The original trailer for Shame, starring hunk du jour Michael Fassbender as a Manhattan corporate drone struggling with sex addiction, made the movie look like a morose cross between American Psycho and Leaving Las Vegas — toxic materialism resolving in self-hating hedonism. Then, a couple of weeks ago, distributor Fox Searchlight released a new trailer for its hoped-for Oscar contender, this time foregrounding co-star Carey Mulligan's torch-song rendition of the Sinatra standard “New York, New York” and stressing a few strategically chosen early pull quotes. “Draws comparisons to Bertolucci's Marlon Brando classic Last Tango in Paris,” said the New York Post. “Echoes of Midnight Cowboy, the best kind of adult movie,” concurred Britain's influential Guardian newspaper. Meanwhile, the green MPAA banner at the beginning of the new trailer announced that the film had been rated NC-17 for “some explicit sexual content” — i.e., full-frontal Fassbender.
The shoutouts to Last Tango (1972) and Midnight Cowboy (1969) are telling. Both movies were infamously awarded X ratings in the early days of the Motion Picture Association of America's dubious child-protection racket. In 1990, following a controversy over the exploitation of X ratings by outright pornographers, the MPAA created the NC-17 rating as an ostensible banner for films of artistic merit that nevertheless were too damn sexy for mall multiplexes, art-house erotica fare such as Henry and June and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.
The “problem” of art-house erotica was not a new one; it dates back at least as far as the mid-1950s, when Ingmar Bergman's Summer With Monika established Sweden as a promised land of sex and angst. It's a realm that spans museum-worthy films by Roman Polanski, Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg and Gaspar Noé, all of whom have dabbled in artful titillation, as well as cult “Eurotica” auteurs like Roger Vadim and Jess Franco, whose works sketched out the weird intersection of Freudian nightmares, soft-focus lyricism and unclothed pinup models in a trance.
Today, in an age of unlimited Internet pornography, NC-17 films are rarely released by distributors like Searchlight, a subsidiary of conservative News Corp. Since most “family” newspapers and TV stations refuse to air ads for NC-17 films, the rating was all but engineered as a commercial kiss of death. Studios almost always appeal the rating or force filmmakers to recut their work to get an R for theatrical release. Instead of destigmatizing art-house erotica, the creation of the NC-17 rating helped to kill it.
Cinematic soft-core first provided a stream of content for drive-ins and repertory theaters, then helped to fuel the golden era of home video. Nowadays, it may be most often seen on cable VOD and streaming services like Netflix Watch Instantly, which cheerfully sort their offerings into euphemistic categories like “Steamy Romance.”
Next week brings the L.A. theatrical premiere of another non-steamy, non-romantic film destined for the “Steamy Romance” sweepstakes in Sleeping Beauty, the directorial debut of Australian novelist Julia Leigh. Sleeping Beauty stars oft-nude Emily Browning as a college student who works at a brothel where impotent old men pay for the privilege of spending the night next to her drugged-out, unconscious body. The Guardian called it “a throwback to the artporn and chateau-erotica of the 1970s.”
But rather than titsapalooza à la The Story of O, Sleeping Beauty is a misguided feminist rewriting of a 1961 Japanese novella called House of the Sleeping Beauties, by brilliant modernist Yasunari Kawabata. Kawabata's story is entirely told from the point of view of one of the decrepit patrons of a peculiar brothel staffed with drugged-out Sleeping Beauties. It's a disturbing, obsessional tale about the loss of sexual potency, virginity and suicide.
Leigh's interpretive gambit is to tell Kawabata's novella from the point of view of one of the girls. But in doing so, the subtext that gave the original story its mysterious life (the changing gender roles in post-World War II Japan, the peculiar notions of Japanese eroticism, a philosophy of life and death based on specifically Buddhist notions) was wiped away.
As with Shame, Sleeping Beauty's 1970s-referencing early praise played easily into marketing sleight-of-hand (in this case including a fetching poster featuring a barely covered Browning posed like an Ingres odalisque), intended to sell an urbane art-sex-flick experience like mom and dad used to have in the golden days of the artsy, X-rated date movie.
The problem with marketing films like Shame or Sleeping Beauty as the heirs to some great sex-positive art-house tradition — a sophisticated, almost quaintly retro alternative to the Barely Legal Gangbang anarchy instantly available via the web — is that these films are not remotely erotic. The trailer that made Shame seem like a total bummer about a yuppie coming to terms with his grotesque addiction problem is actually much more accurate than the one aligning the movie with Brando's butter-greased hanky-panky. In fact, both Shame and Sleeping Beauty are actively anti-erotic — they exist to make the viewer feel bad for seeking out pleasure in the first place.
The filmmakers behind Shame and Sleeping Beauty might be using these anti-sex diatribes as vehicles for their actual preoccupations — moral decadence and the objectification of women. The marketing campaigns, however, point to a different agenda by producers and distributors, one where X marks the money spot.