How much do you want to see?
Forrest Muelrath

Still from “My Nightmare” by Richard Kern


A couple of directors have found success in American box offices over the past two years with films that portray unsimulated, penetrative sex. Lars Von Trier (Antichirst, Nymphomanic), and Gaspar Noe (Irreversible, Enter the Void) have transgressed any boundaries that previously existed for showing sex on the screen in mainstream American movie houses. These films led many film writers to ask questions like “What’s the difference between Nymphomaniac and Porn,” as Amy Nicholson did when she titled her January 2014 review of the film in the Village Voice.

Pornographic material is largely based on the subjective experience of the viewer, and therefore you’ll have to rely on experience to know whether or not the purpose of the film is to arouse the audience by the subject’s physiological reaction. When enough people are asking “is this pornography” we must assume that many viewers will at least see the potential to become sexually aroused during a screening of the film. Currently a simple search of any of the title of any of the von Trier or Noe films mentioned above + pornography in Google will return a video hosting site called X-Videos—which aggregates and host user generated pornographic movies—featuring sex clips from each of the four movies. So we can see that there are several internet porn consumers out there that are in fact watching these films as pornography.

The question in regards to judging a film’s quality should not be whether the film is pornographic, but whether or not the sexually stimulating material benefits the experience of viewing the film. Many filmmakers today will try to  elicit a physiological reaction from the viewer—be it fear, sexual arousal, laughter, etc.—and with filmmaking today the techniques used to such altering to a person’s body have become so readily available that it is rarely interesting to have it for anything more than the pure pleasure of a some sort of release of neurotransmitters like a shot of drugs, rather than access to the fantasm of individual viewers through narrative.

There is the issue of transgression—narrative requires a conflict and will therefore require a transgression of some kind to function. Sexual transgressions have been occurring on the screen since the silent era. By the Sun’s Rays (1914), depicted a thief  played by Lon Chaney, who attempted to rape a female character—the earliest surviving example of a precursor to the infamous scene in Noe’s Irreversible. These graphic scenes can potentially ameliorate a narrative, of course, much like they do in classic suspense films like The Birds or Psycho, sucking the viewer into the story by assaulting the senses with suspense in horror.

In 1934 the Hays Code was established in hollywood, restricting most depictions of sex on the screen, forcing filmmakers to come up with euphemisms when a love story would reach a climax. The well-known golden-era method for depicting sexual behavior in a way that would meet the approval of the censure board, was the lighting of a cigarette.



Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 14.26.39


“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.”

Although no graphic sex is depicted in the famous scenes where Humphrey Bogart first acted with his future wife, Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not, the implication through gestures related to the mouth was enough to send audiences imaginations reeling for the two decades following, as pop-culture tabloids obsessed over the actors’ relationship until the end of Bogart’s life.

Smoking and other euphemisms for sexual activity symbolized intercourse in American cinema until the demise of the Hays Code, and depicting nudity became more normalized. Independent films that bordered on pornography, such as the early sexploitation films—which had a clear intent of sexually arousing the audience—influenced the ability to depict sexual acts on the screen in films like A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Last Tango in Paris (1972). The Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA), which replaced the Hays Code in 1966, has progressively become more liberal with their R rating.

Aide from the MPAA, International and Independent film has been depicting sex as part of the narrative for several decades. In the Lower East Side Cinema of Transgression movement of the early the 1970s through early 1992, filmmakers like Richard Kern and and Tina L’Hotsky used on screen sex and nudity for the purpose of incensing the mainstream mores. Films like My Nightmare (Richard Kern, 1993), a short film that depicts an explicit sexual fantasy of the director cut in with his realistic masturbation that occurs while the fantasy transpires. It’s attempt to create a meta fantasy for the viewer may or may not be lost on the sexual arousal that occurs while watching the explicit scenes, but nevertheless the film is transgressive in that it depicts sexual acts in a way that is not meant as pornography. After the Cinema of Transgression, sex depicted on film cannot alone be transgressive because these boundaries have already been broken. An attempt to depict sex alone in a rebellious matter would merely function as the commodification of the original rebellion.


Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 14.25.56


So if there’s is nothing rebellious of sex left to show in movies, what else are we gaining from the depiction of nudity in cinema? A 1977 film titled Barbie by New York director Tina L’Hotsky, displays full frontal female nudity aggressively, but manages to clearly achieve another emotional reaction besides sexual arousal. Barbie—played by an anonymous young, busty blond woman—comes back to her apartment nude after grocery shopping. She unpacks her bags, which contain a Barbie doll and spices, and she begins cooking the doll incarnation of herself in a fry pan—an impossible task if we are to consider that the live action actress is meant to be the animated film incarnation of the doll. The actress performs no sexual acts but the imagery is expected to already be highly sexualized before watching due to the cultural heritage of Barbie. The non-sexual nudity, coupled with a soundtrack that consists of a loud surf rock song and sirens blaring, created an usual level of anxiety in my viewing. Although there is little room for the viewer to develop a fantasy based on their own desires enabling a narrative to more closely relate to the viewers individual experience—as there is when sex is depicted with the lighting of a cigarette—the film manages to create sensation with merely a bombarding of the viewer’s senses. This is something easily achieved with horror or pornographic films, but this film has the ability to achieve an emotional response that is unique.

Here the film functions like Lacan’s lamella:

This lamella, this organ, whose characteristic is not to exist, but which is nevertheless an organ – I can give you more details as to its zoological place  – is the libido.

It is the libido, qua pure life instinct, that is to say, immortal life, irrepressible life, life that has need of no organ, simplified, indestructible life.  it is precisely what is subtracted from the living being by virtue of the fact that it is subject to the cycle of sexed reproduction.  And it is of this that all the forms of the objet a that can be enumerated are the representatives, the equivalents.

It is easy to recognize Lacan’s omlette monster, as Zizek does in a horrific monster such as Ridley Scott’s Alien, but here we see the film affected our own body without narrative, merely a sensational attack on the body. In fact the film is itself the horror—it’s like walking into a room with a monster. There’s no narrative required to develop the fantasy of horror—the sensation is immediately present. If we take away the suspense leading up to to the horror in Aliens, there’s going be far less complicated emotions—more like pornography except less likely to elicit a response as easily graphic sexual imagery does.

Depictions of sex such as the infamous rape scene in Irreversiblefunction in a similar way, in that it allows little room for the desire of the other, but instead imparts a physiological reaction on to the viewer whether they like it or not. This is the filmmakers fantasm being imparted on to the viewers, unlike Bogart and Bacall where viewers sympathize with the characters and develop a relationship to their own lives through the narrative. We can perhaps relate this to another recent graphic sex scene in Michael Hanake’s the piano teacher, where the female lead, Erika (Issabelle Hupert) becomes lifeless during a sex scene that she has been fantasizing about.  In conversation with Issabelle Huppert, Slavoj Zizek questioned if the lifelessness was due to an absence of fantasy:

Slavoj Zizek: There is a very  brutal scene that struck me. A scene—and it hurts me to tell you this—that made me impotent. It’s the scene where the piano teacher you incarnate lets herself be taken sexually like a cadaver—with terrible coldness, by her twenty year-old student. Is it that, at that instant, the fantasmatic dimension is totally absent?

The cold lifeless reaction of Erika is perhaps a symbol of fantasm realized, much like occurs when we watch a graphic scene. As opposed to an implied onscreen sexual act, a graphic depictions will leave the fantasy lifeless. But as Isabelle Hupert points out in her response to Zizek’s questioning, if the fantasy is ever present—as a naked Barbie surely is—then we are already immersed in a narrative that occurs with that fantasy.

Isabelle Hupert: No, I think that the fantasy is totally present all along the film, which comes to play immensely over the fantasm, the imaginary. At the start, the pianist makes of the romantic feeling an extremely high idea! high to a point that it emulates Bach’s music.

When the material is without an immersive narrative—as Barbie, Nymphomaniac, Enter the Void arguably are—the viewers are going to be forced to develop fantasies from their own life experience and desires that preexisted the film. Lars von Trier posits that his method is “digressive,” which we can perhaps recognize in American Post-Modern literature such as the work of Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace. That is a style that follows a central theme for the purpose of digressing into whatever the author feels like expounding upon, rather than offering a fantasy for the reader to fall into. Lars von Trier’s use of sex as the central theme in Nymphomaniac is obviously one that is going to keep the attention of most contemporary film viewers by bombarding their senses with stimulating material, but it doesn’t leave much room for an individual to relate that experience to their own personal life—just the information of the filmmakers choosing—so it is unlikely to have any lasting affect on the viewer.  “It is necessary for the other to lack something so that it could have something to desire.”  The viewer almost certainly don’t lack sexual fantasies in their life, and it’s doubtful lack trite ramblings about fly-fishing or religion—like the digressions by the characters of Nymphomaniac do. If the senses are to be bombarded for lasting effect filmmakers need to be aware that their sensationalism is merely causing a physiological reaction, that will need to accompany some narrative related to the viewer’s life, if not within the film, then one that already exists out in the world like Barbie.


Facebook Comments