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Deborah Francois plays a secretary with a skill for speed-typing, in the French comedy "Populaire." Courtesy The Weinstein Company
Sean P. Means: Sex (in movies) ain’t what it used to be

By Sean P. Means

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Oct 02 2013 11:56 am • Last Updated Feb 14 2014 11:35 pm

A surprising thing happened the other day: I was watching this French movie, a sort of Doris Day/Rock Hudson throwback comedy called "Populaire," when the two stars of the movie started doing something that Doris and Rock never contemplated doing.

They started taking off each other’s clothing.

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Yup, right in the middle of an otherwise PG-rated romantic comedy popped up this hard-R sex scene — with bare breasts, moaning, clutching and thrusting.

Then the movie went back to its business and never again crossed the line into the steamy or arousing.

After my first dismissive thought — "Well, that’s the French for you" — it occurred to me that strong sex scenes are few and far between on the movie landscape.

Once upon a time, it was the French — and other European filmmakers — who provided us Americans with the dose of onscreen sexuality that Hollywood wouldn’t provide. It wasn’t just the great drama and artistry that had audiences seeking out art houses in the late ’50s to see French films such as "And God Created Woman" and "Hiroshima, Mon Amour."

Then American filmmakers started pushing against Hollywood’s self-imposed restrictions, the old Hays Code that said even married couples had to sleep on separate single beds. The industry needed something new, and thus was born the movie ratings system — the letters that we’re now familiar with: G, PG, R and X. (PG-13 came in the mid-’80s, and NC-17 replaced the infamous X in the ’90s.)

Through the early ’60s to the ’70s, sexuality in movies moved from pornography and exploitation genres into more artistic and mainstream films. Often it was the European directors leading the way — Michelangelo Antonioni in "Blow-Up" or Bernardo Bertolucci in "Last Tango in Paris," for example — but the Americans quickly caught up.

Since then, the tide has largely rolled back.

There was some backlash, for sure, from groups declaring such sexually explicit movies as nothing more than filth, no matter how artful. Many theater owners agreed and refused to book such films. Those who did found it hard to advertise, as newspapers in many places instituted bans on ads for X-rated (and even some R-rated) movies.

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Hollywood, which never let "art" get in the way of making a buck, has learned to set limitations on itself so it wouldn’t have to limit its audience.

Movie studios set their sights on providing maximum effect without losing any portion of the audience. The result is the PG-13 mega-blockbuster, with just enough violence (lots, if it’s bloodless) and sexual content (just a little) to get people into theaters — but not so much that kids under 17 can’t go without their parents.

Hollywood stars figured out they were more marketable if they also could appeal to that broad range. A-list actresses, especially, learned how to create a screen image that’s slightly sexy, but still chaste enough to take home to Mother.

A prime example is Reese Witherspoon. Early in her career, Witherspoon would sometimes appear topless, such as in the 1998 crime thriller "Twilight" (not to be confused with the sparkly-vampire saga of the same name). Then she positioned herself as the safe-and-sweet romantic-comedy star of "Legally Blonde," "Sweet Home Alabama" and the like.

Then there was the Internet. Web sites popped up to catalog movie stars’ sex scenes, which become clipped out, isolated and shown out of context. And the proliferation of Internet porn allowed the people who once sought out obscure foreign movies to find what they wanted with a few keystrokes at home.

Now, we get divorced-from-reality scenarios where Jennifer Aniston can play a stripper (in "We’re the Millers") and Gwyneth Paltrow’s character can give her boyfriend a lapdance (in "Thanks for Sharing") — with neither of them removing her underwear.

We also have no trouble taking kids to PG-13 movies where people get mowed down by machine guns, bombs or ravenous zombies — but we have a first-class freak-out at the prospect of seeing a woman’s breast.

Don’t get me wrong — I don’t want my children (or anyone else’s) to see something in a movie, whether it’s violence or sexual content, that they’re not mentally and emotionally prepared to see.

But, as a thinking and feeling adult interested in seeing movies that reflect the full range of human experience, why is it so challenging to find serious moviemakers who acknowledge that sexual behavior is part of that experience?

Sean P. Means, for the moment, writes The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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