It was no surprise when Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Blue is the Warmest Color” earned an NC-17 rating for “explicit sexual content.” Sundance Selects/IFC Films figured that would be the case when they submitted it. They were stirring up some ratings controversy to lure people to see the lesbian romance starring two lovingly photographed nubile French actresses. They could go unrated stateside if they wanted to. They want audiences to know that the film is not trimmed or softened in any way. “We have intimate knowledge of how the MPAA works,” said Jonathan Sehring, President of Sundance Selects/IFC Films, “and it is unquestionable that changes must be made. That the board finds violence acceptable for young viewers while condemning sex is egregious.”
Yes, the film starring Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux as young lovers experiencing the highs and lows of a long-term relationship is steamy. It has a seven-minute explicit sex scene, which has been the source of much debate and discussion since the film premiered at Cannes (where rumors began to fly that the sequence was closer to 20 minutes). But talk of the sex scenes, plus the apparent ongoing drama between Kechiche and his two leading actresses, has unfairly overshadowed the strongest aspect of the three-hour film. It’s a passionate, observant, epic portrait of one woman’s coming-of-age (a domain often reserved for men), and is expertly crafted.
While IFC opened the Abdellatif Kechiche film after the New York Film Festival in NY and LA for a qualifying Oscar run on October 25, the movie will also go out on VOD later on and the NC-17 rating will only enhance its visibility. “We feel that the movie will work extremely well on any and all platforms,” said Sehring. “It is pretty incredible work and the performances are breathtaking.”
The film’s three-hour running time is a barrier for wide theatrical play. Landmark, AMC and Regal will both play specialized films in NC-17. But Cinemark will not book a film rated NC-17. Mainly the NC-17 gets in the way of newspaper ads in such papers as the Seattle Times. Which is not so big a deal anymore in the online media age.
At Cannes Jury president Steven Spielberg called the film “a great love story that made all of us feel privileged to be a fly on the wall, to see this story of deep love and deep heartbreak evolve from the beginning. We didn’t think about how it was going to play, we just were really happy that someone had the courage to tell this story the way he did…The issue of gay marriage is one that many brave states in America are resolving in a way that suits all of us that are in favor of gay marriage. But I think actually this film carries a very strong message, a very positive message.”
Other distributors have taken advantage of the NC-17 rating to get attention for their films. “Bully” isn’t the first time Harvey Weinstein has used his battle with the MPAA ratings board as fodder for a marketing campaign–he also did it for 1990’s Peter Greenaway romp “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,” which scored a remarkable $7.7 million domestic gross back in 1990. Fox Searchlight, on the other hand, has embraced the rating by changing awareness on the NC-17 in order to remove the brand of “shame” around the NC-17 by reminding folks that many films have found success despite the Scarlet Letter, from “Cook, Thief” to “Henry and June” ($11 million). They adopted the rating for both 2003’s “The Dreamers,” from Bernardo Bertolucci ($2.5 million stateside), as well as 2011 sex addiction drama “Shame” ($4 million). It was one way to make it a must-see, in a way, for certain audiences. (Director Steve McQueen talks about Michael Fassbender’s Oscar snub and America’s fear of sex; here’s our flip cam interview with his star.)
Back in the day, the MPAA started out with the X as its official rating for adult-oriented films, such as John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy,” which won the Oscar in 1969. But the X was swiftly adopted as a promo tool by the porn industry, which splashed XXX over the likes of “Inside Jennifer Wales” on 42nd Street and later, porn videos.
Thus in 1990, the MPAA introduced the NC-17 (“No Children Under 17 Admitted”) and later, an amended rating (“No One 17 and Under Admitted). Some films with the rating have managed to find audiences, but many relied on NC-17 to deliver adults in search of sensational material, and were often slammed by critics, shunned by newspapers, and relegated to a limited number of theaters.
But the world has changed, as Blockbuster and video stores don’t have the clout they once did. IFC released “Enter the Void” in 2010 to $.3; LD Entertainment earned $2 million with “Killer Joe.” Getting the best of bith worlds was R-rated “Blue Valentine.” After the Weinstein Co.’s famously successful appeal to reverse the initial NC-17 rating, the movie starring Ryan Gosling grossed $9.7 million in 450 theaters in 2010-11, and went on to an Oscar nomination for Michelle Williams.
Here’s a ranking of films eventually rated NC-17, from must-sees to must-avoids, with review links and trailers:
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1990), Brit auteur Peter Greenaway’s most popular release, was well-marketed by Harvey Weinstein, who launched the initially X-rated film unrated so that theaters would book it–and only later adopted the NC-17. (UPDATE: Edward Copeland reminds that Blockbluster at first carried the film, then refused to stock it when it became NC-17.) Helen Mirren stars as the luscious, restless wife of brutal crime boss Michael Gambon; between meals at her husband’s restaurant, she conducts a secret affair with sweet bookseller Alan Howard. 90% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Lust, Caution (2007) marked Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s return to Asia. The film is a gorgeous sexually explicit espionage tale set in 1938 Hong Kong and 1942 Shanghai, when the city was occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army. Chinese university students from Lingnan University plot to assassinate a high-ranking special agent and recruiter of the puppet government (Tony Leung) by using an attractive young woman (Wei Tang) to lure him into a trap. In Asia the director had to trim the film by seven minutes. 72% on the Tomatometer.
Bad Education (2004), Pedro Almodovar’s dark exploration of murder, sexual abuse, religion, transexuality and drugs, starring Mexican Gael García Bernal in one of his best Spanish-language performances, played at film fests and in New York, but was limited by its rating. 88% on Rotten Tomatoes. (See also Almodovar’s NC-17-rated “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”(1990) and “Matador” (1986), which both star Antonio Banderas.)
Bad Lieutenant (1992), directed by Abel Ferrara, stars a deliciously out-of-control Harvey Keitel in the title role; later on Werner Herzog remade the film with Nic Cage. 77% on the Tomatometer.
Shame (2011), directed by Steve McQueen, demands to be seen more for Fassbender’s no-holds-barred performance (which should have scored an Oscar nomination), than for its laborious long shots including miscast Carey Mulligan’s renditon of “New York, New York.” 80% on the Tomatometer.
Crash (1996), David Cronenberg’s Cannes special-prize-winner (for “audacity”), stars Holly Hunter as a car-crash victim who becomes part of a sub-culture of scarred, sexually voracious accident survivors who are turned on by automobile wrecks. 75% on the Tomatometer.
Henry and June (1990) was the first film labeled “No one under 17.” Set in 1931 Paris, the Phil Kaufman drama follows writers Henry Miller (Fred Ward) and Anaïs Nin (Maria de Madeiros, of “Pulp Fiction” fame) at work and erotic play. Nin also gets sexy with Miller’s wife, June (Uma Thurman). 73% on the Tomatometer.
The Dreamers (2003), set in 1968 Paris, stars Michael Pitt (“Boardwalk Empire”) as an American abroad who falls into a sexual triangle with brother and sister film enthusiasts. For its Italian release, the film was rated viewable by age 14 and up. 60% on the Tomatometer.
Must to Avoid:
Showgirls (1995), directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring “Saved by the Bell” alumna Elizabeth Berkeley as a pole dancer, was notoriously slammed by critics and released wider than any NC-17, but the $40-million film took a while to make a profit in homevideo release. It set an all-time RAZZIE Award record with 13 nominations, winning seven, tied with “Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000.” 12% on the Tomatometer.
Box Office Mojo’s Top Ten Grossing NC-17 Films
Rank OR# Title (click to view) Studio Lifetime Gross* Year^
1 2677 Showgirls MGM $20,350,754 1995
2 3593 Henry & June Uni. $11,567,449 1990
3 4115 The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover Mira. $7,724,701 1990
4 4603 Bad Education SPC $5,211,842 2004
5 4733 Lust, Caution Focus $4,604,982 2007
6 4868 Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Mira. $4,087,361 1990
7 4923 Shame FoxS $3,909,002 2011
8 5320 The Dreamers FoxS $2,532,228 2004
9 5548 Crash (1996) FL $2,038,450 1996
10 5579 Bad Lieutenant Aries $2,000,022 1992