“Une histoire de l’érotisme”, a new sprawling program on the history of eroticism in film at the Cinémathèque québécoise, opened with four trailers and four legends. The history of sex in the cinemas has always been salacious and secret. “As the legend goes,” the most infamous erotic films in history are quoted more often than they are seen. In cinema, eroticism and imagination are bedfellows, with the censored and banned films built up as far more offensive than they ever were and lust-starved audiences finding sex in a glance or in a lit cigarette. Erotic cinema has always been surrounded by an aura of the unseen.
Sprawling nearly every decade of cinema’s existence, the Cinémathèque québécoise will be screening over 105 films in the next two months to try and capture the history of sex onscreen. Hitting major arthouse players, historical footnotes and local “films de fesses,” the program playfully hints at the transgressive. Blending shock with desire, the opening night helped set a tone that cemented the role of eroticism in film and art history, offering a collection of wide-ranging short films.
The night begins with trailers for pornos, with typical softcore fare, highbrow erotic adaptations and cold hearted BDSM by way of Alain Robbe-Grillet. Sex sells, and rooting the night in the cycle of sex-fuelled publicity has a hint of self-awareness. In full metamorphosis and reinvigorated by a new voice and direction, there could be no better program to sell that cinema in Montreal is sexy again. It seems impossible that, just four years ago, the Cinematheque celebrated its 50th anniversary with the threat of permanent closure hanging overhead.
The first film of the night, the 1933 film Lot of Sodom, was a demonstration of the program’s depth. The film, an avant-garde retelling of the infamous Bible story, relies heavily on the audience’s prior knowledge of the tale. Obscured and fantastical, Lot of Sodom feels long, but it’s nonetheless easy to get lost in the sensual images of folded over and shining kaleidoscoped bodies floating and gliding through the darkness. Despite being a good film, the quality is still crackling and blemished, hinting at the unspoken eroticism of celluloid itself. In French, we call celluloid “pellicule” — another word for skin — and the erotic quality of Lot of Sodom still holds great appeal. Last year Peter Tscherkassky’s erotic reconstruction, The Exquisite Corpus, unveiled the power of the cinematic skin, forever connecting the wear and wetness of flesh with that of the dermatology of cinema.
Up next was 1964’s Eves futures, a French essay production by Jacques Baratier about mannequins. Fetishistic, the film explores the construction of department store mannequins. Zeroing in on the patterned and impersonal mode of carving a woman’s curves, sanding them down and building their eyes, the documentary shots are constructed in tandem with staged images of fashion models. Blurring the line between the hardened flesh of the dolls and the soft flesh of women, the erotic fragmentation of female body parts lies at the heart of the film’s political edge as it explores the incestuous bond of beauty and industry. Mirroring the still contentious cinematographic style that fetishizes women through decoupage, Eves future seems to question the presentation of women as parts rather than as a whole as the manufacturing of beauty comes up against reality. In the final section of the film, as model and mannequin meet, the real women hold and touch at their synthetic selves with longing. Desire, in this case, becomes a manifestation of misplaced desire for eternal youth. The film might be longer than it has to be, but the hands-on approach to constructing mannequins itself is remarkably enthralling.
The last two films of the night both suggest different ways of cementing eroticism in cinema within the wider scope of eroticism in art history. First up, Peep Show (2016) by Italian animator Rino Stefano Tagliafierro. In 2014, Tagliafierro explored the nature of beauty in Western art as he brought beloved paintings back to life, primarily from the 17th and 18th century, through new technologies in his short BEAUTY. He returns now with a similar project exploring sex and eroticism in painting. His work reveals the eroticism that was always present, but somehow lying beneath the veneer of respectability (ignoring the fact that SOME of the paintings he uses were condemned at the time for indecency). The slow, deliberate movements that he injects (and the hazy cascading light) suggests a deep, slow-breathed desire.
The film serves an interesting purpose, and it certainly suggests what some of us have long known: humanity, and artists, have always been perverts. Personally, some of the painting choices are pat: the film suffers from the same problems as BEAUTY, relying too much on “Bouguereauté”: the slick, artificial and shining beauty of neoclassicism. It’s still a technical marvel, and pretty things are not painful to look at, but the depth of his vision cannot overcome the shallowness of his sources.
Finishing off the night was a rarely screened short film, Demain la petite fille sera en retard à l’école, directed by Michel Boschet. Inspired by the work of Japanese artist Toshio Saeki, the film won best animated short at the 1980 Cesar Awards, only to be more or less locked away due to a conflict with the artist. Already incredibly disconcerting, the added animation and sound creates an entirely upsetting experience. Matching disturbing images of decapitated heads engaged in cunnilingus with the soundtrack of children crying somehow feels incredibly indecent. Not necessarily revelatory, the film nonetheless unveils the incredible surrealism of Saeki’s destiny and the power of eroticism to arouse and enrage.
The stage has been set by the opening program of “Une histoire de l’érotisme”, suggesting the ethereal fog of eroticism. As the programmers tried to pin down what qualified a film to be included or not, they suggested that one of the most common threads was the presence of the “foot shot” in the first 20 minutes. Not true for every film programmed, it nonetheless suggests that at the heart of eroticism, as George Bataille suggested, was the act of transgression. Procreative, socially approved heteronormative sex doesn’t have a strong hold on the erotic heart, and thank god it doesn’t — the beauty of this program lies in its inappropriateness, leaning (more often than not) on the unsettling and disturbed impulses of erotic desire. As one of the best programs to ever be pulled together in Montreal, this will be a summer of great awakenings.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.