France's Movie Ratings System Under Fire
Courtesy of Ad Vitam Distribution

For decades, France has given the world iconic films that deal frankly with sexual themes: “And God Created Woman,” “Belle de Jour,” “Betty Blue” and “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” But as in more puritanical nations, like the U.S., France is seeing the rise of socially conservative groups that are challenging the country’s traditionally permissive view on sex in movies, leading to an uproar in the film community while the government explores revamping its film ratings system.

Activist group Promouvoir, led by Andre Bonnet, who is affiliated with far-right politicians, has clashed repeatedly with France’s classification board, a government body regulated by the National Film Board (CNC). The board comprises guild representatives, parents, psychologists and various organizations dedicated to protecting families and children. It recommends certificates for films in four categories: all audiences; -12, which prohibits a film to viewers under 12 years of age; -16; and -18.

Promouvoir has won several battles with the board over the years: Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s “Baise-moi,” Larry Clark and Edward Lachman’s “Ken Park,” Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac: Volume 2” and Gaspar Noe’s “Love” at first had been given -16 certificates from the board, only to be reclassified as -18 after several challenges from the conservative group.

Promouvoir also opened the door for reclassification of Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 Palme d’Or winning “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” initially rated -12, more than two years after its original release, due to “realistic sex scenes.” The film’s operating visa also has been suspended, meaning that its distribution in secondary markets is in limbo.

The group’s latest target is Eva Husson’s “Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story),” a steamy coming-of-age tale about suburban youths who experiment with sex, also rated -12 by the classification board.

“We’re seeing the blossoming of an ultra-conservative movement that threatens to abolish rights and liberties we have known for the last 50 years,” says Husson.

Behind the battle over ratings lies the threat of ruining a film’s commercial potential. A -16 rating restricts a film’s financial options in France, and a -18 is akin to a death sentence. While films in the latter category are allowed in theaters, exhibitors often opt out of showing them, not only because of the limited audience, but also due to a higher tax on tickets for such films — more than 16% instead of less than 11% for all other films.

The ramifications also translate to TV. Movies with a -16 are not allowed on prime-time TV, but can air after 10:30 p.m., while those with -18 ratings are banned except on pay TV and can show only after midnight — a slot usually dedicated to pornographic films.

While some producers and filmmakers are playing it safe so as not to draw the attention of conservative groups, others blame the French classification system, which offers no clear content guidelines.

Audrey Azoulay, who last month took over as France’s culture minister, has vowed to reform the local ratings system and strengthen its board, an issue initiated by her predecessor, Fluer Pellerin.

Azoulay says she is in favor of overturning a decree authored by the French State Council dating back to 2001 which states that films that show non-simulated sex automatically must be classified -18. Instead, the minister says she favors the -18 rating for movies that contain scenes of sex (simulated or not) or great violence “without any aesthetic justification,” and that could “disturb the sensibility of minors or lead to trivializing violence.”

The film community has applauded Azoulay’s support.

Filmmakers see the calls for censorship as an attack on freedom. Noe says his family fled a dictatorship in Argentina to come to France — and he loves the fact that movies like Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” Liliana Cavani’s “The Night Porter” and John Boorman’s “Deliverance” could air on primetime with a simple warning. “It seems that freedom of expression is now being restricted in films and TV like (in other countries),” Noe says. “France has always been admired for its great freedom of expression. We shouldn’t take it lightly.”

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