Sunday, May 10, 2020

Second-guessing which films got the BBFC the most complaints in 2019

This blog is rated 15 for strong sex references and descriptions of violence.

After years of releasing their annual reports every July, 2018's BBFC annual report was instead released in late May. As I really love testing my BBFC senses on a yearly basis, to see how good I am at reading the general public's perception of what BBFC ratings for films ought to be, I thought I'd guess which films got them the most complaints in 2019!

Note, when I refer to a '2019 release', this actually means any film that came out in cinemas in the UK in 2019. So The Favourite, although a 2018 film by American release dates (and eligible for the 2019 Oscars and BAFTAs for that precise reason), didn't hit UK cinemas until January 2019, and is thus a 'UK 2019 release'. 

My guesses:

01. Joker

My predictions for which films will have gotten the BBFC the most grief is a function of a) how high-profile release was, and b) how contentious the decision was. What I mean by this is, a film has to have been seen by quite a lot of people to generate a substantial volume of complaints, no matter how questionable its BBFC rating was.

The 2018 French movie Le retour du héros was rated 12A by the BBFC, but contained a brief sex scene where the energy of the activity definitely seem to surpass the 'moderate sex' they claimed. However, despite that film starring Jean Dujardin and Mélanie Laurent (the former, an Oscar-winner, and the latter, the iconic star of Inglourious Basterds), it wasn't seen by that many people, and thus, unsurprisingly, not one of the films the BBFC flagged in their 2018 Annual Report, even though I definitely think it should have been rated 15 instead of 12A.

Not finding an audience is certainly not a concern of Joker, the sixth highest-grossing film of 2019, with over $1 billion in worldwide Box office receipts. Todd Phillips' film is the origin story for the Joker, real name 'Arthur Fleck', and depicts how his worsening mental health and being repeatedly mistreated by society ultimately leads him to snap, and turn into the criminal mastermind that we know so well.

The film was rated 15 by the BBFC for 'strong bloody violence, language'. The extended information reads:
Scenes of strong violence include stabbings and shootings, with accompanying bloody injury detail.

Now, if you were a parent who was deciding whether or not to take your recently-turned 15-year-old to see this film, I daresay this isn't that useful.

The most shocking moments of violence in the film come in two scenes. The first is shortly after Arthur has stopped giving a frack about life, and is visited at his home by two men from his former job (dressing up as clowns to promote activities). One of them was a guy who'd contributed to getting Arthur fired from the job, so, to mark his villainous transition, Arthur beats Randall up, stabs him in the throat and bashes his head brutally against the wall.

The second is when Arthur goes on a late-night talk show (hosted by Robert de Niro, in a very knowing hat tip to the film's Scorsese overtones) and shoots De Niro's character point-blank in the head, as retribution for making a laughing stock out of him.

The latter scene was impactful for its surprise factor, but the level of detail is acceptable at 15, I'd say. The former case is more interesting. The combination of that sequence of violence all in one go, the fact that you see the knife go in when Arthur stabs the guy, and the ensuing bloodspurt, and the brutal head-bashing, do really push the limits of Joker's 15 rating.

Head-bashing was quite prevalent in 15 and 18 rated films in 2019, by the way. I watched Midsommar, Ready or Not, Joker and Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, all films which had scenes where people got their heads bashed in. Joker is the only one of these films that is rated 15. The nature of head-bashing is, inherently, violent and bloody. So it can only really be contained at 18 or upper-end 15.

I expect, given the massive comic book appeal of Joker, a lot of 15-17 year-olds went to see it, possibly with their parents. Some of these teenagers might have been too young to watch Suicide Squad, another DC comic book adaption which featured the Joker, when it came out in the cinemas in 2016. That film, as has been discussed at length on this blog, was very tame for a 15, whereas Joker was a really hard 15.

So their expectations would have been subverted by the two aforementioned scenes, and thus, I suspect some shocked parents to have complained to the BBFC about it.

02. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

The third instalment of the John Wick series did not require cuts to ascertain its desired 15 certificate, as the second movie had. Just like Joker, JW3 was rated 15 for 'strong bloody violence, language'.

The BBFC decided to write more than one sentence for its extended information, however:
Frequent scenes of violence include men being shot and stabbed with resultant sight of blood spray on impact. One scene shows a man's neck being snapped over a heavy book. In another scene a man uses a blade to cut another man's eye out, including sight of bloody detail.
It's the final sentence that will likely get readers to sit up, and it certainly made me raise my eyebrows when I watched this in the cinema. The blade actually goes into the eye slowly in JW3, and the detail of it is horribly realistic.

I've seen a few people raise this gripe with the BBFC on Twitter, particularly when comparing to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood's 18 (which will be discussed later). The BBFC's rebuttal was that the violence in JW3 was 'stylised and choreographed', and thus permissible at 15.

This is partially true; John Wick: Chapter 3 is directed by Chad Stahelski, a former stuntman with a meticulous eye for making stunts look as realistic as possible. Keanu Reeves and Halle Berry both trained extensively before shooting the film, so much of the credibility of the violent scenes in JW3 is a testament to their professionalism.

But a knife to the eye is still a knife to the eye.

03. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
I've heard on BBFC podcasts that in the emails they get, they're sometimes accused by Tarantino fanboys of having the 18 rating as the default for Quentin Tarantino films, regardless of their content.

To which the BBFC will point to Jackie Brown, Tarantino's solitary 15-rated film. They'll always have Jackie Brown.

The reason this accusation has come up, is because it could be argued that the likes of Inglourious Basterds and The Hateful Eight only had flashes of violence, in quite substantial running times, compared to the non-stop violence of a John Wick or Deadpool.

The same is true of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, when all the violence happens in one scene, near the end of the film. Up until then, the film, with its colourful Tarantino dialogue, would have been perfectly contained at 15. The BBFC's extended insight for OUATIH goes:
There are scenes of strong violence, including a scene in which a person's head is repeatedly slammed against walls and other objects.
These sequences happen when three members of the Manson family choose to, in a deviation from history, hit up Brad Pitt's house, rather than Margot Robbie (playing Sharon Tate)'s.

More fool them, as Pitt's character is a bad-ass stuntman. Despite having just taken some acid and thus tripping, the film has established him as someone who can more than hold his own, no matter who the opponent (an earlier flashback in the film showed him defeating Mike Moh's Bruce Lee in a fight. This re-writing of the past and Flanderisation of Bruce Lee was incredibly disrespectful to the karate legend, and has incurred well-deserved backlash to Tarantino. I'm so glad Parasite beat Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars).

So Brad Pitt, aided by his dog, gives these three intruders an ass-whooping of a lifetime. Leonardo DiCaprio is chilling outside in his pool, but when he's interrupted by his reverie, he reacts quickly and sets one of them on fire with a flamethrower.

The character who gets set on fire had previously been attacked by Brad Pitt, when he repeatedly smashed her head against the wall and some glass. This attack is given an extra sadistic relish, in my opinion, if the audience factors in that the recipient of the head-bashing is a woman and Pitt's character is an accused wife-murderer. Tarantino has faced accusations of misogyny in his oeuvre (including the fact that Robbie has very few lines in OUATIH), and this nasty little cocktail of a scene does little to refute that.

So, I'm not too perturbed by the BBFC's decision to pass Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood an 18, and think it was the responsible thing to do, rather than a consequence of the BBFC unimaginatively giving every Tarantino film an 18 without giving it a good look.

It did have less violence than John Wick: Chapter 3, but that scene where it all went down was pretty damn aversive.

04. The Favourite 

The complaints for The Favourite, which won Olivia Colman a surprise Best Actress Oscar last year, will be varied, and interestingly, they will all relate to the sapphic love scenes.

I've seen quite a few tweets saying that the BBFC short insight, for 'very strong language, strong sex' is misleading, as the sex was tamer than strong. They have levelled accusations of homophobia at the BBFC, saying the BBFC over-stated the strength due to conservatism.

Now the BBFC are many things: in the pockets of Hollywood studios, in the pockets of Netflix, inconsistent, can't even remember their own guidelines sometimes, and obtuse to the point of frustration, but I don't think they're homophobic.

The love scenes between Olivia Colman's Queen Anne and Emma Stone's Machiavellian maid Abigail in The Favourite weren't particularly graphic. But they weren't the only depictions of sex in the film. There's a scene where Rachel Weisz wakes up in a brothel, and there's, ahem, brothel activity going on in the background between a random punter and a lady of the night.

And, more memorably, there's the wedding-night HJ between Abigail and Samuel (played by Taylor Swift's boyfriend). This scene is important to the narrative because it conveys that this is simply a marriage of convenience for the conniving Abigail, and her look of disinterest when she services Samuel shows her complete apathy toward him. It's also true to form of director Yorgos Lanthimos, who inserted a transactional handjob in his 2017 film The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

This scene truly was strong, because it went on for quite some time, and it culminated (excuse the pun) with Samuel finishing, and Abigail wiping her hand on the sheet. This kind of detail would be completely out of place in a 12A film, and thus, the 15 rating and 'strong sex' warning were accurate.

So these complaints come from people who are of the school of thought that felt the BBFC over-warned them about the sexual material in the film.

The other school of complaints for The Favourite, then, pertain to the fact that the BBFC didn't warn them enough about the sexual content of the film. The people writing these complaints have fallen foul to what I call 'the Black Swan effect'. They saw the promotional posters for The Favourite, and presumed they were going to watch a nice period drama, completely unprepared for the sauciness that was about to unfurl.

Sometimes, the confounding of expectations can lead audience members to complain to the BBFC, even if the film is comfortably in its rating band, as The Favourite is. I daresay the portrayal of Queen Anne as having female lovers may have also ruffled some feathers, if these stuffy Amazon reviews are anything to go by:

So The Favourite is an interesting case where some people felt the BBFC were too strict on the sex scenes, and others feel like they were too lenient.

I wouldn't want to be a film examiner – there's just no pleasing people!

05. The Hustle
This mostly unfunny comedy, a gender-swapped remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, was originally rated R in the States, before the producers and Rebel Wilson complained, and it got re-rated PG-13 on appeal. They cited sexism as the reason the film’s sexual references originally got rated R, but I disagree – I think they deserved an R.

This exchange, between Rebel Wilson’s low-end con artist, and Anne Hathaway’s high-end swindler, contained crude sexual dialogue that I consider out of place for a PG-13 or 12A-rated film:

The mention of ‘pegging’ has historically gotten films rated 15, for example, Lazer Team 2. And I found the combination of discussion of various sex acts in quick succession, gave the exchange more focus than if they were scattered throughout the film.

The Irish rated The Hustle 15A, for strong sex references, which I think is a lot more sensible, and an accurate assessment of the sexual content of the film.

I emailed the BBFC about The Hustle’s 12A rating, because it really felt too lax (especially if you consider that Easy A is rated 15), but they gave me one of their useless non-responses:

So, I don’t know if this will indeed be one of the five most complained about films to the BBFC in 2019, but it’s the one I think was most wrongly rated, so it certainly should be one of them!


I've been lax on the quantity of BBFC-related content in 2020, but with enforced lockdown, I'm hoping to find more time to write more about this facet of film that fascinates me so much. My archives, should you be interested, are here.


Ben said...

Hi! Great post and I agree with most of your decisions. Just one small correction - Arthur only stabs Randall once in the throat (the only repeated violence is the head bashing). And you don't reeeeeally see the knife go in his eye cause his hand covers the impact :^)

Weirdly the original case study did describe it as being "upper-end" 15 but that got removed - probably gave away too much.

Ben said...

"The viewing notes stated that the film was 'likely to be OK at the upper end of 15', with the main issue some strong and occasionally bloody violence" was changed to 'permissible at the requested 15'.

For me the big difference between Joker and Hollywood (and why I agree with the different ratings instead of giving both an 18 like Ireland did) is the detail and editing - Joker makes a lot of effort to obscure the detail like the aforementioned hand covering his eye and all the cutaway shots to just above frame and Gary's reaction. Really """all""" you see is blood on the wall and watching it again the unexpected shock impact makes it seem stronger than it really is.

Hollywood really focuses on the detail, showing each clear impact in static close-ups which wouldn't pass the "dwelling on pain and injury" test.