Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment: Bruno, Antichrist and the BBFC
This originally featured as part of the Clash website’s film digest. I’m still pretty happy with.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist: two very different films from two very different talents. Both films have provoked the same tired old debates about censorship, but it’s the tales behind their censorship that prove to be more interesting.
The original version of Bruno was submitted to the BBFC and was passed with no cuts made. Following the death of Michael Jackson, Universal Pictures opted to resubmit the film with footage of his sister LaToya and references to him removed. Again the BBFC passed the film, now sixteen seconds shorter. It was a respectful move and as free of controversy as the incident could be.
So Bruno was released with an 18 certificate, took over £5million at the box-office on its opening weekend and enjoyed the second biggest debut for the certificate after Hannibal (it seems unlikely today that such a sinister offering could be such an immediate hit). But the 18 certificate is viewed as commercial suicide. Sure £5million isn’t a bad initial return by any standards, but with so much of the film’s potential audience blocked by its classification, it’s sure to hold up as a longer running hit over the summer. And so Bruno (Snipped) is launched this weekend with as a 15.
To get that certificate, Universal sought the advice of BBFC. The changes as described in the BBFC’s own words are (warning: minor spoilers!):
“In particular the BBFC suggested that the company remove the majority of a montage of exaggerated sexual activity between Bruno and his boyfriend; Bruno comically miming fellatio and anilingus as he pretends to have oral sex with a deceased person with whom he is in contact through a medium; and sex between couples at a swingers’ party and aggressive sexual dialogue at the same party.”
Now anilingus isn’t recognised by my spellchecker but I think we get the message. Almost two minutes shorter, Bruno is now fit for consumption by mid-teens across the land. Hurrah!
Now Lars von Trier is back with Antichrist and as usual is unapologetic about any offence caused. The Daily Mail, with predictably not seen since the end of an episode of Scooby Doo, dispatched a reporter self-proclaimed as being “strongly libertarian in tendency” to give it the moral kicking that it deserved. Clearly it’s not going to be to everyone’s tastes, but there’s a very obvious hypocrisy about complaining about the film’s morality (and, of course, the EU, taxes, health czars and “the value free Leftish elite who now govern us”) while running the story with three pictures of Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe at it. Perhaps Dafoe is in some kind of midlife crisis, given that he’s also reported to star in Wim Wenders’ adaptation of Ryu Marakami’s sex and serial killer novel In The Miso Soup, but that’s something to speculate on some other time…
Antichrist was passed by the BBFC without cuts, although the body does warn against “strong real sex, bloody violence and self-mutilation”. Indeed, the BBFC’s reasoning behind the certification makes for enlightening / hilarious reading. I particularly enjoyed the use of random bold lettering, reminiscent of a Sunday tabloid’s kiss-and-tell story gone extremely wrong.
There used to be an urban legend concerning video nasty directors’ tactics with censorship. Essentially they’d complete the film, add an extra scene so visceral that the censors would remove it and then the rest of the film would be left intact. Now, von Trier isn’t going to cut numerous minutes out of Antichrist to get a 15. Quite the contrarian, you’d almost expect him to add a scene involving several naked women slowly decapitating a cow.
Maximum return, therefore, is most likely to be whipped up by maximising controversy ahead of the release. Distributors Artificial Eye issued a press release highlighted how most forms of the film’s promotion have been banned. The original poster (essentially the same Gainsbourg legs apart shot as in the Mail feature above) has, apparently, been banned by London Underground and the Metro newspaper while Facebook has banned the same scene from the trailer.
But let’s be honest; these aren’t really bans are they? Much like Status Quo’s complaint of being banned by Radio 1, the only thing that happened was as simple as this – three sources of popular media decided that the poster wasn’t suitable for their audience and opted out of using it.
So in conclusion, Universal’s new form of capitalising on promotion for Bruno proved to be successful. By releasing an 18 certificate version, they enjoyed a hugely successful opening weekend, gained a second shot of media attention with the announcement of the ‘snipped’ version and built further anticipation for the film just ahead of the school summer holidays. It’s a minor take on the theory that teenagers will want to watch what they can’t, but it’s sure to work.
As for Antichrist, it’s hard to see if promoting its controversy will pull in an audience different to what it would otherwise have had. Von Trier’s film do well as far as specialist art house releases go, but it still seems to remain just a little too high brow for people to investigate solely to be shocked.