Censorship and Holy Motors

My friend Cole ecstatically tweeted this morning that Holy Motors has just hit Netflix Streaming. About 10 seconds later, he posted far less ecstatically that the Netflix Streaming version of the film has been censored.

There are few times when Twitter has brought me from higher highs to lower lows in under 280 characters.

I love Holy Motors. Holy Motors is one of the greatest films that crossed my weary retinas in the last year. I’ve only seen it once so far, but I’ve been itching to show it to others. It’s funny, elegant, smart, baffling, arch, sincere, and unique. There are moments in that film that are destined to be iconic, the stuff of cinema legend.

So I was thrilled when I saw “Holy Motors” and “Netflix Streaming” in the same sentence. I was hoping to leap online and post, “GO WATCH THIS NOW, YOU HEATHENS!”

But sadly, I cannot fully recommend the cut seen on Netflix Streaming. Here’s why:

Holy Motors

That’s not what I saw in the theater. In the original version of the film, Denis Lavant sports a rather impressive erect penis in that shot.

To the censor’s credit, the scene itself is intact. It’s just that the offending member has been blurred out, making it look like Denis Lavant is sporting a very fluffy merkin. It’s also possible that the light in the scene has been dimmed in order to cover the fact that a portion of the screen has been blurred. (I recall the lighting being somewhat brighter in the theater.)

Does the exclusion of a prominent erection alter the scene itself? Undeniably. The scene includes a number of subversions of religious images, which includes altering Eva Mendes’ dress into a burka as well as the in-your-face sexual angle of Lavant’s wang standing at attention. The scene plays out without dialogue, so it relies entirely upon the imagery. Covering up the wiener definitely removes meaning from the scene.

A quick search on the Internet reveals that all streaming copies of Holy Motors are censored in this way. Amazon, iTunes, Netflix Streaming, VOD… all are sausage-free. The Blu-Ray and DVD are thankfully untouched. Why?

Well, according to Very Aware, it seems that the distributor opted to blur Lavant’s member in order to dodge obscenity laws in all constituencies that might stream the film. However, as that article points out, that didn’t seem to stop films like Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist from showing not only erect penis, but also full-on penetration on the same streaming services.

A few weeks ago, I brought up the Hays Code around a friend who, despite being fairly well versed in pop culture, had no idea that it ever existed.

The Motion Picture Production Code, aka the Hays Code, existed from the early 1930s until 1968, when it was abandoned and replaced with the MPAA film rating system that we know today. The Hays Code was a censorship code that standardized what could and could not be seen in a motion picture made in the United States. The Code banned things like drug use, nudity, swearing, white slavery, miscegenation, venereal diseases, ridicule of religion, and various acts of violence. The Hays Code is the reason Alfred Hitchcock spent decades trying to sneak the image of a toilet into one of his films; he finally succeeded in Psycho, but only by making the toilet part of the plot.

I’ve been present when film watchers are shocked when they see nudity or frank sexuality in a silent era film. Because of the Hays Code, most Americans think that people were squeaky-clean prior to the mid-1960s, that the Vietnam era was the birth of all sex, drugs, and swearing. The truth is that folks in the 1920s talked about and experienced the same basic things we do today. It’s just that our popular culture was in lockdown for over thirty years, so there isn’t much cinematic evidence of such things prior to the MPAA. Yes, you see those subjects covered in foreign films made during the Hays Code era, but foreign films weren’t easily accessible to Average Joe American until very recently.

While the MPAA rating system isn’t all wine and roses (see This Film Is Not Yet Rated for reasons why), it is a definite improvement over industry-wide censorship. I’m fine with putting a few hurdles in front of taboo material, as long as it’s still available.

Thus, it is good that Holy Motors is uncensored on Blu-Ray and DVD. However, I’m still baffled and angry that some penises are apparently more obscene than others on streaming video channels.

In Minneapolis every month, there is a stage comedy show called Vilification Tennis. The whole premise of the show is that performers stand up and insult each other in a tennis-style game. “Yo mamma” jokes abound.

The show is notorious for being incredibly offensive. The performers are very clear that offensiveness is the goal, and that even the most laid-back individual will probably be offended by something in the show. The point of the show is, however, that nothing is off the table. Jokes about pedophilia, religion, race, sexism, and even rape… all are present.

And, honestly, it works. The show is funny. It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure, but they do manage to make it work.

Since this is the age of “rape jokes are never funny,” I once asked the ringleader, Tim Wick, how they managed to make the show work.

He responded that it works because nothing is taboo at the show. The moment you ban one subject from humor is the moment you suggest that everything else is okay. Banning pedophilia jokes would imply that rape jokes are somehow okay in polite society. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk upon, but they’re professionals and have been doing the show for years.

…which brings me back to Denis Lavant’s penis.

What does it say about us as a society when I can turn on Netflix Streaming and watch female nudity galore, but a single erect penis (which isn’t even doing anything aside from standing around) is verboten?

Why can I watch thousands of people being slaughtered graphically on a movie streaming service — via guns, zombies, aliens, and all manner of mechanical failure — while one penis is apparently too much to handle?

Or, to bring this to the stupidest level, why can I go to Netflix Streaming and see Willem Dafoe’s penis but not Denis Lavant’s penis?

Really, it’s a shame. Holy Motors is an amazing film and shouldn’t be fucked with.

And Denis Lavant’s penis is rather nice. Pity that you might miss it.

Update April 15, 2013: About a week after I wrote this post, Antichrist disappeared from Netflix Streaming. I avidly follow which films are dropping off Netflix Streaming (the service usually puts a stamp on each film’s entry a week or two ahead of time), and I didn’t see anything posted ahead of time that Antichrist was dropping off. The film just vanished. Hmmm.


  1. I just finished watching the film for the first time. I found your post because I knew something was amiss in the Netflix version.
    I also question why a penis is so taboo in film. I guess it only flies if it’s in a comedy (a la Hangover films).
    Great post though. Thanks for the historical background as well.

  2. Why does male nudity always have to be compared to female nudity? It is not the same. This is a fine article, but I could not help but roll my eyes when the “why can’t I see a penis if I can see boobies?” argument came up.

    You’re going to see way more penises in film than exposed labia, that is a fact. Whether it’s covered by a merkin or by actual pubis, the female genitalia is rarely seen, yet some people have come to the conclusion that seeing pubis means seeing genitalia.

    It is very strange why the penis is blurred here and not blurred in other films, however please do some slight research when comparing gender nudity. You will see pretty much every facet of the male body in film and tv, and on rare occasions a penis, but I’ve yet to be able to count mainstream films where you can see labia on more than one hand. Not to mention breasts and female ass are completely taboo, yet a male is allowed to be nude as long as it covers his sausage & berries.

    tl;dr: Good article, but female vs male nudity is something nobody seems to be able to understand and should not be compared until it is understood.

    • Actually, female and male butts carry about the same weight (ahem) in terms of nudity when it comes to the MPAA.

      The older MPAA standards (as in, 1980s and before) generally held that full-frontal female nudity would garner an R rating, but sight of a flaccid penis would be an automatic NC-17 or X. In some films, a very short flash of a penis could get an R, but it would quickly get to NC-17 territory the longer the member spent on film. (By contrast, through the mid-1980s, you could show female breasts and still get a PG. Or you could get a G if those breasts were attached to an African woman in a documentary, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.)

      Over the last 20 years, penises have been seen more frequently in cinema, while female nudity (both breasts and full-frontal) have been on the decline. Part of that is due to a lot of women in the 1980s going, “Hey, wait a minute,” at the high rate of female nudity in 1980s films, while not taboo male bits were being shown. The other part of the female nudity decline is due to the Internet; actresses are now more reluctant to do nude scenes, because it is now easy to take screenshots from a movie.

      The latest stupidity in the nudity wars involved the fact that the MPAA now labels why a film received a specific rating. Since 2010, “nudity” and “male nudity” are separate distinctions. Female nudity is still so pervasive in film that by marking a film as containing “nudity”, it is just assumed that it is a woman getting naked.

      So, yes, I agree there are different aspects behind what’s happening with male and female nudity in film, but it is still pretty stupid, and I think my comment still stands.

      Also, the lack of labias in general audience filmmaking is probably due to the fact that a woman tends to need to be in a very specific position to show off the pink parts, and that’s harder to justify to an MPAA board. If you’re a filmmaker angling to get men into seats by showing naked women, it’s an easier win to just show boobs or full frontal.

  3. I just watched ‘Holy Motors’ on Netflix UK and Levant’s member is intact and very much visible.

    • Fascinating!

      I just took another look at the US Netflix version, and we’re still rod-free over here.

      You folks in the UK have all the fun.

  4. You forgot that the penetration in Antichrist was black and white in slow motion, you can’t go wrong with black and white in slow motion.
    Also i just checked and luckily Antichrist is back up on US streaming, penis and all. Enter the Void and Weekend both have brief penis on screen and aren’t censored either, maybe they just thought it was on screen too long in Holy Motors lol.

  5. Update (Dec. 2013)-UNCENSORDED version now streaming on Netflix

    Thought this was worth noting. I first saw “Holy Motors” when it was added to Netflix. In reading about the film afterwards, I came across this thread and–after re-screening the film on Blu-Ray–was disappointed that the distributor thought it necessary to not only add the blur effect in the Denis Lavant-Eva Mendes scene, but also in the FX sequence for streaming services (presumably viewers would be offended by the erect virtual penis of a CGI dragon).

    I’m happy to report, however, that I just checked the movie again on Netflix and both instances of the blurring have been removed. The film now seems to be in tact and uncensored–there’s no telling of the mass hysteria that will ensue now that we can see Denis Lavant’s boner in all its 1080p Hi-Def glory. In any case, I don’t know when this switch took place, but kudos to Netflix and/or Indomina for making this change, and to those who wrote, called, and emailed pushing them to drop the capricious censoring.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *