Big Picture: Red-hot rating delays Palme d'Or winner's Victoria debut

There’s nothing like a local cougar sighting to trigger panic and stimulating conversation. Expect the next wildcat to pounce at a theatre near you, its prey already causing many folks to get hot and bothered.

It’s been awhile since this species — the Restricted cougar — has prowled these parts. The symbol that originated in the 1960s, on B.C. chief censor R.W. MacDonald’s watch, never fails to cause a stir.

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It’s happening again with the local rollout of Blue is the Warmest Color, the controversial winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Despite the erotic coming-of-age drama’s virtues — notably Adèle Exarchopoulos’s remarkably naturalistic performance as Adele, a 15-year-old French high schooler who has a love affair with Emma (Léa Seydoux), a rebellious, blue-haired artist — the film’s explicit depiction of lesbian sex, particularly a lengthy sequence that leaves little to the imagination, is what is making headlines.

The three-hour film, rated NC-17 by the Motion Picture Association of America in the U.S., and Restricted in B.C., was tentatively slated to open Nov. 29 at the Odeon, but its local release has been delayed and relocated.

“This was primarily a local programming decision for us,” said Cineplex Entertainment communications director Mike Langdon.

If the film doesn’t open downtown, the Vic Theatre has expressed interest.

“It’s a title we hope to bring to Victoria but our programming is ongoing,” Vic Theatre programmer Donovan Aikman said.

Meanwhile, Cinecenta has booked it for a limited engagement starting Jan. 28.

The film’s Restricted rating, assigned to films deemed “adult motion pictures” that may contain explicit sex as defined in the Motion Picture Act of B.C., prohibits anyone under 18 from attending. A film is classified as such if its theme or material is considered to have artistic, historical, political, educational or scientific merit, as opposed to a film rated Adult.

The last Restricted feature shown here was Dogtooth (2011), the disturbing, sexually explicit dark Greek comedy-drama about an incestuous family’s cocooned existence.

Other notable examples include Irreversible (2003), Gaspar Noe’s grotesque rape drama that revelled in the sexual violence it purported to condemn; and Romance (1999), Catherine Breillat’s repugnant and pretentious meditation on the apparent incompatibility of true love and hot sex (of which there was plenty).

Steve Pelton, director of motion pictures for Consumer Protection B.C.’s film classification office, often finds himself dispelling a misconception that his staff is making a moral judgment when giving a film a Restricted rating.

“The definitions are pretty clear in the legislation,” says Pelton. “We make our decisions based on content and depictions. There was a scene [in Blue] consistent with the definition of explicit sex in the Act.”

Classifiers “diligently and objectively” record notable items, then have a conversation before a rating is assigned, he said.

In Abdellatif Kechiche’s tale of sapphic passion, items included one explicit sexual scene depicting a minor, five sexually suggestive scenes depicting nude breasts, buttocks and/or genitalia and approximately 20 instances of coarse language.

While theatres require a special licence to show R-rated films and cannot employ a minor while they’re shown, regulations are not as stringent as those for the bygone Restricted Designated rating applied to films like Caligula, Bob Guccione’s trashy pornographic 1979 take on a historical figure. Showings were limited to single-screen cinemas nowhere near school zones.

While Caligula caused a furore when it opened here, it likely wouldn’t have created as much of a fuss today since community standards have become more liberal. (Actually, it would probably bypass theatres altogether.)

How times have changed. It’s almost hard to imagine that, in 1975, the B.C. Film Classification Office gave The Rocky Horror Picture Show, featuring a sex-mad transvestite and buff boy toys, a Restricted rating. (It was softened to PG in 2011).

“There’s some confusion about that,” Pelton points out. “The Restricted category then was equivalent to today’s 18A.”

Attitudes have changed so much that one New York cinema flouted Blue’s NC-17 rating by admitting teenagers.

While the MPAA rating is a voluntary guideline in the U.S., enforcement of ratings in B.C. is mandatory.

“I’m always hesitant to make comparisons,” says Pelton. “One of the challenges we have as consumers is that we’re inundated with the MPAA ratings, particularly in TV ads. People see PG-13 and NC-17, categories we don’t have in B.C.”

To complicate matters, the iconic B.C.-made cougar has been used North America-wide.

“It’s a very popular critter and people of a certain age have fond nostalgic memories,” Pelton said, recalling the cougar trailers that once routinely preceded features rated Restricted.

The irony today is that underage film buffs can easily access such R-rated films online, where Blue is the Warmest Color seems tame compared with more explicit fare. In cyberspace, no one can hear cougars growl.

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