British director Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 supernatural mystery-drama, based on a story by Daphne Du Maurier and starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, provides an interesting picture of changes in attitudes towards the classification of sex in films.
Don’t Look Now tells the story of a married couple, John and Laura Baxter, in the wake of the accidental drowning of their young daughter, and who are now in a bleak, out-of-season Venice where John is helping to restore an old church as the pair attempt to piece together their shattered lives. They meet a blind woman psychic who claims to be in contact with their dead daughter and who has dark forebodings about what Venice holds in store for John – at a time when the city is plagued by a series of mysterious killings.
The work was first submitted on film to the BBFC in 1973 and was given an X certificate (the then equivalent to today’s 18). This was partly because of the work’s ‘occult’ theme, the disturbing images of the daughter’s drowning (which are returned to several times), and a scene of strong violence towards the end of the film, but mainly on the basis of a strong sex scene. The scene caused a stir when the film was released, with some lurid speculation going around that Christie and Sutherland (who shared an off-screen relationship at the time) “weren’t acting” during its filming. Both actors have since demolished the myth.
The BBFC’s view of the sex scene was that it went beyond what it had passed previously, but there was no reason to intervene, beyond placing it at the adult category. The film proceeded to garner considerable critical acclaim and to establish Roeg’s reputation as an imaginative and challenging filmmaker.
The scene is quite long, lasting for around five minutes, and begins with a comic moment as John sits in the hotel room, working in the nude, and is interrupted by a maid. There is a brief shot of his pubic hair as he tries to cover his genitals with his hands and the maid exits giggling with nervous embarrassment. John and Laura are preparing to go out for dinner and she lies on the bed reading a magazine; John joins her and the pair talk, then stroke each other’s bodies, before being ‘taken by the moment’ and they start to make love. There is extensive breast and buttock (but no genital) nudity as the pair embrace, then adopt various positions which see thrusting motions and John kissing Laura’s breasts until they reach climax and hold each other tenderly.
But the scene is not comprised entirely of sexual mechanics as Roeg (in a characteristic bout of ‘playing with time’) continually cuts away from the sex to sequences of John and Laura after their lovemaking as they variously get dressed, apply make-up, take a pre-dinner drink and finally leave the room for their evening out. This creates a context for the sex as something natural that has happened between a married couple signalling their attempt to return to some kind of normality after the tragedy they have suffered. The contextual element would come into play later on in the film’s classification history.
The work was next submitted to the BBFC in 1988 for a video classification and it was again the sex scene that exercised thoughts in relation to its most appropriate classification. By this time, the 15 category was in place having been introduced in 1982, and serious consideration was given to lowering the film’s category on video with due account taken of the contextual arguments for the sex scene.
However, several factors influenced 18 rating. These were a combination of the scene’s notoriety, a decision – born out of public pressure – by the MPAA to cut the scene in the USA, and the fact that the work was being assessed only three years after the passing of the Video Recordings Act in 1984 (bringing video works into the same regulatory framework as films) saw an inclination towards a cautious line being taken in placing such a strong depiction of sexual activity within the reach of teenagers. Don’t Look Now was consequently again given an 18 certificate.
The film was then resubmitted to the BBFC in 2001 for a modern theatrical classification, by which time there had been a significant change in the Board’s engagement with the public.
In 2000, a new version of the BBFC Guidelines was published, outlining the criteria on which its decisions were based. Crucially, these were a product of very extensive public consultation, a process which had informed the BBFC (amongst other things) that a significant proportion of adults were more relaxed about the portrayal of sex at 15, especially when it was seen in the context of loving and developing relationships.
The Guidelines stated that, at 15, ‘sexual activity and nudity may be portrayed but without strong detail’. With that in mind, the contextual arguments for the sex scene in Don’t Look Now could be rehearsed afresh: it was a picture of a loving relationship and part of a healing process for the couple; the cutting away to non-sexual activity during the scene avoided a gratuitous focus on mechanistic sex; and the lack of genital exposure meant that that there was no ‘strong detail’.
In the light of the public’s own inclinations, the BBFC found these compelling arguments for such a well-received film to be given a lower category, although the sex scene was still regarded as sufficiently ‘borderline’ for the work to require scrutiny by the BBFC’s Presidents before finally being passed at 15, without cuts.
In 2002, a video version was submitted and passed at the same category, the decision being made that, at 15, the scene (as well as other themes and issues in the work) did not raise a harm issue under the terms of the test which the Board must apply according to the Video Recordings Act.
The arguments made in the case of Don’t Look Now have been cited in relation to the depiction of strong sex at 15 in several works since 2001, most notably in the case of Monster’s Ball which was passed 15 in 2002.
Don't Look Now was selected for National Schools Film Week 2008.