Why nakedness (almost) seems totally natural in modern movies.
There’s a startling moment midway through Sarah Polley’s exquisitely crafted new film Take This Waltz, which arrives in theatres Friday. The scene, shot at the Trinity Bellwoods rec centre, occurs in the showers after an aquacise class attended by the main character, Margot (Michelle Williams), and her sister-in-law, Geraldine (Sarah Silverman). As the two young women soap up, Polley’s camera captures their naked bodies, at full length and in full frontal, lingering on them as well as on those of the other ladies in the class, who are predominantly middle-aged or elderly.
Watching this frank panorama of female flesh is startling for at least two reasons: First, outside of anthropological documentaries, we’re not accustomed to seeing onscreen nudity presented in a matter-of-fact way that is neither sexual nor comical. And second, it offers a remarkably candid appraisal of the human body, both in its supple prime and in wrinkled old age. It’s the kind of observation many of us have casually made in public locker rooms—but not one we ever expected to see replicated so honestly in a North American feature film.
When Take This Waltz premiered last fall at TIFF, it was just one in a string of films that contained unusually explicit nudity, often in a non-sexual context. Kirsten Dunst, playing a victim of paralyzing depression, cringed naked at the edge of a bathtub like a cat terrified of water in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Michael Fassbender’s self-loathing Lothario let it all hang out in Shame, Steve McQueen’s decidedly unsexy look at sex addiction. And as if to hammer home the trend, Faust, Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s crazy riff on Goethe’s masterpiece, opened with an in-yer-face closeup of a grey, flaccid penis, which turned out to belong to a cadaver.
All these films suggest not just a new degree of on-screen intimacy, but a more mature attitude to the unclothed body. It’s as if the cinema is finally catching up with painting and sculpture in their time-honoured and multifaceted depictions of the nude. Just look at the current Picasso exhibition at the AGO: Picasso’s figures are almost always in a state of partial or total undress, yet the content of his work is widely varied, from lush erotica to harrowing antiwar images.
But it would be naïve to assume that movies in general have grown up. Not in Hollywood, they haven’t. For every Take This Waltz, there’s a Magic Mike—also opening Friday. Directed by the indefatigable Steven Soderbergh, it’s a big ol’ slice of beefcake starring Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey as male strippers. And while it presents itself as a thoughtful coming-of-age tale, based on Tatum’s own adolescence as an exotic dancer, you know that’s not why straight women and gay men will want to see it. No surprise there—mainstream movies have been doing their own strip-tease since the silent era, luring audiences to the box office with the promise of bare skin.
What has changed is how much you can show. And the filmmakers who’ve really pushed the taboos in the multiplex are the comedians. Judd Apatow, the Farrelly sibs and other purveyors of gross-out humour have taken male nudity to new heights—or, arguably, depths. They have been (if you’ll excuse the phallic image) standard bearers in the push to put the penis on the big screen—a trend pondered by James Wolcott in a very funny essay, “The Hung and the Restless,” in the March issue of Vanity Fair. That may be partly thanks to comic actors who are often willing to do anything for a laugh, including dropping their boxers for a full-on shlong shot.
The fact that Sarah Silverman, a comedian who can rival the boys with dirty talk and poop jokes, chose to appear nude in Take This Waltz without a gag or a punchline to hide behind makes her unusually heroic. Not surprisingly, her shower scene with Williams has generated a lot of publicity. And there are people who will watch it just to see the pair with all their clothes off. Hopefully they will come away, not titillated, but moved by its contemplation of youth and age, and the inescapable passage of time. Director Polley and her actors have taken an admirably intelligent attitude to nudity; the challenge for the media and movie-goers is to be equally mature.