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Sex Sells at Toronto Film Festival

Shame movie still
"Shame"

This year, racy films are everywhere at the normally conservative TIFF. But can U.S. buyers find an audience for all this titillation?

Sexy isn’t the first adjective most would apply to Toronto, but at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, sex — explicit, perverse, even criminal — is everywhere.

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The first big sale of the Toronto fest was Fox Searchlight buy of Steve McQueen’s Shame, which stars Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. The film features  full-frontal  nudity (male and female) and graphic depictions of erotic acts ranging from masturbation and three-way sex to oral sex and urination.

REVIEW: Shame

Toronto’s most-talked about pre-sale title is Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. According to the controversial Danish director, the feature, expected to star Stellan Skarsgard, will be an examination of “the erotic life of a woman from the age of zero to 50.” The idea of vonTrier depicting pre-adolescent sexuality and graphic scenes of penetration must already have the censors salivating.

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Even David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, while far less explicit (aside from a topless Keira Knightly) makes sex, particularly the origins of our modern, Freudian views of sexuality and sexual perversion, its main obsession.

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“Shame is a brilliant movie, the best film I’ve seen in two years or more, but the sex could be a problem in the States,” said veteran buyer Markus Zimmer of Germany’s Concorde. “Of course in Europe, we’re used to rougher stuff.”

The old adage that ‘sex sells’ has never been true for the U.S. movie market. Aside from a short fling in the DeepThroat 70s, explicit cinema has usually meant domestic box office poison. Fox Searchlight picked up Bernardo Bertolucci’s NC-17 movie The Dreamers, starring Eva Green and Michael Pitt, back in 2003. It made only $2.5 million in the U.S. compared to $12.5 million internationally.

The same year, Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, featuring a graphic  anal rape of Monica Bellucci, earned less than $800,000 for Lions Gate, while making significantly more abroad.

Von Trier is taking the sexual tolerance divide into account. He’s reportedly planning two cuts of Nymphomaniac: one hardcore and graphic and one softer and more mainstream.

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Some brave U.S. distributors are betting American audiences can take a bit of the rough stuff. Shame’s producers and Fox Searchlight say McQueen’s film won’t be recut for the U.S. market. And Sundance Selects plans to release, uncut, Julia

Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty, also screening in Toronto, which  features a mostly nude Emily Browning as a high-end prostitute used as a fetish object by twisted clients.

But if Americans appetite for salacious sex scandals are any indication — think Anthony Weiner or Dominque StraussKahn — distributors of this new wave of erotic art house may yet find their box office happy end. 

“Steve’s (McQueen) view is that this is the elephant in the room. This is really about how we live now, the spectrum of sexuality, access to pornography around the world and our obsession with it,” says Shame producer Ian Canning. “(We knew) this was going to ruffle some feathers. Our selling point is that at least we’ve not been shy.”

Jay Fernandez contributed to this report.