we do it in Maine. Just watch, and then copy me"). From Last Tango in Paris to Basic Instinct, the portrayal of sex in the cinema has generally been stylised to a greater or lesser extent (Last Tango was arthouse erotic choreography, but it was still choreography). All men keep on going for at least three or four rounds, all women are groaners.

The festival opened on 1 September with the European premiere of the late Stanley Kubrick's hymn to family values, Eyes Wide Shut, but Kubrick should have taken a leaf out of Frederic Fonteyne's book. The young Belgian director was one of the sex-watchers' Great White Hopes, as his film (in competition) was entitled Une Liaison Pornographique. The affair narrated in the film begins with an Internet advertisement, in which a good-looking but no longer young woman (played with some finesse by Nathalie Baye) appeals for a man who is prepared to help her fulfil a very unusual sexual fantasy. A volunteer (Sergi Lopez) duly answers, they meet in a cafe, and begin a series of sexual encounters in a hotel.

The names of these two characters is not the only piece of information the film withholds. At no point does the audience discover what the woman's kinky fantasy was. The camera enters the hotel room for the first time only when they begin to fall in love and decide they would like to try doing it straight. From there on in this is a love story, told with a good deal of sensitivity, not only in its Gallic grasp of emotional nuance, but also in the way it shows sex. At a certain point, she is on top and he realises that he is about to, um, do the discourtesy of getting to the end before she does. So he puts a pillow over his head; takes it off, looks at her, realises he is still too close to the edge, puts it back on again. It's a funny, believable touch, driven home by something the man says later on: "In films, people always achieve orgasm at the same time... and in films, sex is either heaven or hell. In life, it's generally somewhere between the two."

Sex and hell are closely related in Buddy Boy, a twisted slice of Americana from first-time director Mark Hanlon, Francis, a psychologically disturbed loner and devout Catholic, finds a way of spying on the pretty girl who lives in the apartment opposite. Though they meet and begin an awkward affair, Francis eventually retreats back to his spy-hole across the road; he's much happier watching. British actor Aidan Gillen does an impressive job of conveying Francis' oscillation between the need to be loved and the need for emotional isolation: we, in turn, alternate between sympathy and wanting to bang his head on the floor.

The fellatio mentioned above is only one of the sexual permutations on offer in Davide Ferrario's Guardami (Look At Me), a love story of sorts about an Italian porn actress who gets cancer. Though Ferrario is a visually inventive director, the film is confused: it doesn't really know what point it is trying to make about the sex industry, except that ordinary people with kids and mothers work in it. In the end, the setting becomes exploitative in its own right - you get to see an awful lot of gratuitous porn footage (and tittage and bummage), but because it's a "serious" film, you can take your girlfriend. The most interesting thing about the film - apart from the shape of one of the virile members - is the way Italy now seems to be pushing back the frontiers of what gets past the censors. This was the country, remember, whose moral arbiters not only contrived to ban Last Tango in Paris, but even managed to deprive the film's director, Bernardo Bertolucci, of his voting rights.

If any one film was touted as the real festival shocker - and the rightful heir to Last Tango - it was Gojitmal (Lies) by Korean director Jang Sun Woo. Here at last, we were promised, was the real thing: a film about an obsessive and increasingly sado-masochistic sexual relationship between a successful sculptor and a high-school student half his age, shot mainly on a handheld camera. Here at last, we were to be shown two people doing it, without a filter.

Well, we certainly saw plenty of sex - over an hour of it (though, ingeniously, there was hardly a glimpse of a sexual organ). The interest, if that is the word, was provided by the variations in the objects the two lovers hit each other with. To quote the press book: "Their sado-masochistic endeavours intensify emotionally and creatively, passing from cords to broomsticks to tree branches".

During the course of the press screening, nervous titters gave way to loud guffaws. The loudest was reserved for the scene when the lovers are foraging for promising bits of wood in a public park, and the man says "Bring the bit with the nail in". The director had no problem with this reaction. "I wanted the audience to laugh as much as possible", he said at the following day's press conference. "This is a funny film, but sad at the same time". He also claimed that the film was supposed to be boring ("so are life and love"), that it "abolishes the difference between pornography and Buddhist nirvana", and that one of the main points of this film was that it went against the Korean orthodoxy that people should spend their days working, "especially now that the Korean economy is under the control of the International Monetary Fund". Now that was an angle that never once occurred to me.

A film like Gojitmal is a great advertisement for the Hollywood approach to sex. If this is realism, then perfect timing, perfect bodies and no worries about whether it's the right time of the month come to seem like very necessary fictions.