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?

compliance 615 a magnolia bailey.jpg
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.

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.

Where it gets troublesome is on their first "date," which Dottie has been told will be a family dinner with Joe as their guest, only to watch the entire family disappear, leaving the two of them alone. She has ditched the fancy dress her folks bought her for the occasion, returning to her tank top and jean shorts, but Joe insists that she put it the dress back on, right there in front of him. He 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 on Temple's naked form—even when Joe himself has turned away from her.

Here's the question worth asking: If the most vile character in the film (and that's saying something in this one) is intimidating this young and none-too-bright young woman into stripping for him, and we watch, how complicit does that make us in his actions?

Thematically, the question gets even more pointed in Compliance. Zobel tells the true story—only the names are changed—of a horrifying event back in 2004 (minor spoilers ahead). The cashier at a fast-food restaurant (played here by Dreama Walker) is accused of theft on a phone call from a man who says he is a police officer. Over the phone, "Officer Daniels" instructs the cashier's manager to strip search her and take her clothing until officers arrive. When the manager must return to the floor, she hands the task of keeping watch over the employee to her fiancée, whom the caller instructs to not only strip search the cashier again, but to perform a series of degrading acts.

Zobel's film unfolds in something akin to real time, dramatizing the excruciating back-room ordeal on an almost minute-by-minute basis, bringing the cashier's humiliating assault to harrowing life. It also, on the other hand, offers many opportunities to ogle the naked body of Walker, the astonishingly attractive actress from Gossip Girl and Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23. Had he chosen to, the filmmaker (who has a distinctive and impressive eye for composition) could have framed these scenes in a way that artfully concealed the nudity. He did not.

So what's happening here? Are these filmmakers—one a distinguished master, one an up-and-comer—exposing the actors as a way of exposing the characters, using their humiliation to make their ordeals all the more visceral and affecting? Or are they having their cheesecake and eating it too, making their points about the degradation of these young women while simultaneously exploiting their sexiness to sell tickets? The question becomes particularly pointed in the case of Compliance, which concerns (again, minor spoiler) a character engaging in a kind of virtual voyeurism. If we allow ourselves to watch the paces that he (and his surrogates onscreen) puts this young woman through, are we any better than he is? Or is this the exact implication that the savvy filmmaker is intending?

These questions are easy to dismiss, should one choose—of course we're "better" than Killer Joe or Officer Daniels, since we're human beings and they're fictional characters who exist only in a scripted (and thus manipulated) paradigm. But that deconstructionist argument also tears down any semblance of artistic merit within the work itself: If everything is fictional and false, then there's no nobler rationale for the bare flesh, and thus the nudity in Killer Joe and Compliance is, pure and simple, sheer exploitation—of no greater value than the top-doffing teens of Project X, the bathing beauties of Piranha 3DD, or the softcore action of a vintage Shannon Tweed vehicle on Cinemax. That's not a conclusion I'm crazy about; these are fine, thoughtful, bracing pictures. But the unpeeling of their ingénues made this viewer uncomfortable in a way that is, I believe, quite different from how their directors intended.