What have you got to hide?
The French television series Nu offers stark warnings about utopian idealism, the loss of individuality, and the insidious nature of authoritarianism
In the 2018 French science fiction television series Nu, written and directed by Olivier Fox, naturist activist Jean Lanvin (Thomas Séraphine) successfully campaigns for an ordinance to make public nudity the norm in France, arguing, with little evidence, that a nation that supports such an ambitious commitment to openness will be freer, friendlier, and safer. Class distinctions will vanish, and crime and terrorism will be eliminated. His proposal attracts the support of an authoritarian-curious politician named Simoni (Bruno Paviot), who is intrigued by the Orwellian possibilities of a society that disavows privacy. When the ordinance passes, public nudity is mandated by what comes to be known as the Transparency Act, and those who wear clothing face suspicion, social ostracization, and, eventually, even arrest.
The storyline revolves around police inspector Franck Fish (Satya Dusaugey), who awakens from an eight-year coma to find himself surrounded by his physician, Doctor Gonzales (Alain Bouzigues), his nurse Mathilde (Valérie Decobert-Koretzky), and his parents, Nathalie (Brigitte Faure) and Serge (Vincent Solignac) – all of whom are nude. He learns that France has become a radically different nation during his extended hospitalization. Nudity is required in all settings, the consumption of animal products is outlawed, and social media has evolved to include open access to every citizen's highly personal information, even their medical and financial records. Protective clothing must be manufactured from clear plastic. Even handbags must be clear in order to reveal their contents. His bedside radio hints at other changes brought about by the Transparency Act. Clothing stores are obsolete, but entrepreneurs have discovered new products to market, including towels for sitting, sanitary products for protecting uncovered skin, and gym memberships. Advertisements remind listeners that in an all-nude nation, one must have an attractive body to remain competitive. The series uses Franck's complex integration into this strange new society to explore the Transparency Act's limitations and unintended consequences.
People now have to tell the truth
While the Transparency Act's abolition of privacy is intended to combat crime and terrorism and bring about a more peaceful society, it soon becomes apparent that far more nefarious intentions drive the government's support of Jean Lanvin's utopian vision. “Liberty, nudity, equality,” the rallying cry of the Transparency Act supporters, is slowly replaced by a more telling slogan: “What have you got to hide?”
With nudity wholly normalized, the concept of modesty is viewed with suspicion. Why wear clothing, close your window blinds, or conceal your medical or financial records if you have nothing to hide? Why protest increased government surveillance if you are innocent of any crimes? Resistance to the Transparency Act comes to represent an implicit admission of wrongdoing. “People now have to tell the truth.” Frank's police force partner Lucie (Malya Roman) argues. “We'll be ourselves all the time. Isn't that freedom?” However, Franck has a different perspective: “You can't live hiding nothing!” he exclaims. “It's a fucking dictatorship!”
Franck's struggle to accept this new society results in him being assigned to a mysterious blind psychoanalyst, Fanny (Anne-Élisabeth Blateau), who forces Franck to undergo intensive exposure therapy. He is secluded in a room and forced to watch videos of naked bodies (an homage to a scene in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange) and then placed in front of a mirror as a recording of body shaming comments is played, all in an attempt to desensitize him to his discomfort with his own and others' nudity.
Fanny eventually succeeds in her work to help integrate Franck into the nude society. However, even she seems to have doubts about the true intentions and impact of the Transparency Act. “The Transparency Act has improved safety, yes,” she tells Doctor Gonzales, “but it hasn't addressed social inequities. The resulting frustration and aggression is the real root of violence and terrorism.”
The country is soon shocked to learn that its beloved naturist savior, Jean Lanvin, has been murdered, his fully clothed body left tied up between two trees in a forest. A small cell of anti-Transparency Act resistance fighters is blamed. But are they truly responsible?
I am ready to die for clothes!
The investigation of Jean Lanvin's murder leads Franck and Lucie to an underground swinger club named Le Chéri, where anonymous patrons socialize in a ludicrous array of heavy winter coats, scarves, gloves, and ski masks. In a clothed society, the nude body is fetishized, but in this nude society, the clothed body becomes similarly taboo and desirable.
Lucie learns that Le Chéri manager Paige (Rodolphe Sand) is a member of the Transparency Act resistance, and she infiltrates the group's camp to learn more about Jean Lanvin's death. She is graciously welcomed by Paige, a former boutique owner named Karl (Jean-Baptiste Shelmerdine), and a Muslim woman named Malika (Éléonore Arnaud). The group's battle cry is, “I am ready to die for clothes – except for low waists!” Lucie is surprised to discover that these resistance fighters are anything but murderers or dangerous terrorists. Instead, they are a small band of ineffectual, affable eccentrics.
In a particularly pivotal scene, Karl invites Lucie to “shop” for clothing in his makeshift boutique, housed inside a tent, a casual pleasure no longer available in a nation where everyone lives nude. She plays along to avoid potentially revealing her true identity. However, when Karl has her try on a pretty white dress embroidered with flowers, Lucie gazes at herself in a mirror and experiences something of an epiphany. She realizes that the Transparency Act has robbed her of a critical form of self-expression and that fashion can represent an essential component of one's identity.
Following a discussion with the Muslim woman Malika, Lucie is also forced to confront the troubling reality that a society that rejects diverse expressions in pursuit of commonality can erase minority cultures, identities, traditions, and beliefs and silence diverse voices. A homogeneous citizenry benefits not the individual but the ruling majority, particularly in an authoritarian society.
As it gradually becomes clear that Lanvin's naive vision of a utopian society has been exploited to construct a surveillance state, Franck and Lucie face a dilemma. Do they continue to support Simoni and his administration, or do they join the resistance?
A lesson for naturists?
Nu warns of the ambiguous idealism of utopian movements like Jean Lanvin's, whose push for greater societal harmony through cultural homogeneity ultimately promotes involuntary conformity to a narrow set of ideals while stifling divergent beliefs. The Transparency Act creates a behavior standard and dictates values everyone must follow. It advocates for abolishing privacy and eliminating the differences that can divide and disrupt the social order. However, the outcome is a forceful suppression of diverse and unique perspectives, which is then exploited by an authoritarian state.
Lanvin's argument for a nude society relies on the same empty rhetoric popular among today's naturist advocates, utilizing familiar narratives involving body positivity, freedom, honesty, commonality, and equality. Like Lanvin, contemporary naturists sometimes imply that social nudity is a remedy for the world's ills, a bold proposal that quickly falters under scrutiny.
How does the naturist philosophy address the problems of racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, ableism, and ageism—problems that are all undeniably rooted in the subjective perceptions surrounding the human body? If naturists argue ferociously for a woman's right to bare her body, do they also support a woman's right to make certain medical decisions involving that same body? If naturists assert that going nude represents a freedom of expression, do they also advocate for a person's right to wear the clothing of their choice, even when it does not conform to their perceived gender? If naturists protest censorship of their lifestyle on social media, do they also condemn book bans? If naturists insist the movement is not about sex, do they disavow decades of pinup girl “nudist” magazines and the beauty pageants and lingerie dances that have occurred at some of their resorts?
The refusal of naturists to confront any of these problematic questions or to “politicize” naturism by connecting it to any broader civil rights or civil liberties movements has resulted in a purposefully vague bodily autonomy movement that declines to address any controversial topics involving the body, creating justifiable confusion and cause for skepticism among its proponents and critics alike.
If Nu has a lesson for naturists, it is that the movement should be careful about arguing that societal harmony can be achieved through the simple exposure and recognition of our physical similarities. It should view its cause as one of radical individuality and free personal expression rather than conformity and cultural homogeneity. Its advocates should steer clear of evangelism and proselytizing, which teeter precariously close to violating what should be the unassailable pillars of consent and choice, and instead focus their energies on articulating what the movement has to say about controversial topics surrounding bodily autonomy and what value its ideas might have in the larger society.
While Nu is not meant to serve as an indictment of naturism, it encourages viewers to consider how the long-on-vision, short-on-specifics proposal of naturist crusader Jean Lanvin gives rise to the repressive Transparency Act.
While it is unlikely that naturism will lead society down the path toward authoritarianism as it does in Nu, its inarticulate ideals, lack of clear goals, and inconsistent messaging have left it vulnerable to exploitation and at risk of being dismissed and abandoned as a cultish fad or relic of a bygone era with little if any real relevance in the modern world. 🪐