In 1968 civil unrest swept across France, the useless old guard rocked by student sit-ins and workers’ downed tools. For Jacques Laurent (Jean-Pierre Léaud), the subject of Bertrand Bonello‘s The Pornographer (2001, 111 mins), his protest came in the form of making pornographic movies. What started as defiance led to a forty-film career that took him through the seventies and eighties by way of classics such as Schoolgirl Hotel and Perverse Niçoise.
It’s financial difficulties that bring Laurent back into the porno fold to direct another movie. He debates with his colleagues the storyline; he advises his stars on how they should feel; he wants love to blossom from the sex and for his female star to symbolise this by swallowing her co-star’s ejaculate. No moody music, no garish cosmetics, and no faked orgasmic screams. Laurent’s porn, while once protest, is now a means of expression.
Times have changed, however, and the artful pornography of Laurent’s heyday have since been debased, leaving hastily shot, lurid sex that is about pure titillation and quick cash. If we are to contrast the difference between these two visions, then Laurent’s bowed head and sunken heart as he sits watching his actors (real life porn stars, Ovidie and Titof) perform unsimulated sex while his producer calls the shots, captures this succinctly. The movie drifts away from him, much as the genre has.
Straddling Laurent’s professional life, there’s the personal. After years out of the picture, his student radical son Joseph (Jérémie Renier) has got back in touch. They last met when his career as pornographer was outed, the son promptly leaving in disgust. He may be of a new generation, but it’s a new generation that also dreams of protest, although their efforts languish in the shadow of 1968. As Joseph learns, some protests are without conviction, but what his father knows, based on experience, is that each generation will reject the values of its predecessor.
The one film Laurent never got to make was The Animal, he confesses to a journalist. It would have involved men hunting a woman in a forest as if she were a fox. And through more introspective moments we see it envisioned across his mind’s eye. It looks likely that it will never be made at all. While his wife accepts his work and his son learns to forgive it, and even the industry is bringing him back into the fold, he cannot accept himself. A man of fifty who knows nothing else in life. As he notes in a passing conversation, obscenity isn’t necessarily base. When people thing of Jacques Laurent they immediately think of his pornography; they never consider his life. And that, he thinks, is more obscene.