The Pornographer

France/Canada 2001

Film still for The Pornographer

Reviewed by Linda Ruth Williams


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

France, the present. Veteran hardcore pornographer Jacques Laurent (Jean-Pierre Léaud) comes out of retirement in order to pay off debts. In a large country house he shoots scenes for a new film. His producer disagrees with the way Jacques is shooting a crucial scene, and assumes directorial control while the cameras are rolling. Jacques meets his estranged son Joseph (Jérémie Rénier), a student involved in political action who disowned his father when he discovered what he did for a living. Jacques is given some land in the country by wealthy friends, and plans to build a house on it. Joseph's girlfriend is pregnant; he proposes to her. Jacques leaves his second wife Jeanne (Dominique Blanc). He reflects on his life in a diary and justifies his work in an interview with a journalist.


There are moments in The Pornographer when the overbearing ponderousness slips and the possibility glimmers that one is watching a comedy of genres. A comedy in which earnest French intellectuals ruminate on the revolutionary nature of obscenity, earnest skin-flick directors share their wisdom on the poignant, humane beauty of the blow job and earnest young French students wage war on advanced capitalism by revolutionary silence (using "a new radical language": muteness). I spent the first 30 minutes or so genuinely unsure about whether this film thought itself funny, willing it to favour knowing self-mockery, disappointed but not surprised when it plumped for high pretentiousness. You know you're in deep water when a film that features in its uncut form an 11-second cum shot is described by its director as inspired by "Rothko at the Grand Palais". Or when protagonist porn-director Jacques, having reflected that in May 1968 "making pornographic films was also a political act", admits that the high point of his career came "in Little Girls Hotel when she comes at the end. I was almost in tears when I shot the scene." Twist this just a fraction, and we might have witnessed the French porn industry's answer to Spinal Tap.

It may, of course, be possible to read The Pornographer as a meditation on the discrepancies between art and commercial cinema, its reflexive filmic pretensions laid bare through some painfully self-conscious narrative devices and extended dialogue. Having directed his lead actress Jenny in the art of swallowing sperm for best romantic effect, Jacques muses to his producer, "It would be beautiful at the end if we showed a birth" (to which the producer responds, "Are you nuts?"). The conflict staged here between erotic auteur and porno hack is most obvious when the producer takes over direction of the blow-job scene and prevents Jenny from the very swallowing which Jacques had asked for, instead making the actor "produce" on to Jenny's passive face. This shot - all 11 seconds of it - has been the subject of much discussion between the distributors and the BBFC. At the time of writing, the film's UK distributors are objecting to demands from the BBFC that the shot be cut. The point of the shot to The Pornographer, however, is that it serves to portray Jacques as the now marginalised arthouse erotician, his vision of humane sexuality going out with existentialism, the nouvelle vague and the ark. Sex cinema now belongs to the vulgar likes of his producer, a generational shift as significant to Jacques as the coming of New Hollywood was to studio directors.

This is but one of the film's weighty meditations on generational friction; it is nothing if not a young man's reflection (director Bertrand Bonello is in his early thirties) on an old man's vision, and is framed by issues of incest and familial alienation. As estranged son Joseph negotiates the memory of his mother's suicide and the implications of his father's unseemly profession, he revisits the radical politics of Jacques' generation. Family shame haunts these characters, and the fictional roles that some of them adopt: Jenny confides that her parents don't know what she does, while Jacques describes being disowned as a father. Chopping between versions of a scene for the film-within-a-film, we see different images of the predatory older woman, a mother spying on her daughter's sexuality via a hired stud-chauffeur.

In addition to this heady French mix of family and fornication, The Pornographer also eagerly philosophises about itself. As with Catherine Breillat's Romance, it is not enough that we simply watch, we also have to be told how to think about how we watch. This provides some painful moments of pseudo-sexual sophistry, especially when Jacques - who is played by a sorrowful, sad-eyed Jean-Pierre Léaud - reflects upon his career in the company of the most soft-hitting wet fish of a journalist ever to grace the profession. "Of course I go to the cinema," he says. "I know about Bergman, Antonioni... But as for me, I make porn films. I could've filmed nude women in front of factories but it wouldn't have been exciting." Well, perhaps it would have been more exciting than The Pornographer, which sets forth the notion that 'good' porn is also a paeon to soulful humanity: "In my films," says Jacques, "there's always something beautiful even if you find the rest terribly ugly. Why? Because it's pure, raw sex and therefore profoundly human."

My problem with the position that Jacques expounds is that it is disingenuous. It disavows the real implications of hardcore by cloaking the practice in reams of holistic justification. And while any self-critique this film allows itself is focused solely on Jacques' washed-up figure (such as when the journalist reflects on the irony that this foremost pornographer has been kept through his retirement by his architect wife), finally the film's resoundingly humane philosophy envelopes Jacques in a frame of liberal sympathy. At least - in a nod to hardcore realities - Jacques adds that "If I lose my audience of truck drivers I'm fucked." But you have to wonder how the truck drivers feel about all the potted profundity dished up with the porn.


Bertrand Bonello
Carole Scotta
Bertrand Bonello
Director of Photography
Josée Deshaies
Fabrice Rouaud
Art Director
Romain Denis
Laurie Markovitch
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011