Trying to capture global trends in contemporary filmmaking by drawing thematic connections between films at the same festival has long been a hackneyed technique that little understands the variable pathways it takes for a film to get made and eventually programmed alongside another. Once one knows more of the tortuous route most filmmakers follow to finish their work and get it shown, the tendrils of affinity or dissonance snaking between theatres and screenings at a festival feel less like a glimpse of the zeitgeist and more the electric charge of coincidence—or fate.
Such was the case in Cannes this year, where two films seemed to meet in a sensual, overlapping dream of flesh, caresses and orgasms. The first dream was formalist extremist Gaspar Noé's follow-up his untoppable Enter the Void (2009), a new provocation de jour: a 3D sex film. Or, to be more precise, a 3D relationship drama profoundly rooted in the importance of sex (unsimulated between his actors) in relationships. Navigating a tuxedoed and high-heeled, rudely fevered and pushily eager crowd at the midnight premiere of Love that eventually started at 1am and ended after 3, the effort and exhaustion required to be provoked did not leave me in a generous mood for this plodding, wooden drama, repetitious and juvenile, yet imbued with an admirable degree of gentleness and affection. I thought, at the time, my patience for any sex in the cinema had been drained completely. But what I hadn't counted on was that at the end of the festival, down the boulevard in an incongruous short film program at the Directors' Fortnight, projected in a significantly more skeezy cinema than the Grand Théâtre Lumière, though shown at a sunny mid-day time slot far less conducive for sexual-cinematic immersion, I would encounter a far different and better sex film: Austrian avant-garde master Peter Tscherkassky's The Exquisite Corpus.
I mention Love and The Exquisite Corpus together not to take a glib swipe at Noé's film, but rather because encountering Tscherkassky's—a collage of different soft-core, black and white films ranging from the 1960s - 1980s named after the surrealist practice of conjoining unconnected things to create uneasy fusions and fission—suddenly made the act of watching these two sex films back to back feel completely fitting. Both structure their stories much in the same way, Love starting with a young man in bed with the mother of his child and flashing back to his tumultuous recent love life, and The Exquisite Corpus beginning with a nudist couple sailing to a nudist island and finding a girl—nude—asleep or unconscious on the beach, and what follows is her dream. In this cynical and supposedly sophisticated era, where pornography is ubiquitous with access to the Internet, with an image culture that dissipates the charge of photographic nudity, and, in the art film world, where the "audacity," no longer really audacious, of integrating pornographic tropes like unsimulated sex into films is not uncommon; perhaps in this era filmmakers now need such subjective framing devices to properly perfume the sex for the audience with an aura of irreality. We can't just be shown explicit sex, or drama that includes explicit sex, as these are every day discoveries; we must be led into a world that tells us that while the sex may be real, it is also a fantasy, a memory, a dream—it is something that, outside of your own mind, only cinema itself can magically conjure.
I don't think Gaspar Noé quite understands what throwing his film into his clod-headed hero's memories implies or what it allows him to do as a storyteller. Love's flashbacks are more about a structural interest in relationships and their plotting through time, as in Noé 's Irreversible (2002), rather than what leaving behind "real" time can free a character, a mindstate, a body or a film to do, a freedom his last movie, Enter the Void takes to the max. The Exquisite Corpus, as befits its name, absolutely has this freedom, and it feels it; while Love's texture is viscously silken, as if we're stuck in an aquarium of translucent jelly, this 19-minute short, after its prologue arrival on the nudist island, flies into skittering subjective liberty. It moves from clip to clip of soft-core—a forced come-hither smile, a man's hand caressing a woman's thighs, the unbuttoning of a fly—and subjects them to Tscherkassky's characteristic, mad (film-) laboratory manipulations of film stock, radically altering the original footage and/or exposing and playing with its celluloid itself, so in the frame you see multiple strips of the same clip playing in sync, or out of sync—or otherwise treated to maximize the texture of the image and the tactility of film's movement.
What this does is make the viewing experience haptic, or nearly so; you feel this film, it has not only a physical quality that pulses from the screen but its fitful energy makes this tangibility aggressive and insistent. Depending on the director's subject, this unique sensation can carry different connotations; Outer Space (1999), for example, finds a link between the assaulting quality of this style on the audience with how Tscherkassky's manipulations of footage from a horror film seem to also be attacking the film's heroine, an immersive double onslaught. The Exquisite Corpus is closer to Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005), whose Spaghetti Western source material makes the director's meticulous, musical manipulations more of a direct cinephilic pleasure. In The Exquisite Corpus, the micro narratives of watching, teasing, touching, fucking and cumming are stories we're familiar with, and so the play with them, their accentuation, the rhymes or narrative links between footage, their actions' prolongation, the heightened anticipation, all of this carries a more wry edge, downright coy in spots and always a thrill.
Suffice to say, while Love clearly assumes it is being profound, audacious, and heartfelt, The Exquisite Corpus sees the humor and perversion inherent in filming sex—not to mention turning sex or the reason why people are having sex into a story—and dives deep into this world, capturing at once its ridiculousness and the visceral effect it can have, the verve and tantalization it can contain. Tscherkassky is not so much highlighting and excerpting precious bits of soft-core like Godard might quote a lovely gesture from an old film, but rather The Exquisite Corpus pulls at, provokes, and challenges the material these choice moments are made of—quite literally—and finds in their material the ability to express something akin to a super-condensed, supercharged version of their original purpose, all without betraying their woe-begotten cultural value. Suffice to say, I exited the theatre and left Cannes with my faith in sex films restored.