2007 TIFF Update #2: "Sex Films"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
For Friday, September 7, 2007

I have noticed that among some people, there’s an expectation that many of the films shown in festivals are drenched in sex. While it’s true that the ratings doled out by the MPAA are irrelevant within a festival atmosphere (even if that festival is within U.S. boundaries - the only part of the world in which anyone cares what the MPAA has to say), not every festival entry features copious amounts of naked flesh and simulated or non-simulated coupling. Ideally, the criterion by which a movie is selected for screening during a festival is simple: it meets a certain level of artistic excellence (or at least what the programmers believe to be artistic excellence). The number of bare breasts doesn’t factor into it.

Having said that, however, it also means that filmmakers providing festival fare are often unencumbered by ratings issues, so they can be free to show pretty much whatever they want. Every year, Toronto has a few movies that the mainstream media would label as “hardcore” porn and about twice as many that would fall into the “softcore” category. From my perspective, such a liberal selection makes for a more diverse festival. There’s something for everyone. Toronto even has a small selection of carefully chosen “family films” where children are encouraged to attend.

Ang Lee’s follow-up to Brokeback Mountain is Lust, Caution. The film’s receipt of an NC-17 by the MPAA was dutifully noted by the mainstream media, as was the distributor’s (Focus Features) decision not to appeal the rating. NC-17 movies aren’t released often and, when they are, they rarely make an impression at the box office - some mainstream multiplex chains refuse to show them and some newspapers will not advertise them. This has earned the NC-17 the nickname of the “kiss of death.” (Or, as it has been more graphically referred to: “the blowjob of death.”) So, before discussing the merits of Lust, Caution, I’ll first answer a question I know at least a few readers are interested in understanding: Why the NC-17? What is there about this movie that makes it cross the border from the ever-widening realm of the R?

The answer: the sex is really hot. Not hardcore pornographic but pretty close. Of course, for those thinking this might be a fun way to mix art and sex, keep in mind that the movie is about 160 minutes long. Of the 160 minutes, maybe 10 feature sex and/or nudity. Not a good ratio if that’s all you’re after. The sex scenes are so intense and so explicit (showing pretty much everything except a penis and penetration) that someone asked Lee in a recent press conference if the acts are real or simulated. His response: “You’ve seen the movie.” One is tempted to say that passion that raw can’t be faked, but we’re dealing with good actors. I don’t think Lust, Caution is following in the footsteps of Boxcar Bertha and Wild Orchid.

Lust, Caution features a slow seduction of one character by another and the audience by the director. The buildup is long and lingering - some might argue too long. There are times during the first two hours when the pacing lags. To a large degree, that’s compensated for by a wrenching final act when morality gets turned upside down and consequences abound. In every way, this is an atypical thriller. It’s beautiful to look at (the period detail is superb) and sexy as hell, but it sometimes feels like it’s never going to get to the finish line. Nevertheless, I stayed awake and engrossed through the whole thing (not always easy in the midst of a festival) and couldn’t get it out of my head after exiting.

Curiously, the movie shares some plot similarities to Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book. Both are World War II stories that transpire in occupied territories. Both feature female protagonists working for the local resistance. And both of those women have affairs with highly placed enemy officials, then become conflicted as a result of unexpected feelings they develop for those men. There are two huge differences, however. The first relates to location. Black Book unfolds in Nazi territory while Lust, Caution splits time between Shanghai and Hong Kong. More importantly, the way in which the stories are told are in sharp contrast. Verhoeven’s in-your-face action approach is 180 degrees away from Lee’s languorous style.

The film takes us to the years between 1938 and 1942. Wang (Tang Wei in a stunning performance) is a traditional Chinese “good girl” who has become a war orphan (her mother is dead, her father is “trapped” in England). As a result of a crush on a dashing young activist, she joins a patriotic theater troupe. The group eventually graduates from putting on shows to taking a more active role in resistance activities, including assassinations. Wang is set up to become the mistress of the highly placed collaborator Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) as part of a plot to kill him, but before the relationship can be consummated, Yee is recalled from Hong Kong to Shanghai. It’s three years before Wang can follow and resume her charade. This time, things are in earnest. Yee is now the head of the secret service and is a ripe target for elmination. But when Wang becomes his lover, complications in the form of unwanted emotional entanglements threaten the operation.

Another notable element in Lust, Caution is the amount of nonverbal communication that occurs. This is especially evident during the mahjong game that opens the film. The four women around the table hold a banal conversation while their glances and gestures hint that there’s more going on beneath the surface. There are numerous scenes where more information is conveyed by reading how the characters act and move than by listening to what they say. It’s easier to lie with words than glances.

Lust, Caution is one of those films that requires patience. Like cold water brought to a boil, it takes a long time but once the bubbles start appearing, the roiling is impossible to stop. Lee, who has never been one to stand pat or rest in a particular genre (this is, after all, a filmmaker who has been responsible for Crouching Tiger, Hulk, and Brokeback Mountain) moves fluidly into new territory and conquers it with an ease that is almost breathless. Aided by the nuanced, forceful performances of his two leads, he has made Lust, Caution something to be seen and savored.

Sex and nudity may be important elements of Lust, Caution, but they’re far from the front burner of Michael Clayton, one of this year’s other big world premieres. The Tony Gilroy/George Clooney motion picture has also escaped any MPAA controversy. It carries a safe R-rating, earned because of profanity.

When it comes to motion pictures, there are essentially two kinds of thrillers: visceral thrillers, which rely on action to generate tension and excitement, and intellectual thrillers, which burn more slowly but are often more satisfying in the end. Michael Clayton, the directorial debut of screenwriter Tony Gilroy, belongs in the latter category. The movie unfolds at its own pace and makes few concessions to impatient viewers or those who don't pay attention. The narrative is dense and presented in a manner that may cause initial confusion (a wrap-around framing device is used).

Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is an in-house "fixer" at the law firm of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen - a man who can come into almost any situation, no matter how unpleasant, and find a way to clean it up. Although he is by trade a lawyer, he refers to himself as "a janitor" and, like any effective cleaner, he often finds himself up to his armpits in dirt. He is well-paid for his job but he hates it. He wants out. His boss, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), doesn't understand his position. Michael has found a niche where he's at the top of his field - why seek to change things? But right now, life is being unkind to Michael. He's $75,000 in debt as a result of a business venture that went belly-up. His relationship with his son isn't rock-solid (the kid lives with Michael's ex-wife, but sees his dad a couple times a week). And his friend and co-janitor, Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), has gone off the deep end. Trouble looms when Arthur decides to blow the lid off a major class-action suit by coming out with damning evidence against one of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen's biggest clients, U/North. U/North corporate lawyer Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) takes steps to stop Arthur, irrespective of the cost. And Marty orders Michael in no uncertain terms to clean up this mess or face potentially dire financial consequences.

Michael Clayton is about characters who inhabit the gray area between morality and immorality, where everyone has a different definition of what constitutes ethics. As in real life, these people are not "good" or "evil" - they are the end product of choices, some right and some wrong. Marty knows that many of his biggest clients are hiding things, but representing them brings in big bucks and keeps the firm afloat in black ink. Michael's job as a fixer means he must often turn a blind eye to ugly situations. Karen Crowder is willing to do just about anything to cover up the misdeeds of her company. Arthur's crisis of conscience is what prompts this showdown of ethics and morality. He can no longer ignore things happening around him when he has become part of a machine that protects a company that's causing people to die of cancer. Michael becomes trapped in the middle - caught between his own underdeveloped sense of right and wrong and his need for financial stability.

Michael Clayton builds to a fitting conclusion and doesn't need surprise twists or cheap theatrics to get to that point. If there's a weakness to the storyline, it's that Michael's motivations sometimes seem determined by the needs of the plot. The film develops gradually and stays rooted in the real world rather than the quasi-familiar realm in which many thrillers unspool. The movie makes a damning statement about the profit-above-all business practices of major corporations, but there's nothing new in that. What's worthwhile here is the way in which the story provides us with unique characters in interesting situations and follows them as they pass through the eye of the storm. When it reaches beyond the adulation accorded to it within the limited confines of a film festival, Michael Clayton is unlikely to strike box office gold but, as evidenced by films like The Constant Gardener, there is an audience out there for slower, more intellectual thrillers. This is a motion picture for them to discover.

Finally, considering the topic of the day - sex films - it’s impossible to go forward without mentioning one other title. I can’t provide a discussion of it because circumstances have not allowed me to see it. But the name says quite a bit: Young People Fucking. Now I wonder what that could be about?

© 2007 James Berardinelli