Are there any grownups in the movie world? Yes, in Europe, where the French have restored ooh-la-la to art-house films with the explicit depiction of sexuality. And by explicit we mean X-plicit: copulation, fellatio and other human activities, shown with a realism that is hard core or close to it. Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl, about the rivalry of two sisters, 12 and 15, features a 20-min. scene of foreplay between the 15-year-old and her would-be deflowerer. At the heart, or groin, of the Anglo-French Intimacy is a bluntly staged affair between a man and a woman who exchange no names, no life stories, only bodily fluids. Baise-moi (still playing in theaters and due out on DVD next month) is Thelma & Louise torqued up as a relentless feminist-porno melodrama. The two leads endure severe sexual abuse, then mete out revenge as a dish best served scalding hot.
The art-sex film is both new and deja-voyeur. It picks up where such landmark films as Last Tango in Paris, The Devils, In the Realm of the Senses, The Last Woman and other sizzling studies of adult sexuality seemed to be leading movies in the '70s. That's not where they went. Hollywood went for the teen-boy market, while European films retreated into a sort of catatonic minimalism. Now--or, rather, finally--directors are again dramatizing, how human beings reveal their power, vulnerability, joy and desperation in their most intimate moments.
In the U.S., "adult film" automatically means porno; sexually explicit movies and serious movies are considered two separate genres. In Europe, they provocatively coexist. In fact, the art-sex picture has blossomed so fully that it is very nearly its own genre. The past few years have seen such stark French studies as Gaspar Noe's I Stand Alone, Bruno Dumont's The Life of Jesus and L'Humanite, and Breillat's Romance and A Real Young Girl (all of which have played in U.S. theaters and are available on video). These films are grim, graphic and not so much erotic as grittily naturalistic; they are closer to Emile Zola than to Emmanuelle.
But they are not the only kind, and not all these foreign films are from Europe. Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien (And Your Mama Too!), a hit at festivals this fall and scheduled for a March release in the U.S., is a fast, playful Mexican comedy about two teens and an older woman. Julio Medem's Sex and Lucia is a steamy Spanish thriller. Michael Haneke's Franco-Austrian The Piano Teacher, which earned acting laurels for Isabelle Huppert and her costar this year at Cannes, is a fevered, fascinating, often goofy tale of sadomasochism. Nor is the form limited to the young-renegade set; brand-name directors are making sexy films too. The three-part Eros is to be directed by Pedro Almodovar, Wong Kar-wai and the great, 89-year-old Michelangelo Antonioni.
Art-sex films attract respected actors as well. The primal gropers in Patrice Chereau's Intimacy, winner of the top prize at Berlin this year, are Mark Rylance, who runs London's Globe Theatre (where last year he played Hamlet), and New Zealand-born film star Kerry Fox. As Jay and Claire, they meet each week in his dingy London flat for an afternoon of brusque passion; its appeal is its anonymity. But Jay has to learn where his mystery lover comes from. His journey will remove the final veil of flesh--the one that separates two desperate souls. Chereau ultimately pushes the personal drama farther than the sex, as a way of showing how the two are related. What begins as a documentary on coupling ends as a love story.
Baise-moi is the most extreme film of the bunch. Co-directed by the novelist Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi, who has worked in the French porn industry, it employs real hard-core scenes, many of them brutal, to illustrate its story of two gals on the run. Manu (Raffaela Anderson) is a porn star, Nadine (Karen Bach) a hooker with a short fuse. Each woman kills a man, and the two go on a shooting and screwing spree across the arid French landscape. Yet for all its graphic excesses, or because of them, Baise-moi is a serious and original work. It starkly portrays a desperation born of disgust, and then an exultation at lurching into a brief, sociopathic freedom. The movie has something else: a charismatic performance from Anderson--she of the sewer mouth and seraphic face.