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Interview with  Mark Spratt

(Catherine Breillat, 1999)

(Potential Films, distributor of the film Romance)

Potential Films' first release was The Honeymoon Killers. It had been banned in Australia for 17 years. Potential have concentrated on new foreign and independent films (e.g. L'Enfer, Swoon) and re-issuing great classics (The Conformist, Contempt, Paris Texas, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Touch of Evil, The Third Man).

BILL MOUSOULIS:     I understand that you first saw the film at its world premiere screening, at the Rotterdam festival in early 1999.  What was the vibe around the film then (among the audience, critics, distributors) and what attracted you as a distributor to pick it up?

MARK SPRATT:    No, I wasn't at Rotterdam, but immediately started reading and hearing about Romance. I knew a little of Catherine Breillat but had seen only 36 Fillette. The vibe seemed to be that this was an important, provocative, break-through film. I wasn't disappointed when I saw it and felt it would be worth fighting for if there was any censorship trouble.

Did you expect the Office of Film and Literature Classification here in Australia to refuse to classify (i.e. ban) the film?

No. After it had been screened in the Melbourne Film Festival and released and accepted around the world I expected the OFLC would recognise it as a "special case" despite it apparently contravening the "general guidelines".

The Classification Board voted 9-8 in favour of the RC rating at that initial meeting, yet you appealed the decision and obtained an R rating for the film, an appeal undoubtedly helped along by the public disapproval of the OFLC's initial decision.  Was the appeal always going to succeed?

I couldn't say I was fully confident of the appeal decision. I felt we had a very strong case to make and hoped the Review Board had also noted the public and media voice opposing the ban. At the same time they are obliged only to work along the same Act and guidelines as the original classifiers and could well have taken the same narrow and dogmatic approach to the film.

Do you think, as a result of all this, that the OFLC will now review or amend their Guidelines re: the representation of sex on screen?  Or that they will, at the least, review their classification procedure re: invoking Section 11 of the Classification Act (i.e. the section that states that films of "artistic merit" can be classified)?

Guidelines cannot be amended by the OFLC themselves but they can 'take a long hard look at themselves' and note that Section 11 was eminently applicable to Romance and that "community standards" appear to be accepting the film. There are plans afoot to alter the guidelines for a new NVE classification to replace the X for porn videos. These will be more restrictive with some woolly talk about whether the material 'demeans' people. This is open to some very narrow interpretation and the danger is that this kind of terminology could also spread to R or MA ratings.

The film was passed and released in France, the U.K., even New Zealand. What does this say about Australia as a progressive country?  Are there certain minority conservative groups (or politicians) in existence here?

I think the initial ban does reflect that there has been an influence of the vocal minority groups both on and within the present government. The investigation into the make-up of the OFLC by the press has revealed that some current classifiers may have been placed there directly by the Cabinet which has members of and sympathetic ears to the Lyons Forum - a conservative Catholic organisation. The current government from the word go has tried to define into existence a new conservative "community standard" which does not exist in public reality.

The film's director, Catherine Breillat, has stated that she wanted to reclaim images of sex from the hands of the pornographers.  As an evolving art form, the cinema seems to be a lumbering beast.  Could this film now open the door for more realistic depictions of sex to appear on our screens, or is this film an aberration?

Romance is one of a number of recent European films (including La Vie de Jesus, L'Humanite, I Stand Alone, The Idiots, et.al.) which have used 'real sex' as part of their dramatic device. It is not the first time there has been a cycle of this type of realism but I can't see it easily making the jump into English speaking cinema, beyond the underground. However, there is very realistic sexual dialogue on TV in Sex and the City, so that's a start!

Conventional representations of sex and violence on the big screen are driven mainly by the safe modes (and audience responses) of titillation/fantasy and adrenalin/fear respectively.  The sexual odyssey in Romance is introspective, full of angst and somewhat disturbing. Just as a couple of other recent French films, Sombre (Philippe Grandrieux) and I Stand Alone (Gaspar Noe), are also disturbing and unusual portraits of troubled souls.  Will there ever be more than a limited market for these kinds of films?

As you suggest, the mass audience and even the majority of a more specialised arthouse audience prefer films to have a feel-good factor or keep disturbing elements within some genre convention. Periodically though there does seem to be demand for a tougher, more confronting film (say, Nil By Mouth or Happiness) but by and large I don't think a very large audience is actively looking for really disturbing or difficult films.

I am interested in a comment you made about Romance and other films with explicit sexual material in them at the discussion session a couple of weeks back at the Lumiere Cinema.  You said that these films "are not harmful".  Do you believe that any films are harmful?  Undoubtedly there exist deranged films (like snuff ones) for deranged minds, but what about a film such as Salò, which is currently banned in Australia, a film that attempts to show human atrocity?

I wouldn't say Salò is harmful for an adult audience. It carries with it a great deal of intellectual thesis and stylisation. It may be disturbing or disgusting, but that's its point! I think you'd have to hypothesize a film in which state brutality, intolerance, racism, child abuse and inhumanity were in some way not disturbing or an acceptable alternative to our values to call it potentially harmful. It would also have to lack irony and a context of warning which I think Salò has.

Your distribution company, Potential Films, has handled such wonderful titles as Irma Vep and Happy Together in this country in recent times, and, for that, I must both thank and congratulate you.  What titles do you have coming up for us?

Next from Potential will be a good growing up/coming out in the '80s film Edge of Seventeen and Cedric Kahn's L'Ennui - another view of realistic sexual obsession from an Alberto Moravia novel. Also a re-issue of Blue Velvet.  My other business, Chapel Distribution, will this year be re-releasing Some Like it Hot, The Wizard of Oz, Get Carter, and Point Blank.

© Bill Mousoulis March 2000
These reviews first appeared in Senses of Cinema, No.4, March 2000.