Passages: The erotic drama too hot for the US censors

Focusing on a ménage à trois, acclaimed indie film Passages is out in the US this week – but has already been at the centre of a controversy over its rating. Anna Bogutskaya reports.

How much bum is too much bum for under-18 audiences? And is it to do with the angle? The lighting? Or just how exposed it is exactly?

These are some of the questions prompted by the upcoming US release of Passages, the latest film by revered indie director Ira Sachs. The erotic Paris-set drama, which is released in America on Friday, centres on a ménage à trois relationship between a narcissistic filmmaker, his artist husband, and a female teacher he meets at a bar.

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It has been greatly acclaimed ever since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January – but the reason it has been in the news over the last week is not the nuanced, electrifying performances of Ben Whishaw, Franz Rogowski and Adèle Exarchopoulos, nor its thorny exploration of sexual and emotional intimacy, but the rating it has been handed by the MPA (Motion Pictures Association). The film, which features several sex scenes, both straight and gay, has been classified NC-17 (No One 17 and Under Admitted), which is its most restrictive rating and one long-avoided by film studios and filmmakers for fear of how severely it can hamper a film’s distribution.

The acclaimed drama tells the story of a messy love triangle (Credit: SBS productions)

The acclaimed drama tells the story of a messy love triangle (Credit: SBS productions)

Sachs himself has expressed disappointment over the MPA verdict, even as he has remained defiant in not cutting the film to enable the film to acquire a more commercial R rating: he told the LA Times recently that “it is a film that is very open about the place of sexual experience in our lives. And to shift that now would be to create a very different movie”. In fact, he and other key players involved in the film have decided to reject the NC-17 rating (since MPA ratings are voluntary and not enforced by law) and so the film will now be released without any rating whatsoever.

The history of the US ratings system

The MPA is a familiar villain for filmmakers and cinephiles alike. Set up in its original form in 1922, it was initially designed as a way for the film studios to self-censor instead of having to submit films for government inspection. This led to the restrictive series of rules dubbed the Hays Code, which was operational until 1968, when it got replaced by the voluntary film rating system the industry uses today. The ratings are operated by the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), a division of MPA, which consists of a board of American parents whose task it is to “reflect the views of parents regarding the presence of profane language, sex, nudity, violence, drug use, smoking, and other subjects that may be a source of concern for parents”.

Introduced by the MPA in 1990, the NC-17 rating was designed to provide a facelift to the old X rating, which had been co-opted by the adult industry. The hope was that it would help people differentiate between pornography and “serious” films meant for adult audiences. However since the first NC-17 film, Philip Kaufman’s Henry and June, was released in the US in October 1990, few mainstream films have followed in its footsteps. “NC-17 has inherited all of the baggage that the X originally had,” says Dr Bruce Drushel, Professor in the Department of Media, Journalism and Film at Miami University and co-editor of Queer Identities/Political Realities and Ethics of Emerging Media.

An NC-17 rating has traditionally limited a film’s distribution, since many theatre owners will not book NC-17 rated films and some media outlets will not cover, or run ads for, them. And while the handing out of such an illicit-sounding rating can generate welcome publicity for a film, that has rarely translated into big box office: in fact, the only NC-17 film to ever have a wide release, Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, was a notorious flop that scared the industry off the rating even further. Subsequently a few foreign-language and arthouse dramas rated NC-17 have done fairly well despite their limited theatrical release: The Dreamers (2003), Lust, Caution (2007) and Blue is The Warmest Colour (2013) all took in a respectable box office.

What’s behind the decisions?

Besides the concerns around profit, for some time now, questions have been raised over who are making the decisions and why. With films that receive the harshest ratings, the most common sticking point is sex. In a study carried out by the MPA in April, 76% of surveyed parents reported their main concern to be graphic sex scenes (above scenes of sexual assault, use of hard drugs, suicide, or racially motivated violence). In 2010, Oscar-nominated US indie Blue Valentine got controversially slapped with an NC-17 for a scene where Ryan Gosling’s character performs oral sex on his wife, played by Michelle Williams, though this was subsequently overturned for an R. In Passages, the film’s most extended sex scene is between the two men, one that is explicit but not titillating, filmed in a long, uninterrupted shot. Passages is interested in the shifting balance of power when it comes to desire within a relationship, how sex is intertwined with intimacy. It is not about who’s sleeping with who, but what sex means for those characters in that precise moment of their relationship to each other.

There are no hard rules or specific guidelines that are used by CARA members to assess what makes one sex scene more inappropriate than another for different age groups. But the MPA has long been accused of judging queer films harsher than their straight equivalents. Sachs in his response to the news in the LA Times suggested that it was the victim of a “select group of people who have a certain bent, which seems anti-gay, anti-progress, anti-sex – a lot of things which I’m not”. Drushel says that “if you look at films recommended for adolescents, there is a distinction in how CARA recommends films for straight adolescents versus queer adolescents”. For instance, he points out American Pie (1999), which featured a teenage boy masturbating into the titular pie and copious (mostly female) nudity, was rated R, while But I’m A Cheerleader (2000), which had no nudity and a female masturbation scene (sans pie), was given the NC-17 rating. However an MPA spokesperson tells BBC Culture that “the MPA’s Classification and Rating Administration rates movies based on their content – what happens on screen and how it is depicted. The sexual orientation of a character or characters is not considered as part of the rating process.”

The film's most extended sex scene involves its two leading men, who are shot in one uninterrupted take (Credit: SBS productions)

The film’s most extended sex scene involves its two leading men, who are shot in one uninterrupted take (Credit: SBS productions)

The raters themselves are shrouded in mystery. They are purported to be a board of people from across the country, covering a mix of genders, races, ethnicities and political beliefs, all of them parents watching a film to determine what parents should know before letting their kids watch this movie. They are also supposedly not media professionals. In Kirby Dick’s 2006 documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, a private investigator is hired to unmask the identities of the raters, revealing their identities for the viewer and, more crucially, calling into question the need for such secrecy.

The MPA also employs a filmmaker liaison who consults with filmmakers as early as script level, and can review works-in-progress before submitting the film for a rating. This makes sense for major studio releases, where a wide theatrical release is a make-or-break opportunity for a film’s financial success. But as mentioned before, films are voluntarily submitted for ratings and, if dissatisfied with the outcome, filmmakers can choose to appeal the rating, re-edit the film and submit the new cut, or release it unrated. The latter can be limiting for a film’s life cycle – but then so can the NC-17. One thing’s clear: amid many changes to the industry over the last three decades, sexual content within films is as big a point of contention in the US as it ever was.

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