Today's New York Sun asks whether Lust, Caution, Ang Lee's explicit espionage thriller, will finally be the movie that makes the NC-17 rating legitimate in the eyes of moviegoers and theater owners. In particular, the Sun makes the slightly uncomfortable but probably correct case that Lust, Caution has a chance to legitimize the rating not just because Lee is a marquee director, and not just because the film won the Venice Film Festival, but because the sex in the movie is, well, straight. Comparing the movie to previous NC-17 rated films like Bad Education, The Dreamers, and David Cronenberg's Crash, S. James Snyder writes:
"Lust, Caution" is free of the sorts of sexual content (rape, incest, orgies, gay sex scenes, etc.) that lead some to write off other NC-17 works as subversive or transgressive. Instead, the movie features heterosexual sex that is more frequent, lengthy, and aggressive than the MPAA will tolerate in an R-rated film.
Chad Hartigan, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations, pipes in with his take. (Apparently Paul Dergarabedian was on vacation.) He tries to dance around the subject but in the end comes right out and admits that to many theater owners Lust, Caution is in many ways an easier sell than Lee's previous film, the Oscar-nominated (and R-rated) Brokeback Mountain. It's all in the "straightforward"s:
"It seems like a totally legitimate, straightforward film, if you will," Mr. Hartigan said. "And while other respectable filmmakers have gone with NC-17 before, such as Almodóvar with 'Bad Education' or [David] Cronenberg with 'Crash,' some of these other NC-17 films have had a more 'perverse' approach than what it seems like Ang Lee has done here. In fact, it seems even more straightforward than what he did with ‘Brokeback Mountain.'"
Of course, the sex in Lust, Caution isn't really that vanilla. It's violent and brutal and includes rage-filled scenes that, while not quite being rape, certainly utilize the visual language of rape to impressive effect. And while we think the movie is kind of fantastic, and do hope that it erases the stigma of an NC-17 rating, we think it says something sad about America that theater owners will likely have fewer problems running an NC-17 movie in which a male torturer has explicit, violent sex with a young woman than they did an R-rated movie in which two grown men have non-explicit, consensual sex with each other.