In Movies With Nudity, What's the Line Between Ogling and Art?

In Killer Joe and Compliance, voyeurs are villains. But doesn't the camera turn everyone into voyeurs?

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In Compliance, Dreama Walker plays a fast-food worker subjected to a strip search. (Magnolia Pictures)

"Somebody once said—somebody smarter than me—that as soon as an actor takes their clothes off in a movie, you're watching a documentary," explains Steven Soderbergh, adding audio commentary to the clothed-but-sexy Clooney/Lopez consummation scene in his 1998 film Out of Sight. "And I think that's true—that you break, I break with a film. When somebody takes their clothes off, I'm not watching the character anymore. I go, 'Oh my god, I'm seeing XYZ with their clothes off.'"

Accepting that Soderbergh is right (though his most recent film, Magic Mike, certainly indicates some evolution on the issue) means asking some tricky questions about what it means to viewers, to filmmakers, and to actors when the flesh comes out. One can either come off like a Mr. Skin-subscribing pervert or a repressed, prudish killjoy. But since the content standards of studio filmmaking shifted in the late 1960s and nude bodies became increasingly present in motion pictures, we've never really figured out how to deal with the complexities of on-screen nudity.

Joe gives specific, pointed instructions about what she is to take off, and when. As she does so, Friedkin's camera holds, and holds, and holds.

Actors and filmmakers will spin nakedness as part of the quest for a greater cinematic truth, while never acknowledging the fact that, for a certain segment of the audience, nudity is a draw, a marketable commodity. When Anne Hathaway appeared in various states of undress in Edward Zwick's 2010 romantic comedy Love and Other Drugs, the extent and logistics of her sex scenes was as much a topic of pre-release publicity as the story or themes—if not more. "Why do people become fixated on this issue?" Hathaway asked Terry Gross, while promoting the film on Fresh Air. "I mean, I don't know about you, but I was naked in the shower this morning."

Gross didn't skip a beat in responding. "I don't know about you," she replied, "but I was alone when I was in the shower."

Whether Hathaway and others care to admit it, when it comes to celebrity nudity, the old adage holds particularly true: Sex sells. Back in 2001, Halle Berry got a half-million dollar bonus for appearing topless in Swordfish—and word of that bonus was promptly leaked to horny, would-be moviegoers. (Berry denied receiving the extra cash.) In case anyone had missed the message, Berry appeared with co-stars John Travolta and Hugh Jackman at that summer's MTV movie awards, pointed to her breasts, and announced proudly, "If you pay $8.50 and see Swordfish, you get to see these." (Remember when you could see a movie for $8.50?) By the time Berry was doing her little teaser for the MTV audience, the Internet had already changed the consequences and implications of onscreen skin. After appearing partially nude in the Wes Anderson short film Hotel Chevalier, Natalie Portman swore off any further appearances in her birthday suit: "I just don't want to do something that will end up as a screen grab on a porn site."

The issue of movie nudity and exploitation get even trickier when the issue of voyeurism itself comes into play, as it does in two very good and somewhat troublesome independent films out this summer. William Friedkin's Killer Joe went into limited release last week; Craig Zobel's Compliance follows suit next month. Both films' handling of their naked actresses raises questions about intention and sympathy.

The Friedkin film features Matthew McConaughey (in a surprisingly chilling and skillful turn) in the title role of a Dallas police detective with a lucrative sideline in contract killing. He's hired by Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) and his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) to knock off Chris's mom/Ansel's ex-wife, which will pay out a handsome insurance settlement to sister/daughter Dottie (Juno Temple). Of course, the Smiths don't have Joe's considerable fee—they want to pay that out of the insurance check. Joe's not having it. But then he gets a look at Dottie, and decides maybe they could work something out.

The deal they settle on is that Dottie will be Joe's "retainer," to do with as he pleases until the insurance money comes through. Dottie is of indeterminate age, but certainly young (much younger than Joe), and quite childlike, although that is at least partially due to her being, as they say in Texas, not quite right in the head. So all of this is pretty disturbing—as it should be, since Killer Joe is a disturbing and provocative film, and disturbing is pretty much writer Tracy Letts's stock-in-trade.

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Jason Bailey is the film editor at Flavorwire. He is the author of The Ultimate Woody Allen Film Companion.

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