With so much talk these days about breasts in music videos, it’s amazing that the French still get picked on for nudity in their cinema. We’re Americans – you’d think we’d have seen it all – but the French are still singled out as “naked people.”
“French films are kind of weird. They’re so full frontal,”
said someone to me when I told them about the J’adore French Language Film Festival I saw in April. It got me thinking:
1. Are French films really more nude than American films?
2. What is it about the way the French do nudity that is so strange to an American audience?
3. Does that nudity make French films more sexual?
Let’s start with #1.
I’d say that there was at least partial female nudity, if not full nudity, in every film I saw at J’adore!, minus the children’s film.
So yes, there are more naked women in French cinema, but that also means there are more women naked.
I mean women of all sorts – not just the young, hollywood bodies we see in American films and music videos. When nudity is an expectation for all actors, all actors are nude. And when all actors are nude, nudity becomes far more realistic. Nudity carries less implicit expectations for female audiences, and lessens the expectation that the female body is on display solely for the benefit of the male gaze.
This nudity can de-sexualize nudity in many ways, but it can also give sexuality back to a demographic of women who are typically portrayed as asexual in American film.
Let’s look at this film, Louise Wimmer, that kicked off the J’adore! Ciné-club set in May.
The lead is an older woman – beautiful, but certainly more of a Meryl Streep than a Natalie Portman.
Now, Lousie has some decently explicit nudity shots in the film. Scenes where she’s evaluating herself in the mirror, dressing herself in a gas station bathroom (Lousie lives out of her car), and yes, even scenes where she is having sex – wrinkles and all.
So this brings us to #2: What is it about the way the French do nudity that is so strange to an American audience?
First of all, I can’t imagine an American audience watching a less-than-perfect or older figure having a nude sex scene on camera. And while many of us may justify our aversion as an aversion toward hypersexuality or nudity in general, I believe that it’s actually an aversion to uncommercial sexuality. That is, a sexuality that benefits the subject (in this case, the character of Louise Wimmer) instead of an audience.
Then, there is the aspect of diverse body types. It in fact shocked me more that French cinema showcased so many different naked bodies than the fact that they were naked, mostly because I have gotten so used to never seeing a body like mine in American media, except when fully clothed.
American media has so hypersexualized young, male-driven “ideals” of women’s bodies, that we often forget that older, less frequently objectified people also have a sexuality worth displaying. French cinema seems to give that back to audiences in a way that can either feel refreshing or disturbing depending on your acclimation to the American way.
As I was watching the young female actress in Augustine strip down naked for a medical exam, I noticed that she was pear shaped, petite-chested, full-waisted, had full pubic and armpit hair, and still fully represented an object of desire in a medical patriarchical hospital like the movie had intended.
They didn’t need to give her implants, wax her hair, or pull in her waist to make her desirable. In fact, the scenes in which she is most on sexual display involved her wearing clothes.
She felt real. Uncommercial. I related to her.
So why does the American media keep pushing these formulaic bodies in film, sexualizing only one type of body while stripping the sexuality from others?
We seem to have built an entire beauty industry off this notion that there is a very specific beauty ideal worth achieving so that we can sell more products to the people we can convince aren’t quite enough yet (that’s just about everyone).
This makes billion dollar plastic surgery, makeup, fashion, and weight-loss industries, but what does it do for women?
What if you had grown up with a wider variety of images of women’s bodies? What would you think of your own body? Would you see your figure as less than perfect, or would it suddenly appear normal? Or even beautiful?
If a woman in her 60s is accepted and even appreciated nude, would you hide from the mirror, convinced that your breasts aren’t as perky as “they should be?”
If you saw naked size-8 waists, would you think that the size-2 was where you should be? Would you still try to achieve an undefined “ideal” or would you realize that you’re just one body in a very wide range of possibilities?
It’s very hypothetical, but it made me think about American media, the way it portrays women, and – more importantly – the implicit expectations it sets:
Our actresses shouldn’t age, they shouldn’t gain weight, but they should have plump perky breasts and a round butt – if they don’t, we expect them to keep their clothes on. They are cast as asexual females or their sexuality isn’t ever fully explored.
In other words: if your body doesn’t fit the standards we’ve set, if it doesn’t serve the male gaze, it doesn’t exist.
So thank you, French cinema, for reminding us that our bodies are not commercial objects, needing to pass inspection to be valued or worth anything. They can be beautiful because they are human, and because they are ours.