Von Trier and the Squandered Potential of 70s Pornography


A tidbit published on Salon a few days ago reveals that Lars Von Trier’s new film, Nymphomaniac will feature explicit sex scenes using porn actors as stand-ins for respectable Hollywood actors, whose faces will in turn be digitally superimposed over them. This is interesting not because it’s a hokey technique (Fincher and co. pulled it off spectacularly in The Social Network) but because of the implications regarding the use of unsimulated sex in “mainstream” film.

Of course, there is a proud tradition of depicting actual fucking in arthouse and underground narrative cinema, and Von Trier undeniably finds his roots in those sensibilities. Featuring real sex in his films is not necessarily new for him (he used “hardcore inserts” in Antichrist), but to digitally splice together the bodies of porn performers and respectable, rather high-profile actors is quite novel.

It strikes me as an avenue to deliver on the hopes of those most optimistic pornographers of the 70s. The release of Deep Throat in 1972, at least according to the reflections of its creators, didn’t represent America’s moral decline, but a moment for an entire culture to reflect on its own attitudes towards sexuality and representation. It’s relative mainstream success, the rise of “porno chic”, and its indelible pop-cultural impact certainly laid the groundwork for a more honest dialogue about sex and the movies. Even Hollywood seemed to be moving in Deep Throat‘s direction, as the auteur-driven decade of post-Hayes Code New Hollywood and the Movie Brats churned out increasingly incisive, intelligent, and graphic (violently, sexually, etc.) films for mainstream audiences. Then two monumental media/cultural events seemingly reverted American mainstream film back to the sexual mores of 50s suburbia: Star Wars and home video. The spectacle of the blockbuster eclipsed the slower-burning auteur-driven pieces of years past, and home video drove pornography deeper underground and into the darker recesses of the human psyche. At the moment pornography could have attained a social conscience, it became even more tied to the whims of the mighty dollar and the nastier demons of human nature.

Since that brief moment, there have certainly been flirtations between Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, but nothing much more than winks and nods, and certainly nothing that resembles an honest conversation about sex.

Von Trier’s gimmick could act as a bridge to get the discussion going again. Admittedly, he is not what one would call a “mainstream” filmmaker, and Nymphomaniac is certainly not going to be released on any wide scale at first, but the fact that fairly well-known and respected actors (Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Uma Thurman… Shia LaBoef…) work with him does give his work a kind of mainstream appeal. Though the film’s subject matter will certainly deal with sex itself in an interesting way (“It’s about religion, about God, about philosophy.”), the use of the aforementioned visual technique does raise questions of respectability. Will the mainstream actors’ reputations be sullied by appearing to actually have sex on film? Will the work of the porn actors as body doubles in a prestigious, serious film elevate their status?

The questions and implications will take time to unravel themselves, and only time will tell if Von Trier’s latest provocation is actually good or not. It is unlikely this film will start a cinematic (semi)-revolution on the level of Deep Throat, but it seems to be one of the first proper responses from the other side since 1972.


One thought on “Von Trier and the Squandered Potential of 70s Pornography

  1. not only does Von Trier have his “”roots” in but he is considered the one who really ignited the un-simulated sex that is seen in todays underground and art house films with the un-simulated sex in his film “The Idiots”, not that it wasn’t happening before but he restarted the trend in the 90’s. Is he going to start another. As you said only time will tell.

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