Untruth in Advertising -- Selling Sex

Commentary by James Berardinelli
June 26, 1996

The seed of an idea for this commentary hatched when I passed the poster for Striptease at the local multiplex. For those who haven't been fortunate enough to witness this pinnacle of artistic achievement, it shows a naked Demi Moore sitting twisted like a pretzel so that certain parts of her anatomy are hidden from the camera. It is, to say the least, provocative, and unlikely to entice viewers to see the film for intellectual reasons. Striptease uses the age-old marketing device of selling sex. There's nothing subtle involved here, but at least those who venture into a theater showing the film have some hope of getting what they pay for: Demi Moore in various states of undress.

It's not surprising how many films rely on attractive and/or scantily-clad women to attract audiences. Recent big-name releases employing this tactic range from the mega-duds Showgirls and Jade to the surprisingly successful Disclosure (another Demi Moore film -- is there a trend here?). Independent releases are often as guilty as Hollywood productions. Good, low- budget movies like The Last Good Time (Olivia D'Abo in a man's shirt and nothing else) and Exotica embrace this kind of marketing campaign with zeal.

However, while it's one thing to sell sex and deliver it, the industry is occasionally guilty of using sexually-provocative images to promote a movie, then not delivering. This seems to be especially true for the video market, where, in an attempt to attract a less-discerning audience to largely-cerebral movies, marketers create salacious-looking video box covers which misrepresent the film's content. This sort of blatant distortion is unforgivable. It's crass and manipulative, and can result in a film of quality gaining an undeservedly bad reputation. Here are three examples.

In 1992, Claude Sautet's sublime, emotionally-wrenching film, Un Coeur en Hiver, received limited American release. October Films, the U.S. theatrical distributor, promoted the movie using a relatively "tame" poster (portraits of the three leads -- Emmanuelle Beart, Daniel Auteuil, and Andre Dussollier) which is entirely in keeping with the film's tone. For, while Un Coeur en Hiver deals with sexual issues and relationships, it is not explicit. Sex is never shown, no one takes their clothes off, and the eroticism results from our ability to sense the electricity and emotion generated by the actors under Sautet's expert direction.

Nevertheless, when the movie arrived on Blockbuster shelves, the theatrical release poster had been replaced on the video cover by a shot of Emmanuelle Beart lying face-down on a bed, with her hair in disarray and her upper back exposed. This is a shot from the movie, but, taken out of context, it intentionally tricks a prospective viewer into expecting something steamy. In fact, as it appears in the movie, the scene is relatively innocuous and unrevealing. Those enticed by the box cover into renting Un Coeur will be sorely disappointed. This is a great film, but it's unlikely to appeal to those who choose their night's entertainment based on video covers.

One of the most celebrated, recent series of foreign films has been Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors: Blue, White, and Red. The video releases of the first and third films used the theatrical posters on the box covers (portraits of leading ladies Juliette Binoche and Irene Jacob for Blue and Red, respectively). Changes were made for White, however. The theatrical poster featured a shot from the movie, with Julie Delpy, dressed in black, looking down at Zbigniew Zamachowski, whose head rests in her lap. For whatever reason, Miramax Home Video decided to replace this picture with one featuring a sexily-attired, reclining Delpy gazing at the camera with a "come hither" look. Zamachowski is nowhere to be seen. Granted, it's a nice shot of the actress, but this looks more like it belongs in a modeling portfolio than on the cover of videos and laserdiscs. What's more, anyone renting White in anticipation of seeing a lot of Delpy will be disappointed (in more than one way). Hers is a supporting role. But a provocative shot of Zamachowski probably wouldn't cause many men to snatch the video from store shelves.

Finally, to illustrate that foreign films aren't the only victims of this treatment, consider the case of What Happened Was..., Tom Noonan's intense, creepy debut feature about a first date. This is essentially a two-person play, and, while the production drips with sexual (and non-sexual) tension, nothing explicit takes place. The two leads, played by Noonan and Karen Silas, never come close to getting into bed. This is a psychological character study, not an opportunity for leering. So what does the video cover depict? A scantily-clad Silas, lying on her back with her bare legs straight up in the air while she casts a smoldering glance at the camera. From that picture, you'd be within your rights to expect something very different than what's offered by What Happened Was...

I asked Tom Noonan how he felt about the video cover. He indicated that he hadn't seen it, but he didn't care one way or another. His job was to make the film; it was up to the distributors how they wanted to market it. I wonder if Sautet and Kieslowski would agree. And how do Emmanuelle Beart, Julie Delpy, and Karen Silas feel about their parts in the marketing campaigns? We already know Demi Moore's opinion.

When sexually enticing marketing material delivers what it promises, audiences aren't likely to feel cheated, even if the movie isn't good. But when a video box cover or movie poster suggests something that isn't there, viewers whose expectations aren't fulfilled will almost certainly be disappointed, regardless of how good the film is. Movies that feature sex are within their rights to promise skin; movies that don't, shouldn't be forced into a position where the absence of titillating material disappoints viewers. Film makers generally recognize this; publicists and marketing people do not (or, if they do, they don't care). Therein lies a major reason why more members of the movie-going public are likely to be disappointed by Un Coeur en Hiver than by Striptease.

© 1996 James Berardinelli

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