Masters of Sex

looks at the enduring appeal of two landmark portrayals of sex on screen

Image: StudioCanal

This has been a great year for film anniversaries. Not only have the truly iconic likes of Titanic, Reservoir Dogs and Star Wars all celebrated landmark birthdays, but if you look back a full half century, you will come to a crucial year in film history. 1967 holds a special place as the year Sidney Poitier fought racism, Paul Newman fought conformity and the New Hollywood era was born – a period that produced some of the most popular and revered American films ever made. In particular, it was the year that the box office was stormed by a sexy, daring film that spoke to youth and made Dustin Hoffman a star – Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. It wasn’t just the Americans producing landmarks for sex on screen, however. Across the pond, famed surrealist Luis Buñuel directed European classic Belle de Jour. Revelling in the taboos of age-gaps, prostitution and fetishism, here were two films that treated sex with the levity and pathos it deserves.

The plots of both films are relatively simple, with their quality coming from well-constructed mood, tone and internal conflict instead. Belle de Jour focuses on Catherine Deneuve’s Séverine Serizy. Married to a doctor, living in a lovely flat and with fetishistic dreams a-plenty, she becomes a high-end prostitute in Paris. Working only in the day, this belle de nuit instead earns the title “Belle de Jour”. Her double life is complicated, however, when she unexpectedly falls for one of her clients. Meanwhile in America is The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman). Triumphant at college in both sport and subject, he becomes frightened by the prospect of moving on from here. Preyed upon by Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson, Ben soon starts an affair with the older woman. The complication here comes when he falls for Katharine Ross’s Elaine, who has the unfortunate hitch of being Mrs. Robinson’s daughter.

Deneuve displays a sensual joy with daring simplicity – this woman is having sex and she loves it.

Now after 50 years and recent re-releases, it seems quite remarkable to say that they both hold up extremely well. Buñuel’s surreal imagery and the central performance of Catherine Deneuve still achieve relevance, while The Graduate’s humour and simply great filmmaking appear timeless. Inevitably, the years have caught up with Nichols’ film somewhat, with the predatory actions of Mrs. Robinson and some of the sympathy shown for her, when a gender-swap is considered, being quite difficult to watch. That said, the film’s empathetic look at generational conflict can still be appreciated and enjoyed with Mrs. Robinson as a simple villain. Her initial acts may be hard to stomach, but the film is not really about them, but about the consequences of their wilful affair on these characters at such contrasting points in their lives.

Despite their importance in the depiction of sex on screen, the graphic sexual content of the films is relatively tame. As in one of cinema’s great horrors, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the shock is all in the suggestion. Both directors know that they can say a lot with out showing too much. When Mrs. Robinson first seduces Ben, we see her naked body parts close-up and fleetingly. It is a witty, tongue-in-cheek way to break taboos that teases the audience by almost mocking its own shock tactics. Buñuel meanwhile crafts an erotic drama with distinctly few naked body parts. What he does show has a distinct frankness to it, as in a scene where Deneuve walks away from camera with her bare buttocks showing beneath the thin veil she is wearing. It is prolonged and has a naturalness to it; we are watching her walk, that is all – normalising sexual content on screen. Meanwhile, Deneuve displays a sensual joy with daring simplicity – this woman is having sex and she loves it.

Image: Valoria Films

These films do not need to show graphic sex because they are in many ways not about sex at all. They use sex and they show sex, yes, but what they explore is what sex means and how it is used in people’s lives. First of all, sex appears inextricably linked with power. Why do we feel sympathy for Mrs. Robinson? Because she is a woman who seems to have no love and no purpose in her life. She seduces Ben to feel some power, some importance. Séverine’s exploits, too, are bound up with power. We see very little sexual intercourse on screen; the focus is on fetishism and sexual domination. She dreams of being ruled over by her husband and may fall in love with the one client who wants to dominate her – is Séverine desperate to be submissive? Perhaps not, as come the film’s end, she seems happiest when her husband has been physically and emotionally weakened by her activities. Sex is most importantly, however, about conformity. Mrs. Robinson and Séverine share their wealth, marriage to successful men and boredom. Trapped by socialising and an expectation to be well-behaved, they use sex as a means of escape. The same goes for Ben. Similarly successful, he appears nonplussed by a career in plastics, or in fact doing anything that is expected of him. Buñuel’s films chooses to act as a fictional exposé as well, showing respected professionals with twisted fetishes. These are films that portray the bourgeoisie as having the same dark fantasies and perversions as the rest of us, perhaps even more so. After all, sex and lust are carnal, inherent and universal traits.

What is interesting is that all the leads eventually discard these lives. Mrs. Robinson becomes visibly bored by the affair; Ben finds more reward in Elaine because she can understand his need to rebel and be rude; Séverine finds rules and expectations to exist in the world of fetishistic prostitution, not just in her home life. For these characters, their rebellion may have hardened into a new kind of conformity, with ‘normality’ then becoming their way of breaking free.

Image: StudioCanal

Yet what is more interesting still, is that these are not morality tales that warn against the dangers of sexual misadventures, but perhaps films that question this view of conventional love and sexual relations. Séverine is only happy with her husband as a vegetable or in some sort of surreal dream, while The Graduate’s much-discussed closing shot questions everything that came before it. Belle de Jour, too, does a lot of questioning. Séverine is “so easy to look at, so hard to define”, as Bob Dylan once sang. Yet, it is because of this enigmatic quality that she is so fetishised. An all-too-common occurrence, Séverine is defined by her looks.

The puzzles and depths of both films are in danger of masking the humour in them. Buñuel clearly takes a grim delight in the eccentric desires of the professional classes, mining laughs from sheer absurdity. Nichols’ film on the other hand relies on more conventional comedic tactics, putting Ben in awkward situations and letting Hoffman’s brilliant deadpan delivery do the rest. With this delicately balanced tone of wit and profundity, The Graduate and Belle de Jour provide the perfect cinematic accompaniment to the topic of sex. Meaningful and integral to our lives, let’s not forget how fun it can be.

While they were not the first movies to show a nipple on screen, these two films were perhaps instrumental to the portrayal of sex on screen. They pushed boundaries without merely employing shock tactics. They created complex characters, not just sexual bodies. They found, in contrasting styles, the perfect tone for their subject. They live on after 50 years and they will continue to do so for decades.

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