Contrary to popular belief, sex doesn’t necessarily sell. While movie ads are usually rife with the promise of romance and sensuality, the rare film that frankly delves into explicit sexuality does so at its own risk.
Next Friday that truism will be tested once again when Wellspring Media dares to release Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny” in New York and Los Angeles.
“Bunny,” which premiered at Cannes last year, should get plenty of press — even if its box office potential is unproven. At Cannes, the art house exercise arrived on a wave of titillation because it features an explicit sex scene between Gallo and Chloe Sevigny. But what earned it some of the loudest critical razzberries the fest has ever seen was the protracted plot, or lack of same, that leads up to the movie’s climactic moment.
Playing a professional motorcycle racer, Gallo spends most of the film in a cross-country road trip that seemed to include every stop to gas up his truck in excruciating detail. (And, yes, the film also includes shots of a literal brown bunny, as Gallo has confessed he is partial to the furry creatures.) The film was subsequently trimmed by 25 minutes for the Toronto Film Festival last fall, and its critical reception improved.
Speaking with reporters in Cannes, Gallo defended the sex scene, insisting: “I didn’t include the sex scene to be controversial. I included it because I’m interested in the subject matter. It’s a very complex scene. You never see how people actually look when in deep intimacy in contrast to what’s happening emotionally or see how people act out dark pathologies.”
Now, arguably, if movies are meant to reflect the human condition, there’s no reason why forthright sexuality should be off-limits. But in reality, there’s something about sex on screen that throws filmmakers, critics and audiences for a loop.
It’s as if real sex — as opposed to the more common, simulated variety — violates the suspension of disbelief that surrounds most movies.
Even in the most convincing and suspenseful action scene, there’s a part of the viewer that knows the actors — with the possible exception of Jackie Chan — aren’t really at risk.
But let an actor drop his trousers, and there’s no faking it. And so the media turns downright silly, as happened earlier this summer when it couldn’t stop talking about the fact that a full frontal shot of Colin Farrell apparently proved so distracting it had to be trimmed from “A Home at the End of the World.”
But it’s not just the easily distracted media that can’t cope — even serious-minded directors seem to lose their compass when they dive into the realm of the senses.
French director Catherine Breillat recruited Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi to strut his stuff in her 1999 X-rated “Romance,” but the result proved so lugubrious it seemed to be warning folks off sex altogether. Michael Winterbottom documents a couple’s sexual liaison in clinical detail in “Nine Songs,” which is set to play the Toronto Film Festival, but advance word from Cannes, where it was peddled at the Marche, hasn’t been encouraging. John Cameron Mitchell, who directed “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” is currently workshopping a project titled “Shortbus,” designed to revolve around explicit sex scenes, but so far hasn’t found the financing.
As for the eccentric Gallo, he shouldn’t be faulted for challenging our limited cultural mores. And Sevigny herself could even be applauded for, effectively, doing her own stunts. The debate surrounding “Brown Bunny” shouldn’t be about the seriousness of its intent. The question is really about the quality of its execution.