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Comment: Black Swan complaints not justified


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Last year, Black Swan received the most UK complaints for its 15 rating thanks to its dark psychological subject matter and, shock horror, homosexual activity.

According to the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), last year’s film audience had the most to say about Black Swan for not meeting their expectations of watching a film about a ballet. Perhaps these viewers should have given the plot a quick Google before donning their dancing shoes?

Board director David Cooke pointed out quite rightly in the annual report that “the high number of complaints for Black Swan demonstrates the disconnect that sometimes occurs between a viewer's expectations of a film and its actual content.”

If anything, this statement is accommodating. You would think that opting for the title Black Swan over Swan Lake, with poster images of a red-eyed Portman with cracks in her face would have given the complainers in question a few pointers as to the dark nature of the film. What’s more, if a film purely about ballet was anticipated, in my view they should have been pleasantly surprised to meet with a more original interpretation of the classic Tchaikovsky story.

The most controversial complaints came from those who believed that gay sex scenes should be limited to an 18 classification. The problems with this argument are probably fairly self-evident. Needless to say, Cooke reassured the public that the BBFC has “a clear policy in the guidelines that we don’t differentiate or discriminate whether it’s a straight or gay or lesbian scene.”

As for those who found the lesbian scene between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis too pornographic, one would have to argue that sexual activity recorded on film will almost always have allusions to pornography in some form. In Black Swan, the women are both attractive and experiencing a moment of passion and release, but nothing is made more explicit than in any other 15-rated film. I can’t help but wonder whether accusations of pornography are a reflection on the accusers and their attitude towards lesbian sex, rather than on the film itself.

In any case, the number of complaints to the BBFC only peaked at forty out of the 2.7 million who went to see the multi-award-winning film. In the past, the board has also received complaints about cinema audiences, ticket prices, and requests to specify whether films advertised as comedies were actually funny. In the light of this, there is probably not much cause for concern over the Black Swan ‘furore’.

If certain cinema-goers can be upset by a 15 rating for this film, they would have a field day complaining in France. In 2004, there were discussions about unifying film ratings across Europe. The French hold the “cultural value” of films in much higher regard when classifying them than other factors such as swearing and sex.

As a result, films rated 18 on British shores could receive a rating as low as 12 across the channel. Examples include Pulp Fiction, the highly sexualised Secretary, and The Exorcist. With that in mind, I’d recommend to the BBFC’s complainants that they hop on a ferry and give French classification boards an earful instead.

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