Films: More sex please, we're British

Two films intent on exploring the reality of passion in the Nineties can't escape finger-wagging Sixties morality.

Sex and British cinema have never mixed easily. From the embarrassed smirk raised by the Carry On series to the acceptable face of pornography seen in the Robin Askwith Confessions trilogy, British film-makers, guilty grin on faces, have titillated and teased but dared go no further. On the rare occasions that they have, a moral code, partially required by stiff censorship, has enveloped the film; the Orwellian sex-crime must, in other words, be punished.

That sex encourages the perennial fascination in this country that it does, it might not come as much of a shock to learn that two new British films allow it to monopolise their narrative, heralding (much to both directors' chagrin) the return of the British sex comedy. That both hark back to the finger-wagging morality of Sixties works, in particular Lewis Gilbert's seminal 1966 film Alfie, while simultaneously ignoring the rise of HIV in the past two decades, may offer more of a surprise. In an age when monogamy as a means of life-preservation is encouraged, both films go the opposite way. Laughably marketed as a British answer to Sex, Lies and Videotape, Niall Johnson's The Big Swap examines the destructive forces at play on a group of friends (four couples and one single woman) following the decision to change partners in an update on the Seventies "key parties".

Shani Grewar's Guru in Seven, meanwhile, focuses on only one character, struggling artist Sanjay, who is goaded into accepting a bet in which he must sleep with seven women on seven consecutive nights if he is to become a "guru". Quite what this pseudo-spiritual accolade will bestow upon him is never fully explained, but his sexual journey is meant as a process of psychological awakening.

While the recent American films Afterglow and The Ice Storm have dealt delicately and maturely with the sexual mores of the older generations, the British contingent, while not quite sniggering behind the hand, seem trapped between condemnation and titillation. Johnson, who calls his film "a tragi-comedy of manners", would disagree: "HIV has made people more aware. There's an atmosphere now where you have to be, and it's made us as film-makers address sex seriously."

The intent may have been there, with Guru tackling earnest issues of being young and Asian in Britain, but the execution is not. The audiences at both screenings I attended found much of the sex comical. Johnson, quite rightly, sees his film as a good yardstick for assessing sexual attitudes: "The film has touched a nerve about what audiences find personally acceptable or not. But, and this says something about the British, their first reaction, when you tell them it's about wife-swapping, is like something out of a Confessions movie. They see it as risque."

Such fascination with any deviation from the norm can be traced back to the beginnings of the sex comedy. The Carry On series, beginning in 1959 with Carry On Sergeant, was suffused with an innocence and innuendo that became increasingly benign as sexual taboos in the media were slowly broken down during the so-called "permissive" decade of the Sixties. Dependent on repression and postcard humour, they were part of a confused reaction to dealing with the sudden frankness afforded to sexuality. Alongside this, films like What's New Pussycat? and That Touch of Mink increased the reliance upon chase sequences and farce - a pattern that would ultimately feed into Benny Hill's shows - while reducing emphasis on courtship. From a different perspective came the swinging London film, that sub-genre that spun off from the working-class kitchen-sinkers such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Films like Gilbert's Alfie and Silvio Narizzano's Georgy Girl both celebrated and critiqued the sexual revolution. Deviance and physical seduction were promoted, though ultimately condemned. Michael Caine's Alfie, the blue-blazered Lothario who eventually receives his due when he is replaced by a younger man in the life of one of his women, eventually asks "What's it all about?", as the title song goes. That his life, as a single man with no attachments (he even loses his son) is empty, provides in the end no "peace of mind".

While Guru has been called an "Asian Alfie" for its cheeky chappie protagonist talking directly to camera, Johnson has noted the similarities in Swap: "The way Alfie was kind of with it at the time, at the cutting edge of what relationships were about then, bears resemblance to what Swap says about Nineties relationships. While you were having fun with the guy, you were also questioning what you felt about him. By the end, you see him questioning his own actions himself."

Like Alfie, where Caine is forced to face the aborted foetus from one of his women, both films serve up unpleasant denouements for their characters, begging the notion that our approach to sex on film is still tinged with notions of justice.

The sex itself, to both films' credit, is open, liberal and biased towards neither gender. While Swap was banned in Singapore for its content, the cinema chain UCI refused to screen Guru because a projectionist claimed the film was offensive to Muslims - presumably because of the overt sexual activity. Yet both have a tendency to detail sexual activity through caricatured male-fantasy. The laddish nature of Julian, the goateed black-brief wearing seducer of Swap, and similarly Guru's Sanjay, are embodiments of "bloke" culture. Scenes of S&M, even when female-dominated, are similarly for the boys.

Johnson sees it as testament to the spirit of our age: "We have a very strange relationship to sexuality in Britain. I grew up in the era when the underwear sections of Gratton's catalogues were the only place you'd see a half-naked woman. Things like the Spice Girls and the advent of lesbian chic mean that things are now so open. Advertising has gone back to being almost sexist - but is seen as chic. The sex issue is now in your face, but on the other side there's still a definite prudishness. Sex may be toyed with on a superficial level, but underneath it's too disturbing to look at. All Saints have said `We're women, not girls', but they're the same age as the Spice Girls. It's to do with marketing, to do with tapping into our responses to the issue of sexuality. All Saints have a danger, the Spice Girls a coquettish innocence. Sex must be used in a certain way in Britain, to be got round."

That sex sells has never been in doubt; that openness is now prevalent is not a surprise, given the liberation that our age prides itself on. That it is still shrouded in a patronising cloud of morality is more worrying. As Guru's director Grewal says: "Sex should be the equivalent of a dinner." As it stands, the British approach is more like a light lunch.

`The Big Swap' opens tomorrow. `Guru In Seven' opens 10 July

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