We got it all, and we show it all!
Some observations on the contrasting depictions of nudity in American and French cinema
“We got it all, and we show it all!” shouts the Cavalcade of Perversion ringmaster Mr. David (David Lochary) to a crowd of curious carnival goers in director John Waters’ 1970 underground feature Multiple Maniacs. Inside the Cavalcade’s tent is an array of performers in various states of undress, engaged in activities that are viewed as obscene or perverse by the conservative suburban audience. Though Waters has utilized shock and showmanship to market his films, the scene acknowledges an uncomfortable truth about the American entertainment industry. American filmmakers lure moviegoers by appealing to their visceral rather than their intellectual sensibilities. They offer movies with familiar, traditional plot structures and cartoonishly simplistic characters, enhanced by gratuitous violence, exaggerated drama, and uncontextualized nudity.
In American cinema, where box office success is more valued than critical acclaim, where artistic vision is often set aside to produce easily consumable mass entertainment, a film generally utilizes nudity because it provides sensationalistic marketing value and fulfills the audience’s voyeuristic desires. In the American film, the naked form serves a similar purpose as a gunfight or an explosion—an opportunity for viewers to gawk at something not frequently encountered in their daily lives.
By contrast, French cinema has traditionally invoked a radically different approach to onscreen nudity, using images of the unclothed body in the context of more mundane, authentic, or even unpleasant human experiences. In films that attempt to unravel the intricate complexities of the human condition, nudity is merely another means of exposing the vulnerability of a character, provoking us to evaluate the more enigmatic facets of the character or their situation. As a result, French cinema’s portrayal of nudity is often more brutally realistic, deeply intimate, and less objectifying and patronizing than what can be found in American cinema, whose inherent commercialism leaves it beholden to the fantasies and demands of the mainstream consumer.
It is essential to understand these different approaches to filmmaking and recognize that how artists depict nudity in their work can significantly impact a society’s perception of the human body.
The problematic commodification of nudity in American cinema
In Saltburn, the Amazon-produced film from director Emerald Fennell, much of the marketing has focused on hyping the film’s “shocking” scenes, including star Barry Keoghan’s completely nude dance sequence set to Sophie Ellis-Baxtor’s Murder on the Dance Floor.
“Yep, that’s really Barry Keoghan nude in Saltburn—and viewers are losing it.”
-New York Post
“Saltburn Star Barry Keoghan Didn’t Use a Prosthetic for Naked Dance Scene.”
“Is That Barry Keoghan’s Penis in Saltburn?”
“Barry Keoghan’s Naked Saltburn Dance Scene Is Taking Over the Internet.”
Like many big-budget American films, Saltburn generated tremendous press coverage by relying on the same carnivalesque marketing techniques employed in the era of the schlocky, low-budget American drive-in movies, which sold tickets by promising everything from scenes of extreme violence and nauseating gore in movies like Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast to graphic nudity in “educational” films like Kroger Babb’s Mom and Dad, which succeeded in showing explicit female nudity by posing as a childbirth documentary.
Saltburn’s popularity exploded primarily due to the social media buzz surrounding “the bathtub scene” or “the graveyard scene.” However, the real draw is the big reveal of Keoghan’s penis in the final moments of the film. Not since John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus has a film worked so unapologetically to pander to the unserious interests of an audience through the use of naked bodies, lowbrow shock and subversion, and overly stylized cinematography.
It is problematic that a glimpse of Barry Keoghan’s penis in Saltburn is promoted as just another shocking “must-see” moment within the film, on par with the scenes in which his character performs cunnilingus on his menstruating housemate or slurps ejaculate-sullied water from a bathtub drain. It is worth noting that while little has been written about the premise or plot of Saltburn or the questions it potentially raises, leaving much of its press coverage devoted to its four buzzworthy scenes, collectible replicas of its infamous bathtub were offered as promotional tie-ins, and there are even “Saltburn Bath Water” scented candles. Could there be a more fitting commentary on—or condemnation of—the grotesque commercialism of American cinema?
“Jacob Elordi’s Saltburn Bath Water Is Now a Candle.”
Similar to Saltburn, Dave Franco’s Somebody I Used to Know is an American film that most people are familiar with only because of the social media chatter surrounding the attractive young actress Alison Brie’s heavily publicized nude streaking scene.
The scene was promoted by a series of interviews in which she discussed her alleged collegiate streaking, followed by her videotaped hotel streaking incident that coincided with the film’s premiere. In media appearances for the romantic comedy, Brie even claimed to have attended a “nudist college.”
“Alison Brie Addresses Her Nudist College Experience on Conan O’Brien’s Show.”
-The Hollywood Reporter
“Alison Brie Says She’s Very Comfortable Being Naked, Loves Streaking.”
“Alison Brie says she loves streaking: ‘I had a penchant for it in college.’”
This marketing no doubt provided a commercial boost to an otherwise unremarkable and formulaic American romantic comedy. However, its “she loves being naked!” hype problematically nurtures the tiresome fantasy of the exhibitionistic young woman who eagerly welcomes the male gaze.
Body acceptance advocates have unthinkingly celebrated the inclusion of virtually any nudity in Hollywood films, arguing that more exposure to onscreen nudity will result in greater respect and reverence for the human body. However, it is important to acknowledge that most of these films feature young, traditionally attractive actors, which serves to reinforce Americans’ existing fetishization of sexualized nudity, celebrity, and youth. These films encourage the viewer to laugh at or become aroused by nudity instead of considering more intellectual interpretations of nudity or embracing indifference.
Nudity in the French cinema
French films are less commercial than American films because the directors prioritize artistic expression over mass appeal. This approach allows French filmmakers to push creative boundaries and take risks. French filmmakers are not bound by Hollywood’s rigid, formulaic conventions, giving them the freedom to create challenging and thought-provoking films that cater to niche audiences.
The intensity of the media coverage of Saltburn’s dance scene or Somebody I Used to Know’s streaking scene seems almost ridiculous when one considers the sheer number of full-frontal nude scenes encountered in French films. French New Wave directors like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard included shots of nude bodies in several features, beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Cinema luminaries like Julien Duvivier and more transgressive directors like Jean Eustache were perfectly at ease with including casual nudity in their films, as are newer directors like Catherine Breillat and François Ozon, Sébastien Lifshitz, Vincent Le Port, and Ursula Meier. Nudity can be found in nearly every genre of French film, even in animated features like Fantastic Planet, the 1973 René Laloux science fiction feature in which full-frontal nudity is seen in several shots featuring the Oms, a tribe of wild humans.
The nudity in these films tends to be incidental and altogether unremarkable. However, it is often far more explicit than the overly staged, carefully lit, and painstakingly edited nude scenes in American films. A prime example of the French approach to nudity in the cinema can be found in The Devil Probably, a 1977 film by director Robert Bresson, in which the film’s star, Antoine Monnier, is seen emerging from a bathtub, filling the entire screen for a moment with an up-close view of his buttocks and scrotum. It is far more audacious than the coy nudity of Saltburn or Somebody I Used To Know, but in a film that confronts existential depression, environmental destruction, political upheaval, murder, and suicide, nudity is but one element of the human experience, worthy of neither censorship nor aggrandization. Nearly fifty years after its release, The Devil Probably is remembered not for its bathtub scene but as the film that “Blank Generation” singer Richard Hell described as “the most punk movie ever made,” the film that so moved director Rainer Werner Fassbinder that he threatened to resign from the 1977 Berlin Film Festival jury unless it won an award.
Nudity in American cinema is frequently used as a marketing tool to generate hype and boost box office performance. Such exploitation represents a further commodification of the human body—in the arts—in a society that already relies on nudity to sell all manner of products and services. American films are often judged according to their commercial viability alone—ticket sales, merchandise and toy tie-ins, and fast food promotions—rather than their artistic merit. Furthermore, American films have frequently depicted female nudity in such a way as to perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes, reinforcing a culture of sexism and misogyny. While it seems crucial to acknowledge these issues and endeavor to create a more respectful and authentic representation of the human form in American visual media, it is unclear if this is possible, given the commercial nature of American cinema.
French auteur Jean-Luc Godard once claimed, “Cinema is capitalism in its purest form... There is only one solution—turn one’s back on American cinema.” Perhaps a complete abandonment is a harsh solution. However, at the very least, we should acknowledge American cinema’s consumerist foundations and recognize its outsized role in shaping the perceptions and misconceptions surrounding many issues, including the views of the human body. We should strive to avoid the inclination to immediately validate any onscreen nudity as beneficial to the cause of body acceptance. We should also support filmmakers who dare to take a more intelligent and sophisticated approach to depictions of nudity. 🪐
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