This month sees the release of a French film which, in the context of a sober tale of angst and ageing, contains images of real sex and a "money shot" lasting (a rather extraordinary) 11 seconds. The money shot is a genre staple of hardcore pornography. In it, the male performer shows the extent of his pleasure by "producing" in full view of the camera, usually by pulling out and ejaculating, courtesy of some form of masturbatory aid. I spell these details out for you because they are the subject of a fascinating argument waged between the British Board of Film Classification and the UK distributors of Bertrand Bonello's new film, The Pornographer, over what kinds of images are currently considered beyond the pale for adult viewers in mainstream cinemas.
One might think a film entitled The Pornographer would contain a fair bit of the hard stuff. Instead it concentrates on the dismal mid-life crisis of ex-pornographic film-maker Jacques (played by Nouvelle Vague veteran Jean-Pierre Léaud), who returns to his trade after years living off his wife, only to find that skin flicks ain't what they used to be. Although his core audience are truck drivers, Jacques's sexual philosophy is holistic, haunted by the dim memory of May 1968 radicalism: he talks at tedious length about knitting sexuality into a humanistic tapestry of emotion and reproduction. Jacques directs his lead actress Jenny not to overplay the groaning, and to ensure she swallows the sperm when fellating her leading man (falling back on that old chestnut "if you really love him, you'll swallow it"). But as the cameras roll it becomes clear that a new generation has usurped Jacques' sexual territory, when the producer insists on the requisite erotic grunting, and directs the man to pull out of Jenny's mouth and ejaculate on to her face. The erotic auteur has been eclipsed by the vulgar porno-hack.
The Pornographer actually contains very little hardcore, so don't expect liberal doses of explicit rumpy-pumpy lacing the rather earnest narrative. This is not hardcore by the back door: the porn palace's racy delights will not be available under the respectable cover of your local art house. The sex is fleeting, and plot-driven: in addition to the scene culminating in the disputed money shot, there is only one other brief long shot of all-fours sex in a field for a porno-cowboy flick (complete with a bored-looking background horse), amply demonstrating the genre's glorious banality. The rest is a character piece, focusing on Jacques' difficult relationship with his estranged son. In its curious mix of implicit Oedipus and explicit cunnilingus, The Pornographer favours the former, preferring ponderous angst over performed ecstasy.
It is, then, rather surprising that the BBFC has got into such a lather about the aforementioned money shot, especially given the precedent of some films they have sanctioned recently. If you think that hardcore material (erections, oral sex, penetration shots) is not permissible in mainstream cinema, then you probably didn't catch art-house fodder such as The Idiots or Intimacy.
Nevertheless, since UK distributors Metro Tartan first submitted The Pornographer for certification, the BBFC has steadfastly demanded an 11-second cut – that ejaculation in full – before giving The Pornographer the 18 rating it needs to secure a general audience. Metro Tartan met this demand with three possible strategies: though opposed to the cut on principle, it asked to run the film with an animated pink triangle obscuring the offending member. The BBFC said no. The company then asked if it could blank the screen for 11 seconds at the appropriate moment. Still the BBFC said no. Finally, it plans to display a message on screen prior to performances, reading something along the lines of "The film you are about to see has been mutilated because of the UK's draconian censorship climate." This is now Metro Tartan's last line of defence, since the cut is non-negotiable. They have opted not to make a slightly longer cut which would have neatened the edit. Instead of the money shot there is a jagged ellipsis – effectively a jump-cut – making obvious the fact that something has been removed.
Turning the tables on the censors, the owner of Metro Tartan, Hamish McAlpine, says that he is "disturbed that this does seem to be going against their stated guidelines". In September 2000 the BBFC redefined what was acceptable at 18 (available for general adult audiences) and R18 (only available in licensed sex shops), for the first time openly mapping the terms that would allow explicit imagery into the fold of public acceptability. The fact that erections could be seen in foreign flicks such as Ai No Corrida or Les Amants du Pont-Neuf was to many anti-censorship campaigners fleshly proof of double standards operating in the UK – what's good for the refined audience of the Regional Film Theatres was bad for the masses of the multiplex. The 2000 guidelines were welcomed as a new broom, sweeping away such inconsistencies.
So why should there be such insistence on this cut, given the BBFC's declaration that it "respects the right of adults to chose their own entertainment, within the law"? The Pornographer is careful to frame its sex in a context of consent: Jacques justifies his work by saying, "I use all legal forms of penetration, never illegal stuff, nor bestiality, minors or scat. Nor real S & M."
The couple who perform the ejaculatory act do so for money, certainly (both within the film-within-a-film, and for The Pornographer itself), making the consent financially contractual. But this shot does not represent an illegal act – no one will arrest you if you choose to participate in a scenario in which one person ejaculates on to another's face, whether you are doer or done-to. At issue is what would happen if you filmed it and tried to show it to other consenting adults in your local cinema, with your own philosophical and narrative context.
Is the crux of the matter the vérité of this cinema? The BBFC has said that "material which appears to be simulated is generally passed 18, while images of real sex are confined to the R18 category". One assumes, then, that any image of real sex must consign a film to the specialist R18 ghetto, but this is not the case. In 1999 feminist film-maker Catherine Breillat's Romance appeared, another ponderous, philosophically-minded meditation on the nature of eroticism, which was passed uncut for cinema release at 18. Not only did it contain real-life copulation, it also featured a money shot. Breillat told me at the time that if censorship was threatened she wanted to black the screen at the offending moment, leave the soundtrack running, and present viewers with a VHS of what they'd missed as they left the cinema. "If there is censorship, people should know there is censorship, and why," she said. "Censorship should be seen as a scar."
So why censor Bonello and not Breillat? The BBFC justified its decision by saying that Breillat's film was "very French in the frank way it addresses sexual issues" (but so is Bonello's). Romance's ejaculation bursts into air rather than on to a woman's face, and only lasts a second. So does the BBFC object to The Pornographer's explosion because of its prodigious duration (if not size, then endurance matters), or its target? What is so intrinsically wrong with sperm on a face that means we must be protected from it?
The BBFC does allow images that are "justified by context", and if nothing else The Pornographer tediously contextualises its sex. The irony is that because the visible ejaculation is symptomatic of Jacques' loss of directorial control (he is, you will recall, the one who wanted Jenny to swallow it), he is positioned squarely with the censors, wanting in all his sexual sentimentality to keep the sperm securely off-screen (in the mouth). The (cut) shot is thus one of the strongest plot points in the film. Jacques believes in the power of the blow job, which he calls "the soul of porno". "I've always found it disquieting," he says. "You don't just have two interlocking organs, you also have a face. The last bastion of humanity." The cut proves that our culture, too, sees the face as sanctified, to be protected from the visible "dirt" of sperm, even if that means we have to swallow it.
The Pornographer has been passed uncut in France, classified suitable for 16-year-olds. So are French citizens more inured to the damaging messages of the ejaculating penis than the British? It seems that some screen sperm are more acceptable than others. Cameron Diaz is the unwitting recipient of male body fluids in There's Something About Mary (she slicks her hair with it). Exactly why fake semen framing the face is comedically abject but certifiable at 15, while real semen on the face is censorable at 18, is a matter of debate. Fictional sperm used as hair gel can guarantee an international adolescent audience. In The Pornographer, not even adults can see the real thing.
The Pornographer is released on 19 AprilReuse content