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‘Body Parts’ Review: Lively Documentary Flips the Script on Women in Film, with Notes to Spare

Tribeca: Objects become subjects in this sharply focused study of nudity, sex scenes, and the rise of intimacy coordinators.

body parts documentary film

“Body Parts”

Tribeca

It’s been almost five years since The New Yorker published Ronan Farrow’s first exposé of Hollywood’s ugliest open secret, that Harvey Weinstein was a sexual predator, taking the #MeToo movement worldwide and forever shifting the conversation around the film industry’s horrifying treatment of women. The flurry of similar allegations that followed has slowed to a trickle, but there are many women in Hollywood who want to keep the issues front and center. The message is loud and clear in “Body Parts,” a clever and damning documentary about the history of nudity, sex scenes, and women’s bodies on film. Objects become subjects in Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s sweeping yet focused analysis that exposes the truth about the power of images to shape the world’s views of women.

In a brisk 86 minutes, “Body Parts” mashes together interviews with the likes of Jane Fonda and Rosanna Arquette, analysis from film historians, intimacy coordinator trainings, and whirlwind montages from both classic and contemporary films. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and Guevara-Flanagan runs a tight ship. Though each piece could easily fill more time, the filmmaker shrewdly stays focused on the portrayal of women’s bodies, earning the film’s provocative title. The quick barrage of film clips acts both as handy filler and an almost dizzying background noise, illustrating the central thesis that these images are everywhere.

Anyone who followed the accounts from the first wave of #MeToo stories will be familiar with Fonda’s regrets about “Barbarella,” or Arquette’s account of feeling pressured to film topless at 19. (Arquette: “It was a completely different consciousness. You were expected to do these things.”) Though they are the most recognizable faces in the film, one gets the sense that almost every actress of a certain age has similar stories.

In choosing what sound bites to include, Guevara-Flanagan finds eerie refrains repeating themselves. “I was at a place in my life where if you were asked to do something, especially by a man, you did it,” says Fonda, echoing Arquette almost to a tee. Another unsettling chorus emerges in the way the women talk about leaving their body, blacking out, or floating above the room while shooting sex scenes.

Taking a wide angle on the subject, “Body Parts” assembles a unique mix of filmmakers, actors, intimacy coordinators, film historians, and even body doubles for its rapid-fire interviews. It’s a rare moment in the spotlight for Marli Renfro, Janet Leigh’s body double from “Psycho,” and Shelly Michelle, who stood in for Julia Roberts in the opening sequence of “Pretty Woman.” Filmmakers Karyn Kusama, Angela Robinson, and Joey Soloway add a touch of the academic, illuminating the awkward minutiae of nudity riders, or how a studio’s sex-obsessed marketing plan can completely undermine a feminist film, as it did for Kusama’s 2009 satirical horror “Jennifer’s Body.”

Toward the end of the film, “Body Parts” zooms out yet again, sandwiching footage of Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford between clips from “Kill Bill,” “Boogie Nights,” “The Graduate,” and “Showgirls.” Guevara-Flanagan makes use of the shorthand afforded by a visual hint, such as the date rape scene in “Sixteen Candles” or the classic old Hollywood struggle that turned into a kiss. The film historians offer a brief but satisfactory explanation of the Hays code, lamenting the brevity of the pre-Code era where women screenwriters wrote fully actualized roles for stars like Bette Davis and Mae West.

The intimacy coordinator trainings lack the luster of this jaunt through cinema history, though the merkin maker who presents her creations in “little boxes” is certainly a highlight. It feels necessary to highlight what is working, and a recent move by SAG-AFTRA to accredit seven intimacy coordinator training programs is the most concrete outcome of #MeToo and Time’s Up. Though the vocation is growing quickly, there is still no industry-wide requirement to hire an intimacy coordinator.

If “Body Parts” wanted to offer more solutions, it’s missing a more forward-looking chapter, though its digestible length and pace is certainly appealing. The choice to remain accessible is a shrewd one, and the film manages to lay out its concise thesis without digressing too far into the nitty gritty. It’s a simple and powerful message, executed economically. This time, it’s not the women, but the emperor who has no clothes.

Grade: B+

“Body Parts” premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution. 

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