PREFACE: The cinema is in many ways the last arena where liberalism and the full spectrum of sexuality are constantly renegotiated. While other forms of media have less draconian restrictions, films have always been subject to scrutiny, ever since the days of the Hays Code. In the past 50 years, since the relaxing of what can be shown on screen, ‘auteurs’ have tried to push the envelope of the depiction of human sexuality. More often than not, those who ‘succeeded’ in some measure, have done so under the aegis of ‘art’ and used this to convey their ideas.
On one hand, directors like Lars von Trier have managed to do this while wearing his ‘honorary’ title of bête noire. In contrast, female directors like Catherine Breillat have consistently over the past 40+ years reclaimed the traditional battleground of the ‘male gaze’ in movies and depicted the female emotional response beyond the physical. It is such a person as this that is at the centre of the play.
Written by Anthony Neilson – himself a theatrical bête noire in terms of his fearless probing at the underbelly of sexuality – and directed by Imogen Beech, The Censor is as much a ‘battle’ as a dialogue of between ideologies regarding the nature of sex itself. In its own way it is a companion piece to Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke, where Harvey Keitel’s patriarchal character ‘wrestles’ with the unbridled sexuality of Kate Winslet’s character. But who will win in the end?
Frank (Jonathan McGarrity) works at the British Board of Film Classification, where following legal guidelines, he determines what films can be release in their entirety and what can be released after judicious cuts are made. Many films are unreleased at all. Frank is visited by Shirley Fontaine (Suzy Whitefield) who makes a personal petition for the widespread release of her movie. The film – which features various forms of sex from beginning to end – is outright rejected initially, but over the course of a number of evenings, Frank listens to Fontaine as they ‘debate’ the ‘intent’ behind each scene.
While Frank has official guidellines ‘from on high’, like any ‘normal’ person, his views on sex are shaped by his upbringing and his own personal life. Even though Fontaine and Frank are ‘philosophically’ leagues apart, they are willing to talk to each other about their ‘differences’. The same can’t be said between Frank and his wife (Chandrika Chevli). She is openly having an affair and tells Frank truthfully about any times where she and her lover are together. However, when she tries to broach the subject with Frank, to let him know that the relationship with her lover is getting serious and that there are “feelings involved”, he doesn’t want to talk about it. If communication is shut down, but no indications are made to call it a day, what’s a person to do?
The crux of the play lies in the interpretation of the film. For the law and for many people, a ‘fuck is just a fuck’, with nothing more beyond the mechanics. But as a woman who deals with things below the surface, beyond the visual, Fontaine argues her film is rich in information. Within it, the type of sex that a couple has when they don’t know each well is different from the apex of the relationship. Then there’s ‘boredom’ and ‘growing apart’ which is demonstrated in the minutiae.
In some ways, Fontaine’s attention to detail and the way can extrapolate information about the lovers’ history from the non-verbal clues is ‘Sherlockian’ in nature. All there for those who can recognise the tell-tale signs.
Of course her ‘logic’ assumes that the viewer will at some point in their lives have had some ‘good sex’ and through their life experience, acquired the non-verbal vocabulary to picks up on sublties and nuances. Of course, if for you a ‘fuck is just a fuck’, such nuances are lost…
The play was first written and performed in 1997, so in some ways, the ‘Wild West’ of the internet circumvents such restrictions. However, the point of the play is still relevant in that there is still some way before there is a universal, layered understanding of sex. As long as ‘pornography’ is the only avenue for candidness, such insights won’t be commonplace.
The play’s ending has a finality about it, with events that are pretty ‘clear cut’. However, I would argue that Fontaine’s ‘magnum opus’ isn’t so much her film (even though that’s an aspect) but the seed she’s sowed at the censor office – cultivating a climate of change ‘from within’, and beginning with one man who encapsulates the inherent values and ‘hang-ups’ of society.
© Michael Davis 2019
The Censor runs at the Hope Theatre until 13th July.