The Pornographer Review
[N.B. The Pornographer is available in both 18- and R18-certificated versions from Tartan Video. In this review, comments and ratings apply to the 18 version unless indicated otherwise. This review contains minor spoilers.]
Jacques Laurent (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a student revolutionary in 1968, started directing hardcore pornography in the 1970s, convinced of its radical potential. In the mid-Eighties, disillusioned, he retired. Now in debt, Laurent agrees to make another porn film. But times have changed, and he has to change with them...
The Pornographer (Le pornographe in French) is an example of a film where so much attention has been paid to one small element that all other aspects have been ignored. Bertrand Bonello's film is a character study of an ageing, disillusioned "soixante-huitard" who thought he could change the world and has to account for his failure. But there is hope: during the film, Laurent becomes reconciled with his son Joseph (Jérémie Rénier). Joseph is equally politically active, but he had disowned his father when he found out what he did for a living. In some ways, The Pornographer recalls a Boogie Nights told from the viewpoint of an older, sadder, more politicised version of the Burt Reynolds character...both men who tried to do transcend their material, but failed. Léaud, who looks intentionally old and tired here, brings a lot of baggage to this film just by being in it. Not so much the Antoine Doinel films he made with Truffaut, but more Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore, made in 1973 but very much in the spirit of 1968, and a film which was a benchmark for sexual explicitness (though more verbal than visual) in its day.
When The Pornographer was released in Britain, the BBFC ordered a cut of eleven seconds to an early scene showing the making of Laurent's new film. In the words of the BBFC's exception form: "At 26 mins - Remove close-up shot of man masturbating penis to climax and all sight of ejaculation and semen on woman's face." Despite opposition from the distributor, comments in the press, and a personal letter to the BBFC from Bonello (included on this DVD), the video and DVD versions also had to be cut, though there is a R18-rated uncut version apparently available from licensed sex shops. You can't purchase R18s by mail order from within the UK however, such is British law. (This is even more absurd when you consider that you can buy the uncut version online from overseas.) Needless to say, the film is available in its complete form in France to those over sixteen years of age. Tartan seem to specialise in films that push at the boundaries of acceptability, and as with their release of A ma soeur! (uncut in cinemas but cut for home viewing) their openness concerning their releases that do have to be cut is to be commended.
This controversy only serves to overemphasise the film's sexual content. Anyone picking this film up and expecting a turn-on will be rapidly disillusioned: there's only the one scene showing unsimulated sex and it's over in the first half hour. For the most part, Bonello shoots it from a distance, often with the film crew in shot. This begs two questions concerning the BBFC's guidelines. If erections and penetration are acceptable in a clearly serious 18-certificate film, why is ejaculation unacceptable? For the record, the BBFC has passed ejaculations at 18 before, in Ai no corrida, Romance (the cinema release only - the shot was cut for video/DVD) and in giant close up, straight to camera in the gay film Pink Narcissus. Secondly, and most importantly, the BBFC cuts remove an important turning-point in the film's plot. Before now, Bonello has established a conflict between Laurent's artistic leanings and the hard-nosed commercial instincts of his producer. For the scene being filmed, Laurent has asked his leading actress to let her co-star come in her mouth and she swallow his semen. However, what we don't see in the cut version is the producer overruling Laurent and insisting that the actor ejaculate over the woman's face. The BBFC's guidelines talk of images of real sex being acceptable in context at 18, and this would seem to be a clear example of the context justifying the image, as an indicator of Laurent's powerlessness and failure. (There's a further irony that won't be apparent to English viewers: the actress in the scene is Ovidie, a real-life porn star with a feminist agenda similar to Laurent's, a belief in the radical potential of porn.)
Tartan's edition of The Pornographer has an anamorphic transfer in the correct aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Tartan's DVDs have improved of late. When they get the transfer right, it's fair to say that a standard Tartan DVD is now equivalent to a standard DVD from its nearest rival, Artificial Eye. This is mainly due to not sourcing DVDs from cinema prints. This transfer, which has optional English subtitles, shows signs of being produced abroad. The subtitles, while mostly grammatical, have the occasional idiomatic slip: "fingernail polish" instead of "nail polish" for example, and "OK/okay" being spelled "oké". That's still a lot less jarring than the Americanese that subtitlers often use. As for the picture quality, it's quite acceptable, some minor artefacting apart. Some dark scenes (such as the opening sequence) show up well, and blacks are solid. It's not the most vibrantly-coloured picture, but that's intentional, and fits in with the film's melancholy mood.
The soundtrack is Dolby Surround. It won't win any prizes for elaborate mixing, being mostly front-and-centre dialogue driven, with the surrounds being used for the music score. There are sixteen chapter stops.
A standard Tartan DVD gets a standard set of extras. First off is the trailer, in 16:9 anamorphic and running 1:24. This looks very much like it was sourced from a film print, being far more dark and contrasty than the main feature. It rather emphasises the sexual content and ends with a title card that says "Cumming Soon". There are useful film notes from Pierre Perrone, biographies of the director and his two leading actors and a stills gallery. There are two further text-based extras on this disc: "The Pornographer at the BBFC" (2 pages) and the director's letter to the BBFC (3 pages). Finally, there's another Tartan World Cinema trailer reel: The Element of Crime, Europa, The Terrorist, the Ingmar Bergman collection, Vacas and Sex and Lucia.
The Pornographer certainly has its flaws, notably an air of portentousness and over-seriousness. It also takes Laurent's artistic inclinations rather too much at face value. The film also peters out in its second half. However, that's not a reason why a demonstrably serious film shouldn't be shown to adults in the form its director intended. There are cut films where the edits don't make any significant difference to the film's meaning or impact. In the case of The Pornographer they do make a difference. For that reason I can't recommend the 18-certificate version, which is a decent DVD release in other respects. Unless you can buy a R18 version from a sex shop, your next best bet (as long as you can understand the language) is ordering the French release online.