Sexually Provocative Film Premieres at Cannes Film Festival Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Brown Bunny, a disturbing film by iconoclastic auteur Vincent Gallo that includes a provocative sequence showing fellatio, received a mixed reception from the international film community at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Nominated for the Palme d’Or, the film touched off a heated debate over the relationship between filmmakers and critics and ultimately between filmmakers and their audiences.

Summary of Event

Drawing on the experimental neorealism pioneered by pop artist Andy Warhol nearly a generation earlier, Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny tells the bleak story of a motorcycle racer named Bud Clay (played by Gallo) who, desperate to escape a past that includes a passionate relationship with a woman identified only as Daisy (played by Chloë Sevigny), sets out to drive a van loaded with his motorcycle from New Hampshire to California. For most of the nearly hour and a half film, that trip is recorded in unrelieved tedium—restaurant stops, gas fill-ups, and changes of clothes, and miles of highway filmed through bug-splattered windows. [kw]Film The Brown Bunny Premieres at Cannes Film Festival, Sexually Provocative (May 21, 2003) [kw]Brown Bunny Premieres at Cannes Film Festival, Sexually Provocative Film The (May 21, 2003) Brown Bunny, The (film) Pornography;films Gallo, Vincent Sevigny, Chloë Ebert, Roger Brown Bunny, The (film) Pornography;films Gallo, Vincent Sevigny, Chloë Ebert, Roger [g]Europe;May 21, 2003: Sexually Provocative Film The Brown Bunny Premieres at Cannes Film Festival[03300] [g]France;May 21, 2003: Sexually Provocative Film The Brown Bunny Premieres at Cannes Film Festival[03300] [c]Film;May 21, 2003: Sexually Provocative Film The Brown Bunny Premieres at Cannes Film Festival[03300] [c]Sex;May 21, 2003: Sexually Provocative Film The Brown Bunny Premieres at Cannes Film Festival[03300] [c]Art movements;May 21, 2003: Sexually Provocative Film The Brown Bunny Premieres at Cannes Film Festival[03300] [c]Publishing and journalism;May 21, 2003: Sexually Provocative Film The Brown Bunny Premieres at Cannes Film Festival[03300] [c]Public morals;May 21, 2003: Sexually Provocative Film The Brown Bunny Premieres at Cannes Film Festival[03300] [c]Popular culture;May 21, 2003: Sexually Provocative Film The Brown Bunny Premieres at Cannes Film Festival[03300]

Chloë Sevigny and Vincent Gallo at the premiere of their film The Brown Bunny at Cannes, France, in May, 2003.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The most significant action in the film is psychological, happening behind Clay’s opaque sunglasses. There are chance encounters with three different women, but in each case Clay cannot bring himself to risk the vulnerability of authentic connection, and his character is left decidedly alone. The encounters are distinguished by disjointed conversations, long stares, and cryptic silences. Along the way, Clay visits Daisy’s parents, and while there he secures one of Daisy’s favorite childhood stuffed animals, a brown bunny. When he finally arrives in Los Angeles, he goes to Daisy’s house—but it is empty. At a hotel, however, he is joined by Daisy who coolly performs oral sex on him after smoking crack cocaine. They engage in a steadily heated conversation about her relationships with other men. What is revealed, however, is that Daisy had been gang raped during a party some months earlier; that Clay had failed to help her and had, in fact, left the party; and that she had subsequently choked to death on her own vomit. Clay is haunted (literally) not merely by her memory but by his own shame and is trying to find in his cross-country flight an escape from his sense of responsibility (represented by the grotesque stuffed bunny he now lugs about).

Gallo hesitated when he was approached in early 2003 to premiere his film project (he was the film’s producer, director, writer, and star) for consideration for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in France. Although his earlier film, 1998’s Buffalo ’66 (film)[Buffalo Sixty six (film)] Buffalo ’66, a quirky psychological study of a released convict who kidnaps a beautiful woman to pretend to be his girlfriend when he must visit his parents, had become an award-winning independent film, his experiences at Cannes had always been strained. He knew that to meet the festival’s spring deadline, given production difficulties he was facing, he would have to submit an unfinished rough cut. He decided to submit the film.

Even with the edgy experimental nature of the film—its deliberate evocation of tedium; its layers of dense, associational imagery; its dreamlike nonlinearity; its minimal action; and its unsympathetic central character—Gallo was not prepared for the reaction his film ignited. The controversy surrounding its debut on May 21 quickly became the headline of what was an otherwise routine festival. Although the film received appreciative applause, the majority of the Cannes audience was decidedly hostile to the film, booing and jeering and, for most, walking out long before the controversial sex scene. The ten-minute oral-sex sequence, which Sevigny actually performed on Gallo, was seen as entirely gratuitous. Gallo tirelessly argued long after the premiere that the scene reenforced the emptiness in the character’s soul and, given that the woman was actually dead, was a powerful image for the deep narcissism of his grief.

In the wake of the disastrous showing, the most vocal critic of the film was Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and cohost of a long-running, nationally syndicated, film-review show. He has been a respected and powerful voice in the industry. He pilloried Gallo’s film, not merely because of the sex scene but also the film’s poor pace and lack of focus. He famously described it as the worst film Cannes had ever shown. The day after the premiere, a teary and obviously shaken Gallo admitted the film was a rough cut and apologized for wasting the judges’ time with an unfinished film. There also was suspicion that the virtually unqualified support of the French press for the film may have reflected less its sensitivity to Gallo’s film and more its political motivations: In the heated atmosphere leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq War Iraq when French and U.S. relations were particularly chilly, the French ironically (and gleefully) celebrated what was widely seen as a truly awful American film.

Ebert’s words, widely disseminated on the Web, ignited a lengthy and very public war of words between Gallo and Ebert—an exchange that was less a discussion of the merits (or lack thereof) of Gallo’s avant-garde film and more an exchange of insults that climaxed with Gallo supposedly putting a hex on Ebert’s prostate. Ebert quipped that he had experienced a colonoscopy and watching that was more enjoyable than watching Gallo’s film.

Within months of Cannes, Gallo returned to the film. After reediting the work (cutting about 25 minutes, although leaving the sex scene intact), he reissued the film, initially at the 2003 Toronto Film Festival, then in summer, 2004, as a Wellspring Media then Sony Pictures theatrical release, and ultimately on DVD. Not surprisingly, given the enormous attention it had received at Cannes, the film found an immediate audience in its theatrical release, most likely expecting to see one of those celebrated “so-bad-it’s-kitschy” films. However, Gallo’s sensitive editing had significantly altered the impact, and audiences and critics (most notably Ebert himself) found the reedited film provocative and powerful as an understated, even stark, anatomy of grief that juxtaposed images of escape and fantasy with the hard reality of guilt, doubt, sorrow, and responsibility.

Impact

The Brown Bunny created a scandal in itself, but the disturbing fellatio scene—although accounting for barely ten minutes of the entire film—raised difficult (and incendiary) questions about the line between art and pornography. Given that Gallo and Sevigny had maintained a high-profile off-screen relationship, the sequence blurred the line between art and voyeurism, its unflinching (and unedited) recording of the act resembling not cinema but salacious hardcore porn footage or a sleazy underground celebrity sex tape for the Web. It did not immediately register with viewers that within the larger argument of the film such a perception of the scene’s coldness helped sustain a significant thematic argument about the nature of love. Indeed, the scene was sufficient to have Sevigny, an accomplished independent-film actor who had been nominated for an Oscar in 1999 for her work in Boys Don’t Cry, summarily dropped by the prestigious William Morris talent agency. Only in its rerelease did the scene’s larger argument—the de-glamorization of sex in the face of death and the pain involved in any grieving process that involves a sexual relationship—become clear.

Apart from the response to the sexual content, however, the public dust-up between Gallo and Ebert revealed the fragile nature of egos in that particular dynamic—both with the actors and those who cover their work in the press. Clearly, Gallo, like Warhol before him, crafted a film that was not intended for the general public, a film whose portrayal of the banality and absurdity of life would be inaccessible to those who see films for entertainment and spectacle. That discussion, however, never took place. Rather, the barbs between artist and critic quickly denigrated into personal attacks that could be seen cynically as part of the promotional machinery of Hollywood—indeed, given the controversy surrounding Gallo’s film and the Ebert critique, an otherwise marginal film destined for limited release in art-house theaters eventually played to a much wider audience and, in the end, made far more money for its parent company, Sony Pictures. Brown Bunny, The (film) Pornography;films Gallo, Vincent Sevigny, Chloë Ebert, Roger

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ebert, Roger. Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook, 2004. Riverside, N.J.: Andrews McMeel, 2004. Includes relevant commentary by Ebert on the Gallo-Brown Bunny controversy as well as Ebert’s original scathing review of The Brown Bunny.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “The Whole Truth from Vincent Gallo.” Chicago Sun-Times, August 29, 2004. A candid interview with the filmmaker Ebert had so condemned more than one year earlier after seeing the premiere of The Brown Bunny at Cannes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krzywinska, Tanya. Sex and the Cinema. New York: Wallflower/Columbia University Press, 2006. Thorough investigation into the differences between art and pornography that uses numerous contemporary examples (including Gallo’s film) to define the new dimensions of artistic license in the age of the Web.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sklar, Richard. “Beyond Hoopla: The Cannes Film Festival and Cultural Significance.” Cineaste 22, no. 3 (June, 1996): 18-28. Helpful summary of the importance of Cannes as a promotional tool for maverick filmmakers and independent films.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Winter, Jessica. The Rough Guide to American Independent Film. New York: Rough Guides, 2006. Contextualizes Gallo’s filmmaking by assessing the late twentieth century emergence of low-budget auteur films (and filmmakers) whose limited success was supported by numerous regional film festivals and by the critical press sensitive to the provocative and experimental work.

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