'Brüno' too hot to handle for film censors

Film company protests after Baron Cohen film is given 18 certificate

Sacha Baron Cohen, whose outrageous comic creations have assaulted the sensibilities of everybody from American housewives to rap stars, is no stranger to controversy.

Now, the comedian has been dragged into a bitter spat over the 18 certificate awarded to his latest big screen venture, Brüno, the story of a gay Austrian fashion journalist, a decision which could cost him millions at the box office.

Yesterday, the film's distributor Universal described the certification as "absurd", and was forced to angrily deny claims that it had turned its back on Baron Cohen's teenage fan base.

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), however, insisted that Baron Cohen had submitted Brüno with a request for an adult certification when it came before it on Wednesday. The 18 certificate is likely to cost the comedian and Universal dearly at the box office.

The BBFC said Baron Cohen had been forewarned that he would not get the 15 certificate awarded to his previous hit Borat if he did not delete certain sexual scenes. But the man known for keeping teenage audiences in raptures with his portrayal of the TV presenter from Kazakhstan – and also wannabe rapper Ali G – decided to stick with the original content.

"They actually requested the 18 certificate," explained BBFC spokeswoman Sue Clark. "They knew very early on, at an advice viewing, that if they wanted a 15 they would have to cut some scenes. They have had plenty of time to do it and have chosen not to."

The scenes deemed unsuitable for a younger audience included an extended sex sequence starring Brüno and his pygmy boyfriend, another in which he mimes oral sex with a ghost of German dance act Milli Vanilli, and a third in which he attends a swingers' party.

Last night, David Kosse, president of Universal Pictures International, said the company had been left with no other option than to submit the film with an 18 request.

"They requested cuts that were some of the funniest bits of the movie," he said. "Ultimately you then know what you are going to get and, at the end of the day, we submitted the film to be an 18. We clearly wanted it to be a 15. In Ireland it is a 16, in the Netherlands a 12 and in America an R. It is absurd that you can see it as a 17-year-old in Dublin but not in London."

Baron Cohen's two previous films, Ali G and Borat, were given 15 ratings and the latter took more than £20m at the box office.

Mr Kosse said the cuts would have proved too much of a compromise. "Why take a movie that is very, very funny to the rest of the world but say the population of one country cannot see that version?"

The film rating system

18 Any detailed portrayal of violence is treated with caution, as is glamorised sexual violence and animal cruelty. Generally unsimulated sex is only allowed if educational, the rest being given an R18 certificate.

15 Nudity may be allowed in non-sexual or educational context and sex can be portrayed without strong detail. Strong violence not dwelling on inflicting pain or injury is OK. Sexual violence can only be discreet and brief. Gory images are banned. Drugs can be shown.

12/(12A) Only infrequent strong language and gore is allowed. Nudity in a sexual context must be brief and discreet and references to sex should not go beyond what is familiar to adolescents. The film must not dwell on violence or dangerous techniques such as combat or suicide.

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