Sex did not disappear from Hollywood cinema in the wake of the 1915 Supreme Court ruling, as vamps, pansies, and racial minorities lusting for white partners roamed the screens—even if the narratives framed them as wicked or ridiculous. As well, various sex scandals erupted around a number of Hollywood stars in the early 1920s. Hollywood gained an image of wild parties and scandalous affairs, and studio motion pictures generally championed the growing sexual liberation of the post-Victorian "Jazz Age." In response to a renewed outcry for reform, the industry decided to create an organization for self-regulation in order to forestall any further attempts at federal regulation. Former Postmaster General Will Hays (1887–1937) was hired to head the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) in order to oversee the morality of the industry, including the attachment of morals clauses to studio contracts and the creation of a list of "Don'ts" and "Be Carefuls" for films to follow. The British film industry had established a similar industry-founded organization as early as 1912, the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC). In general, the MPPDA's abilities were limited and functioned more as public relations. The director Cecil B. DeMille (1881–1959) shifted from making suggestive sex comedies like Old Wives for New (1918) and Don't Change Your Husband (1919) to Biblical epics like The Ten Commandments (1923) that still showcased a wide spectrum of sexual licentiousness—but then punished the transgressors. Hollywood films were wildly successful across the globe, and an increasingly "movie-mad" public made sex idols out of stars like Rudolf Valentino (1895–1926) and Clara Bow (1905–1965).

Renewed complaints by watchdog groups led to the industry commissioning a new set of rules called the Production Code in 1930, to more specifically outline what was acceptable and unacceptable to show or say. Yet, just as with the list of "Don'ts" and "Be Carefuls," no effective method of enforcement had been established. As the Hollywood studios grew desperate to draw audiences during the height of the Depression, sex and sexuality became even more blatant. A whole cycle of "fallen women" films ( Blonde Venus , 1932; Rain , 1932; Baby Face , 1933) had almost every major female star playing characters turning towards prostitution. A veritable "pansy craze" developed in the early 1930s as well, with films such as Palmy Days, (1931) and Call Her Savage (1932) allowing audiences to hear the lilting lisps of effeminate men. Degrees of nudity and depictions of pre- and extramarital sexual relationships also increased.

Public opinion in the United States turned, though, by the mid-1930s. Many sought to blame the economic downturn as a result of lax morality—and saw Hollywood as a prime culprit in this slump. Soon, various groups (including the Catholic Church, which created the Legion of Decency in 1933 to monitor films) began organizing boycotts and pressing for federal intervention. Worried by this new turn of events, the studios revamped their attempts at self-regulation. In 1934 the Seal of Approval was devised as a method to enforce the provisions of the Production Code. All studios agreed to submit their films to the Production Code Administration for the Seal of Approval, and to pay a hefty fine for distributing any film that did not receive a Seal. The Production Code specifically forbade Hollywood films from acknowledging "miscegenation" (interracial sex) and "sex perversion" (homosexuality). The portrayal of heterosexuality was extremely circumscribed as well. Indications of extra- or premarital heterosexuality or of prostitution were not allowed. Even further, time limits were placed on kisses—and they could only be done with closed, dry mouths. Double beds were eliminated on-screen, even for married couples. The Production Code Administration even decided that when a reclining couple kissed on a couch in The Merry Widow (1934) that one foot always had to be touching the floor, supposedly keeping the couple physically incapable of "going too far." The Seal of Approval proved an effective method of self-regulation for almost the next two decades of Hollywood cinema.

While the Production Code led to a whitewashing of sexuality in Hollywood, inventive filmmakers at the major studios sometimes slyly managed to indicate sexual activity through metaphor: dissolving from a couple embracing to waves crashing or fireworks exploding (or, in the notorious final shot of North by Northwest , 1959, a train going into a tunnel). Dialogue could also allude to sexual attraction without actually naming the topic, as when a conversation between the characters played by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep (1946) seems to be about horse racing, but can also be understood as sexual flirtation. While prostitutes were officially absent from Code-era pictures, one still could find plenty of "dance-hall hostesses" and "saloon girls." Various film genres also effectively veiled libidinous energy. Sadomasochistic tendencies often filtered through horror films, for example, and romantic dance sequences in musicals worked as metaphors for sexual coupling.

Hiding sexuality under a veil of connotation was not reserved solely for heterosexuality. At various points, intimations of homosexuality were included in Hollywood films as well, and managed to slip by the watchful eye of the Production Code Administration. As queer theorist D. A. Miller has pointed out, though, once the concept of connotation is introduced, it becomes possible for many lesbian and gay male audience members to read connotative homosexuality into characters or moments that may not have been intended by the filmmakers (p. 125). Thus, rather than quelling the existence of "sex perversion," the enforcement of the Production Code may have led to a wider and more diffuse sense of homosexuality for some viewers.

b. Bressuire, France, 13 July 1948

Based in Paris, Catherine Breillat became famous as a writer and filmmaker confronting sexuality from a candid and unsentimental viewpoint; she was even dubbed a "porno auteuriste" by some critics. Her start in film was a supporting role in Bertolucci's landmark exploration of sexual politics, Last Tango in Paris (1972).

Her first film as writer and director, Une vraie jeune fille ( A Real Young Girl , 1976), focuses on the sexual experiences and desires of a young woman, but eschews the romanticism often associated with such tales. Instead, the main character shows no particular reaction to the plainly incestuous attention of her father. In contrast, a blue-collar worker's indifference toward her creates an insatiable passion for him. 36 fillette ( Virgin , 1988) and À ma soeur! ( Fat Girl , 2003) are also offbeat narratives of young women coming of age. In each of these films, the female protagonists are not viewed as passive victims in a male-dominated society, but as active agents of desire grappling with their feelings, as well as the assumptions and roles that are thrust upon them by society. This is also true of many of the adult women in Breillat's other pictures, such as Romance (1999) and Anatomie de l'enfer ( Anatomy of Hell , 2004).

Yet consistently, Breillat's films frustrate attempts to psychologically investigate the female characters. Instead, stylistic choices (including a lack of emotional response by the performers) create a sense of cold objectivity that works to keep the viewer at a distance from the characters. Rather than attempting to explain their desires, Breillat simply presents them—even when the films portray their various sexual fantasies. As Breillat herself said of one of her films, "If people go to see Romance with arousal on their minds they will be disappointed." Depicting the unpleasant and unlikable sides of the women characters often prevents female viewers from identifying with them.

It is perhaps this combination of dispassionate technique and forthright depiction of sex in all its polymorphous perversity that has led to numerous outcries against Breillat's films. A Real Young Girl had difficulties being screened upon its completion. Scenes of actual heterosexual intercourse and a shot of an erect penis in Romance almost kept the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) from allowing the film into the United Kingdom. Neither film was distributed in the United States. The Ontario Film Review Board in Canada also originally banned Fat Girl , objecting to scenes depicting sexual activity by minors and frontal nudity. In 2002 Breillat made the film Sex Is Comedy ( Scènes intimes ), a self-reflexive story about a female director trying to film an explicit sex scene the way she envisions it while facing obstacles from all fronts. Often outraging both male patriarchal notions and feminists, Breillat's films create their own unique, unblinking attitude toward sexuality.


Une vraie jeune fille ( A Real Young Girl , 1976), 36 fillette ( Virgin , 1988), Romance (1999), Sex Is Comedy ( Scènes intimes , 2002), À ma souer! ( Fat Girl , 2003), Anatomie de l'enfer ( Anatomy of Hell , 2004)


Armour, Nicole. "Far from Romance: The Coming-of-Age Films of Catherine Breillat." Cinemascope 9 (December 2001): 12–16.

Sean Griffin

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