We recently saw how some Danish movies that were made as mainstream comedies wound up being marketed elsewhere as sex films, simply because they feature more nudity than is expected in non-porn cinema outside Scandinavia. That may not say much for the maturity or the sophistication of the non-Scandinavian countries in question, though I guess comedy always runs the risk of being considered trivial.
Not at all trivial, however, is the 1968 documentary Det kære legetøj (The Beloved Plaything), directed by Gabriel Axel (1918-2014), best known as the writer and director of the Oscar-winning Babette’s Feast (1987). The title is a literal translation of Le Joujou Chéri, a drawing by the French artist Siné that appears in the film, showing a porno Punch and Judy show in which the puppets are penises. For the subject of the documentary is pornography.
Put aside the belief, common in the current cultural climate, that a serious discussion of porn will necessarily start from the tacit assumption that it’s a bad thing that harms its users and coarsens society. On the contrary, Axel’s film is broadly pro-porn, making the point that it can help people through relationship difficulties arising from sexual repression.
Put aside, too, the notion that a serious argument has no place for humor. Axel’s other major point is that the censorship of erotica entails, in practise, patrolling a pornography-or-art boundary where the very same imagery can be banned or permitted according to which category it is deemed to belong to. That could be said gravely, but Axel treats it as an absurdity to be mocked. And the porn itself is treated with a detached, wry tone, too.
You can’t talk seriously about anything without showing examples, and the film stages several illustrative sequences representing the erotica and sexual fantasies of different eras. Sometimes this includes elements of sado-masochism, which was then particularly taboo in Denmark despite the appearance of some outstanding spanking scenes in mainstream Danish cinema. One sequence covers the making of a modern porno film, including some ‘rough stuff’. The actress is asked to bend over the couch, and the actor with the cane asks plaintively if he really has to hit her. Luckily for her, the director gets out a crayon…
Another behind-the-scenes scene shows another cast of naked actors about to perform a scene in which a husband walks in on an intimate encounter between his wife and her lover. The director tells the actor playing the husband:
‘She’s just so scared, but you’re just mad as hell. You want to throw him out into the street. Then you threaten to spank her on her bare bottom, but she’s been expecting that all the time, of course. So since she knows that’s bound to happen, she pleads for her lover…’
And there’s the striking thing: she knew she was going to be spanked. What the documentary also shows, almost incidentally, is how risibly repetitive porn can be: wives and lovers are constantly being caught by jealous husbands, and the inevitable outcome is a spanking for the wife. We see it again towards the end of the film, in a sequence where a modern young couple are watching a naughty silent movie from yesteryear. It’s the documentary’s most sustained sequence of intentional humor, full of witty touches that no doubt owe something to the fact that it’s not a genuine example of vintage porn, but a modern parody featuring 23-year-old Isa Møller Sørensen as the unfaithful wife.
Here she is with her lover:
Prepare to meet thy fun!
If there’s one dead giveaway that this is footage from the 1960s and not fifty years earlier, it’s what’s revealed when she divests herself of those bloomers:
Modern black panties!
But there will be no fun today: hubby’s home!
And that’s bad news for wifey!
A caption slide flashes up: ‘Aaaah! I don’t want to be spanked!’ Bad luck, dear. And the spanking’s a bit more vigorous in the movie than in the sedate publicity photo:
And after the spanking? The sex, it seems… But it’s not all plain sailing for the husband: lover-boy’s still around!
Two significant things happened in 1969, the year after the film was released. It was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, where, two years earlier, Axel’s previous film, Den Røde Kappe (1967), had been nominated for the Palme d’Or. Det kære legetøj didn’t win an award, but it was admired for the humor and élan with which it treated its subject. This was a film that received mainstream recognition.
Meanwhile, Denmark abolished censorship completely. Film distributors attributed this directly to Det kære legetøj, suggesting that its mockery made the status quo unsustainable. Maybe, maybe not… There were almost certainly many other factors also pushing the Danes towards reform. And the upshot was that, when various mainstream Danish movies got exported as sex films, they were given English titles including the word Danish, which operated as a code-word for sexual content: 1001 Danish Delights, Danish Bed and Board, Danish Blue…
And there’s the irony. For Danish Blue was the title under which Det kære legetøj was distributed in Britain. A film about porn became, in a less open culture, merely a piece of porn – not quite the intended or expected outcome, even for a piece that was broadly sympathetic to the genre!