Boogie frights

Since the attempts to censor david Cronenberg's Crash any film which attempts to tackle sex and violence feels threatened with a ban. Chris Darke examines offerings at the London Film Festival whose controversy might outweigh their worth.

At first sight Boogie Nights, an account of the American porn industry in the late 1970s, is a "provocative" film. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore, it is a two-and-a-half-hour epic trawl through lowlife film-making and the disco-dancing, coke-snorting lifestyle of 1970s LA. Wahlberg plays Eddie Adams, a 17-year-old kid from the sticks blessed with a 13-inch penis and an insatiable, good-natured, appetite for sex.

Renamed Dirk Diggler by porn-maestro Jack Homer (Reynolds), Eddie finds a surrogate family among the sleaze merchants. Homer's wife, Amber Waves (Moore) comes to see him as her "little boy". The subject matter is obviously problematic, but Boogie Nights has so many cinematic pleasures going for it that it almost manages to render hardcore porn innocuous. It's not that it overlooks the toll that the porno underworld inflicts on its inhabitants - drug abuse, murder, Mafia take-overs, not to mention the numerous crimes against sartorial good sense - more that it sheathes these elements in a brilliant-hued prophylactic of 1970s kitsch.

Equally, Anderson's command of the camera makes Boogie Nights a bravura piece of American film-making, up there with Goodfellas in scope and scale.

He knows when to set the lens pirouetting through dance floor crowds as well as when to hold steady and observational on Wahlberg's boyish features. But, deep down, the film accepts pornography as a fact of film life and accepts that, in the 1970s, there was a moment when hardcore looked like it could penetrate the mainstream.

Think of 1970s auteur films such as Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris and Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses. They saw art cinema taking advantage of the codes and latitude allowed through the graphic depiction of sex and combined them with the cultural sanction of European arthouse prestige.

If Boogie Nights is as much an exercise in 1970s nostalgia as it is a serious character study, it remains a consummately pleasurable piece of cinema nonetheless.

This issue of cinematic pleasure is at the heart of a much tougher film: Michael Haneke's Funny Games which is also the subject of a seminar on "Violence in the Arts" at London's ICA on 22 November. If, in the 1990s, violence has become the new sex in terms of respectability, Haneke's film is a single-minded deconstruction of what it means to sit in the cinema and watch terrible things done by human to human. In Funny Games the violence is seen to hurt. And we, as spectators, collude in it because the Funny Games here have as much to do with the "pact" that we make as spectators as they do with the murderous antics of Haneke's pair of home-invading psychopaths.

Boogie Nights and Funny Games could be seen as polar opposites on the sex and violence spectrum, but there are other, more ambiguously-toned factors in the Festival. Harmony Korine's Gummo, for example, is bound to upset those with a fondness for cats. It chronicles the exploits of a white-trash duo who enjoy nothing better than bumping off local felines and flogging them to a local restaurateur in exchange for cheap, sniffable solvents.

Korine scripted Larry Clarke's controversial Kids and if Gummo kicks up a comparable fuss it won't be solely on the strength of any perceived animal abuse. (In fact, there's a disclaimer in the credits that goes to great lengths to insist that only prosthetic felines are used.)

Anger is more likely to be directed at the director's perceived lack of moral position on this subject matter. Where's the film coming from? What's Korine's angle? It may be a case of a smart New York art-scene kid glorying in the weirdness of his gallery of grotesques or it may be the case that these kids, like Clarke's, are gimlet-eyed, beyond-the-pale horrors whose behaviour is not easily explained by the thin, almost non- existent narrative which Korine's film offers.

But, then again, when set against the scabrous black comedy of Albert Dupontel's French slice of madcap guignol, Bernie, a very Gallic assault on all notions of PC etiquette in film-making, Gummo looks positively restrained.

`Boogie Nights': Fri 21 Nov 10.45 Odeon WE2. `Funny Games': Thurs 20 Nov 2pm and 6pm `Bernie': Sun 16 Nov 11.00pm, ICA, London SW1