Wet Dreams, or Midnight Madness at New Horizons

Anita: Swedish Nymphet, dir. Torgny Wickman
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Midnight Madness is where we present films that play with conventions, that search, astonish and transgress.

This year’s version of Midnight Madness is titled Wet Dreams. You are all invited on an exciting journey into the past, into the bedrooms of our—artistic and spiritual—progenitors. We’ll strip bear the decade of the 1970s in a return to forbidden, forgotten, unappreciated films, squeezing as much as we can out of that short-lived explosion of freedom—films that were rejected by the canon for violating too many taboos, that bore too close a resemblance to pornography to gain access to elite salons. You won’t find Pasolini, Bertolucci, Fassbinder or Cavani here or even festival favorites such as Makavejev and Borowczyk. This is a section about both reminders and discoveries.

We are resurrecting an era in which the body appeared—for better and for worse—in the public sphere. We will take you back to the atmosphere of midnight screenings, adult cinemas, the first erotic-film festivals—to places and events that have since disappeared from our cities (the last erotic cinema in Paris closed in 2017). We will return to a time when films not only moved, shook, outraged and amused—but also aroused. Cinema that truly touches ...

In creating Wet Dreams, we wanted to bring back the spirit of a completely different festival, Wet Dream, which took place in Amsterdam in 1970 and 1971. Organized by the erotic magazine SUCK, the festival brought together not only readers but also figures like Germain Greer, Roland Topor and William Burroughs. Screenings were accompanied by hours-long cruising orgies and other integration events (one reviewer wrote that the sex inspired by Wet Dream was much better than what was shown in the festival’s film selection). Wet Dream declared itself to be libertine and anti-paternalistic (no one will tell us what we can watch!), and looking back on it nearly five decades later, it’s clear that it was utopian as well. It tried to reconcile porn with the underground movement, artistic ambitions with amateurishness, and libertarian ideas with on-screen violence and sexism.

Thus, it focuses on the problem we have with the 1970s, with the eruption of erotic content (but also porn), the relaxation of censorship, the liberalization of societies, the liberation of minorities, the emancipation of women (but also sexism) and mass protests (but also the escalation of terrorism). So, was it “an era that was at once angrier and more innocent than our own,” as The New York Times wrote in its review, 20 years later, of Catherine Breillat’s A Real Young Girl (1976)? Or is perhaps Michel Houellebecq right in seeing in the 1970s the germ of our contemporary problems with loneliness, egocentrism, consumerism, spiritual emptiness and the dictatorship of pleasure? Can it be that modern neoconservatism has been trying to slam shut a door that opened back then with a bang?

Our choice of films is only a partial reflection of the scale of the opening-up witnessed in the 1970s. Versions of liberal thaws and emancipatory gestures could be seen in the films of the Middle East and India, where Shabana Azmi portrayed women taking control of their sexuality. The Egyptian film Malatily Bathhouse (1973) showed us a stunning erotic dance scene in a bathhouse, and the Lebanese film The Lady of the Black Moons (1971) broke taboos by showing naked buttocks and orgy scenes. The section includes two titles—a documentary and an animation—from Japan. Kazuo Hara’s Extreme Private Eros (1974) is not only a bold record of an intimate, turbulent relationship that shows taboo images of genitals, pubic hair and sexual relations, it is also a testimony to its era of radical uprisings, feminist revolutions and acts of political violence. Eiichi Yamamoto’s animated Belladonna of Sadness (1973) came into being in this same atmosphere. It tells the story of deadly female sexuality awakened by violence. At the time of their premieres, not only were both films not successful, but they also played a role in stonewalling a career (Kazuo Hara) and in the downfall of a film studio (in the case of Belladonna).

There were a number of Italian films from the 1970s that were associated with political radicalism, the most famous of which were Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Cavani’s The Night Porter and Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties. But the tone of the narrative came mainly from the extremely popular Nazisploitation (the most famous example of which is Tinto Brass’s Kitty Salon), which not only came to terms with fascism but resonated with the Red Brigades’ Reign of Terror. In Spain, the explosion of erotic cinema known as destape was associated with the economic crisis in cinema and, above all, with the collapse of General Franco’s dictatorship and the abolition of censorship in 1977 (and we’re talking about a country where, in the 1950s, it was forbidden to undress at the beach). Bigas Luna’s brilliantly dark thriller Bilbao (1976) is a softcore film that unmasks fascist fantasies of total subordination that turns women into objects and their bodies into meat. When it came to sex, the Germans and Scandinavians primarily had educational ambitions. A hit in Germany, the 1970 Schulmädchen-Report: Was Eltern nicht für möglich halten (Schoolgirl Report Part 1: What Parents Don’t Think Is Possible) pretended to report on changing morals among young people, while, in fact, it presented, in pornographic detail, the excesses of teenagers as a virtue of their teachers, coaches and guardians. This, it was rather an overview of the erotic fantasies of middle-aged men.

Torgny Wickman’s Anita: Swedish Nymphet (Anita - born en tonårsflickas dagbok, 1973) (without which we would not have Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac) was made possible thanks to, among other things, the legalization of pornography and the abolishment of obscenity laws. Like other products of so-called Swedish sin, it combined sex education (the dangers associated with nymphomania) with an attack on patriarchal family . These films soon became Scandinavia’s main export and, at the same time, the source of numerous stereotypes about local sexual freedoms. Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divu, 1970) proves, however, that discovering our bodies can sometimes mean covering up other, no less important, spheres of life. Made just after the defeat of the Prague Spring, this erotic fairy tale proves that, behind the Iron Curtain, sex was an escape from the gloomy political reality and from the lack of liberty—being the only permissible, though controlled, freedom.

France was, of course, a continent of its own in the 1970s, as it has been celebrating its discourse on love for centuries. Flourishing after May 1968, France was a country in which women also took an interest in erotic cinema. The term wet dream certainly applies to Catherine Breillat’s A Real Young Girl (1976)—a rebellious, provocative, fantasy-filled story about a teenage girl’s sexual maturation and about capturing our gaze. The film caused massive confusion even in that liberal paradise and had to wait 20 years before entering (limited) circulation. The hilarious and audacious A Very Curious Girl (1969), made in France by Argentinian director Nelly Kaplan, exposes patriarchy and capitalism, showing on-screen a sexually abused girl who turns her victimhood into a business opportunity.

Spermula (1976), by painter, filmmaker and sculptor Charles Matton, is an erotic sci-fi invasion, a French equivalent to Machulski’s Sexmission. On spectacular sets that combine retro-futurism and satin bedding, we get to see Udo Kier, among others. After all, a lot of actors (including Klaus Kinsky and Stellan Skarsgård in Anita: Swedish Nymphet) started their careers in the 1970s “in the sack.” And since we’re talking about cast members, Serge Gainsbourg’s I Love You, I Don't (Je t’aime moi non plus, 1976), a film inspired by a famous song full of sensual sighs, you get to see, among others, Gerard Depardieu, Jane Birkin and Joe Dallesandro, a gay star from New York’s underground scene. The film is more than a moral provocation that shows on-screen anal sex. It is a true work of its time that valorizes sex as an autonomous, rebellious force detached from procreation.

The American (that is to say African American) Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song (1971), directed by Melvin Van Peebles, is an original blaxploitation film structured in the form of a jazz improvisation that transforms racial tension into erotic tension, flexing on-screen an aggressive black body that is desirable to both blacks and whites at the same time. Ironically, the film was co-produced by Bill Cosby, who was recently sentenced for sex offenses. Is that not the best metaphor for the disillusion that we are currently experiencing?

A half-century has passed since the sexual revolution, and we are facing a vision (a ghost?) of a new morality. The body and sex are once again at the center of a culture war: there are those who fear-monger behind claims that traditional values are under attack by LGBT+, while others fear escalating institutional violence, especially towards minorities, women and children. Some people are happy to see the #metoo movement usher in a new sexual code, while others turn up their noses, seeing it as a new form of puritanism. Surrendering to the pressures of new standards, not to mention economics, Hollywood is producing fewer and fewer R-rated films. In addition, old adult films have been “forgotten, ignored, considered esoteric marginalia,” as The Washington Post recently wrote. But we can’t find out who we really are if we don’t understand where we came from. One thing is certain: neither babies nor societies come from storks.

Małgorzata Sadowska, programmer of the Wet Dreams section

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