The Good Old Naughty Days (R-18)

They don't do filth like they used to...
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The Independent Culture

Sex in French cinema, you may have noticed, has not exactly been fun lately. In films by the likes of Catherine Breillat, undressing has tended to be an excuse for quoting the severest passages of Bataille and Nietzsche. Even Bertrand Bonello's very explicit Le Pornographe used hardcore imagery to bemoan the decline of the radical Left: a film, you might say, preoccupied more with '68 than 69.

Sex in French cinema, you may have noticed, has not exactly been fun lately. In films by the likes of Catherine Breillat, undressing has tended to be an excuse for quoting the severest passages of Bataille and Nietzsche. Even Bertrand Bonello's very explicit Le Pornographe used hardcore imagery to bemoan the decline of the radical Left: a film, you might say, preoccupied more with '68 than 69.

It was not ever thus, as witness The Good Old Naughty Days, a compilation of pornographic shorts from the 1920s, originally designed for screening in brothels, to keep waiting punters revved up. Compiled by Michel Reilhac, head of cinema at European culture channel Arte, The Good Old Naughty Days is selected from material supposedly found in the attic of "a very respectable family" and restored by the archive of the Centre National de la Cinématographie. The film therefore has unimpeachable film-historical credentials, but more importantly, is something of a jaw-dropper. These shorts were often made by film professionals using spare hours on legitimate productions, and starred local prostitutes and gifted punters. With some, if not all, showing a decidedly amateur, rough-and-ready spirit, these films are really the precursor of today's gonzo porn. What distinguishes them from today's equivalent is above all that the participants seem to be having a riotous old time, the discharge coming as much in laughter as in orgasms.

The shock is quite how extreme these films are, with the key tropes of modern hardcore already present - meat shots, money shots and all. There's penetration every whichway, blow-jobs, a great deal of cunnilingus, girl-on-girl, boy-on-boy, priest-on-nun, and in what will certainly be the most controversial numéro, a free-for-all involving two nuns, a novice, the gardener and a dog.

What makes the films so different from present-day porn is the bodies and the way they respond. Today's professional sex performers tend to have porn physiques, more robotic than human, pumped and tweaked for optimum efficiency. The bodies here are very ordinary, variously scrawny, wobbly, unscrubbed: what counts is enthusiasm and often comic flair. In L'Atelier Faiminette, an outbreak of fleas in a couture house leads to two seamstresses undressing and caressing, before being joined by their bumbling patron, who can't come up to scratch. The film ends with him collapsing slapstick-style in frustration.

Similarly, you won't see that aggrieved hernia face that accompanies the modern orgasm. Many of the performers laugh their heads off at the larkiness of it all. There are only a couple of variants on today's standard grimace - notably, in one of two episodes involving nuns, a close-up apparently parodying the ecstasy of Bernini's Saint Teresa.

The films are not just democratic - all comers, as it were - in the body stakes. There is a general polymorphousness that defies specialisation: in a parody of Madame Butterfly, Pinkerton screws his valet as well as Butterfly, while the toffs at a bucolic tea party swap partners so that one gent can keep the gardener entertained. There is no sense that sex between men is out of place in a film presumably made for a heterosexual male audience.

As for genres, the films run from slapstick parody to traditional French anti-clerical provocation. There's even costume comedy with a touch of Carry On buffoonery: a musketeer and a serving wench run through sexual positions like courses, each corresponding to an awful culinary pun (Kama Sutra meets Larousse Gastronomique). This item also proves that there's little in the world less erotic than a mob cap and ringlets - unless it's the donkey ears worn in one of the other sketches.

It is rumoured that certain legitimate cineastes had a hand in some of these films: go speculate. One short, La Voyeuse, is no less graphic than the rest, but is certainly visually classier, with polished lighting effects and a more dapper-looking cast: this, you might say, is the Anais Nin art-house exhibit, a precursor of the tastefully-mounted "posh porn" of the Seventies Emmanuelle school. The really interesting stylistics, however, are in Devoirs de Vacances, which plays ingeniously with close-ups and black-and-white nuns' uniforms: in one of those five-person routines where any body part goes wherever it'll fit, a nun's black-stockinged leg lies next to a man's trouser leg so that initially you're not sure which limb belongs to whom. You can't help remembering this material is contemporary with the great Surrealist films.

The single most alarming factor is the use in this same short of a small white dog with an enthusiastic tongue. Having to debate bestiality in cinema isn't, to be honest, something that arises very often: is the issue here that the dog is being mistreated, or that its morals are being corrupted? For sure, there's an offence against hygiene, although it surely can't be long before the Jackass team get up to far worse.

The Good Old Naughty Days is certainly instructive and entertaining, never more so than in a genuinely nutty animation, apparently of American origin, and featuring a Super Mario lookalike with a wayward schlong. But does anything on show count as arousing these days? I fear not: in fact, given a) the changing aesthetics of physical appeal, and b) the awareness of historical distance, I'm not sure it's possible today to actually fancy anyone on screen before the 1940s (except, of course, for Louise Brooks. Or Betty Boop).

Still, lest moral corruption ensue, the film has been certificated R-18, which means it's officially classed as pornography (no argument there). However, while it was screened in legit cinemas in France last year, where it was a chic faut-voir hit, in Britain it must be viewed under club conditions, with restrictions attendant on its advertising and exhibition left to the discretion of local councils (see www.thegoodoldnaughtydays.com for the rules). Incidentally, the explanatory intertitles, already facetious in the French original, are considerably worse in this English version, which has acquired an awkward seaside-postcard ring. The original title is better too - Polissons et Galipettes, roughly meaning "Rogues and Shenanigans". Who'd have thought shagging would lose in translation?

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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