I just signed up for Hulu Plus and apart from being able to watch all 37 seasons of SNL on your TV, they also have the majority of the Criterion Collection titles, which is a godsend for a film geek like me. So since I signed up, I’ve been knocking down titles that I’ve been curious about, but was having trouble finding as rentals.
Nagisa Oshima’s wildly controversial 1976 film In the Realm of the Senses was at the top of my list because of the raging “Is it porn or art?” discussion that’s been prevalent between film buffs and critics since it premiered at Cannes.
The film, which depicts the real-life obsessive sexual relationship between a Japanese couple in 1936 which ended in a way that would make any man wince and hold onto their crotch for dear life, is usually compared to Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, another 70s art-house film that depicts sexual perversion and obsession in a graphic way.
But how graphic is too graphic, and how much sex turns it from a legitimate film into the realm of porn? I’m asking this because compared to In the Realm of the Senses, Last Tango in Paris is as innocent as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland.
First of all, and this is a very important distinction, the audience never sees actual penetration during any of the relatively short sex scenes in Last Tango and all of the sex scenes are more than likely simulated, meaning Brando’s cholesterol-filled penis probably never really entered Maria Schneider’s vagina (Let’s all hope so).
Senses, on the other hand, not only shows full on penetration, sometimes in close-up, it also shows various other sex acts that begin from those as innocent and common as fellatio, to sticking a hard-boiled egg in a vagina, have the woman push it out and then eating it in front of her (I’m sure there’s a technical term for that fetish but I don’t dare Google it).
All of the sexual acts in the film are not simulated. You actually see the egg make its way fully in, you see the woman pushing it out, and then the man eating it with joy, all during the same shot, so you know it wasn’t faked, since they didn’t have CGI back in ’76.
Scenes of fellatio are also not faked, one of them even goes as far as presenting us with a money shot, straight out of any porno you might imagine.
In many ways, the film could be considered even more pornographic than many hard-core pornos of the time. A lot of 70s porn usually had about 4 to 5 5-10 minute long sex scenes with a half-assed non-sex-related plot stuck in between, probably to give the theater audience a chance to wipe off and try to make out if that really is butter on their popcorn.
In contrast to that, Oshima’s film is literally a series of sex scenes tacked on together without any other sub-plot or story. The running time of non-sexual scenes are probably no longer than 5 minutes if you combined them together in a film that runs about 100 minutes.
So is it just a glorified vintage porn, or a sexually honest legitimate art-house film? In my opinion, it’s both at the same time, which is what makes is fascinating.
When asked about the difference between legitimate film and pornography, Roger Ebert stated that the biggest difference is that pornography is only about the money shot. It’s sole purpose is to let its audience relieve him or herself (Who are we kidding, mostly himself) by focusing on nothing but a sexual act for a period long enough for the person to climax.
Oshima makes sure the single sex scenes in Senses do not go on long enough to be considered straight porn. The composition is also not solely based on showing skin but focuses on the act itself, making it less titillating and self-serving (Forgive the pun).
Yet I would defy any man not to get an erection during at least the first half of the film, before things get really, really weird. The demand for the film at Cannes was so huge when it premiered that they had to add last minute showings.
But are we really confident that we’re watching a serious Cannes-worthy piece of art when we know half the audience around us has a chubby by the 30-minute mark? I really hope no one attempted to rub one out during any of the screenings, but doesn’t this fact at least blur the line between art-house and porno theater?
I think that’s why a lot of directors who decide to depict real sexual acts with full penetration and oral sex, etc… end up making the act look very clinical and rather boring. For example, the non-simulated sex scenes in Michael Winterbottom’s awful 9 Songs are so lifeless, I would rather watch paint dry than observe these two attractive people have sex.
Maybe the director’s fear is that if the sex is exciting, the audience might forget they’re watching a legitimate film and use it as a masturbation tool and shut it off.
The beauty of Senses is that I don’t think Oshima cared if people pleasured themselves to his film or not. He depicts the relationship between the couple exactly the way it is. If they were obsessed with each other to the point of bringing upon the film’s harrowing climax, wouldn’t it make sense that they really enjoyed having sex with each other, and the film should show that fact?
Why shouldn’t legitimate films that also work as pornography exist more? You get kind of a 2-in-1 deal, 2 sides of the same coin. Kubrick attempted that with Eyes Wide Shut, and even he couldn’t go nearly as far as Oshima did.
Senses is nowhere near as good as Eyes Wide Shut, it’s not even as great as its fans make it out to be. But it does make you ask very important questions about what makes art? And isn’t that one of the biggest points of art in the first place?