It could only happen in the country that gave us Emmanuelle …A group of French intellectuals has now gone one step further in the quest to integrate hardcore erotica into mainstream cinema by holding Paris's first alternative pornographic film festival: a no-holds-barred celebration of X-rated action that organisers say showcases a new wave of progressive porn that not only titillates but empowers.
Gone, for the most part, are mechanical character portrayals and cringe-worthy storylines; gone, too, are films made by – and solely for – men. On show at the Brady cinema [last week] have been dozens of productions catering to both genders and every sexual preference. With names such as Deep, Strap-on Motel and Post-Apocalyptic Cowgirls they may sound like the same old material, but those in the know claim they are revolutionary.
'There's a new culture of pornography emerging,' said Maxime Cervulle, the academic who is co-organising the festival in between lecturing at the University of Paris. 'It's not only about breaking away from the clichés of porn – of macho sexuality, bad plots and zero aesthetic appeal – but also changing the way people are portrayed in pornography: straight women, black women, lesbians, transsexuals and gay men.'
The most striking change ushered in by the new movement is its feminisation – almost half the films on show in Paris were made by and for women. Directors such as Catherine Corringer and Maria Beatty say they are responding to a rising interest among female audiences who are growing more aware of their own sexuality but are frustrated by the patriarchal world of erotica.
Marie-Hélène Bourcier, the other organiser of the festival, who is also a university lecturer, sees the festival as an important moment in the redressing of that gender imbalance. 'I consider myself to be a feminist, but a pro-sex feminist,' she said. 'I don't see any contradiction between certain kinds of pornography and feminism. For women it can be a sort of empowerment.'
With films such as Catherine Breillat's Romance, an explicit study of female desire, Virginie Despentes's notorious Baise-moi and Gaspar Noé's disturbing Irréversible, critics claim mainstream French directors have been instrumental in pornography's evolution, for better or worse.
The movies produced howls of outrage from many observers, both on account of their graphic content and questionable cinematic merit, but their influence has been undeniable. Even the more orthodox bastion of the small screen is getting in on the act, with television channel Canal+ teaming up with several French women actors and directors for a night of raunchy courts métrages later this month. It is all part of a desire, say the festival's supporters, to nurture a pornography that reflects contemporary society more accurately.
'I wanted to make films that would let women see themselves as they are,' said Sophie Bramly, founder of website SecondSexe.com, which is co-ordinating the night. 'Most women don't recognise themselves in porn films – they're too vulgar. And real feminine sexual pleasure is usually totally absent.' …