July 15, 2000 07:52pm
Violence, Not Sex, Turns French Minister Off Film
by: Tom Heneghan
(PARIS) -- The French may have lost all inhibitions about sex on the silver screen, but an orgy of raw violence in films has got the country's culture minister deeply worried.
France's artists and chic left wing have been howling ''censorship!'' after ``Screw me'' -- 76 low-budget minutes of hardcore sex and murder -- was effectively banned this month and removed from cinemas around the country.
Its scenes of two angry young women driving around France killing men after pick-up sex or suffering violent rapes were a statement about society's violence against women, they argued.
The fact the film was branded pornographic after complaints by a far-right group and a Catholic family association added fuel to the fire, prompting its defenders to issue dire warnings about a (highly improbable) return to Puritanism in France.
But much of the heat generated by the movie, which is entitled ``Baise-moi'' in French and is sometimes called ``Rape Me'' in English, misses the worrying trend that its in-your-face scenes highlight, according to Culture Minister Catherine Tasca.
``There are sex scenes that are totally crude, but that doesn't shock many people these days,'' she told journalists last week. ``But almost every sex act ends with the partner getting murdered. That's no way to live!''
Some reviewers thought it was no way to make interesting movies, either. The U.S. entertainment daily Variety dismissed ''Screw Me'' as ``a half-baked, punk-inflected porn odyssey masquerading as a movie worth seeing and talking about.''
``X'' Rating Amounts To ``Economic Burial''
Acting on complaints from the two ``pro-family'' groups, France's highest administrative court viewed the film and reversed the Culture Ministry's original decision to release the film last month for viewers who are 16 and over.
By re-rating it as an X film, the State Council effectively banned ``Screw Me'' from public showing in France after only a few days and consigned it, in Tasca's words, to ``economic burial.''
Under French law, X-rated films can only be shown in ``adult cinemas.'' But this once-thriving business has disappeared in past decade now that home videos and the Internet give French viewers all the hard-core pornography they want.
Torn between her opposition to censorship and the state's duty to protect minors, Tasca -- a 58-year-old Socialist long active in cultural politics -- has decided to add a new category to the system of ``visas'' all films need to be shown in France.
The Culture Ministry's ``visa'' system currently classifies films for 13 and above, 16 and above or X, leaving no option of banning a film for all minors. Tasca plans to add a new category for viewers who are 18 and over, meaning the film could be back in the cinemas in a few months.
Avalanche Of Violence Bad For Everybody
``I have real reservations about these violent images,'' she explained, noting that she sometimes heard the argument that reality was actually worse than the violence seen on the screen.
``It's one thing to see mass graves in Kosovo on the evening news. It's terrible, but that's the reality of our planet. It's another thing to see it in fiction with heroes that some people look up to,'' said Tasca, who has seen the film and speaks about it with a calm but profound distaste.
The film's co-director Virginie Despentes, who wrote the book the movie is based on, rejected the idea of any limits.
``We're allowed to be radical or outraged when we make films, it's a question of freedom of expression,'' she told the daily Le Monde. ``As an author, I can't accept any censorship except that which I impose myself.''
If the insatiably curious in France can't wait for ``Screw Me'' to reappear, they can drive across the border to Belgium, where it opens on Wednesday (July 19). Belgium has only two film categories -- ``children admitted'' and ``children not admitted'' -- with 16 being the pivotal age.
Britain and about a dozen other countries are reportedly also interested in distribution rights for the film.