In post-#MeToo cinema, guardian angels of consent

The passage of the wave was brutal. Bitter fertile soil of the movement #MeToo, the cinema today tries to draw the after. A new role has appeared on film sets: that of a guardian, often a woman, of intimacy and consent. As if to fix a fair cursor between the necessary, the realistic, the acceptable and the intolerable. Decryption, as the Cannes Film Festival unfolds its 75th edition.

“I’m not the ‘good moral’ police. It is simply a question of putting a professional framework on the scenes of sex or nudity”, specifies from the outset Monia Aït El Hadj on the phone from Paris. She is an intimacy coordinator and would even be “the first in France”. This 46-year-old former legal manager, passionate about cinema and psychology, tells how she found herself, in a career turn, after having attended film school, on the benches of an unprecedented training in the United States. It was in 2019, with Amanda Blumenthal, intimacy coordinator, one of the pioneers in this field across the Atlantic. Three years later, the profession arrives on the Swiss plateaus. The Zurich production company Zodiac Pictures, for example, used it for the feature film 99 Moons, directed by Jan Gassmann and selected at Cannes this year (ACID section).

Read also, the emergence of the profession in the United States: In Hollywood, “intimacy directors” for naked scenes

Defining where intimacy begins

The missions of Monia Aït El Hadj, who notably worked on the set of season 2 of the Netflix series Emily in Paris, begin weeks before filming. “I first read the script, I identify the scenes that require my intervention, then back and forth takes place between the director, the actors and me,” she explains. The definitions of intimacy, with contours as personal as they are shifting, are put on the table and welcomed without taboo. The grail: striking an acceptable balance between the script, the wishes of the director and the individual limits of the actors and actresses.

Finding clothing solutions to hide private parts is also on the program. This is followed by the signing of a protocol – a practice which is not fundamentally new, the clauses governing nudity already existing long before #MeToo. After a few rehearsals, it’s time to turn on the cameras. Monia Aït El Hadj continues: “During the whole process, I check that the protocol is respected, that there are only the essential people on the set when it is filming, and I make sure of the consent of the actors. The coordinator also oversees the construction of scenes that are as realistic as possible.

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Scenes as technical as the stunts

If his trade is relatively recent, the object of his attention – the intimate scenes – is as old as the cinema. However, if the body is an artistic and narrative tool, it should not go beyond this framework, believe the Swiss actresses Noémie Kocher, Janine Piguet and Noémie Schmidt, that Time contacted. None of them has yet worked with an intimacy coordinator. They tell of shoots where the actors’ discomfort is often there when it comes to miming love and sex. “The public imagines that these scenes are a cakewalk, it’s actually anything but that,” says Noémie Kocher, who is also a screenwriter and has traced her career between Geneva and Paris.

The actress Janine Piguet assures: “We are terrified, women as well as men. We have to overcome fear and I find us very courageous.” There is the unveiling and the embarrassment, to which is added the precision of the angles to be taken to hide what must be hidden while sketching credible gestures in the register of tenderness and complicity. “These scenes are as technical and difficult to adjust as the stunts, in addition to being often very vague in the scenario”, indicates Noémie Kocher. The same analogy is also used by Monia Aït El Hadj: “If we shoot a stunt, the director will not just open the window and tell his actor to jump. For the simulation of sex, it’s the same. You can’t just tell actors, “Go ahead, you’re doing it well in your personal life!” It claims the importance of this role of information, security and choreography.

“I was begged, threatened, manipulated”

Among actresses, the memories of certain sets are sometimes painful, even painful. Noémie Schmidt was “enormously” called upon to play the intimate. The Valaisanne says: “When I questioned sequences, I was not always listened to. And when I refused to do certain things, I was the object of enormous pressure on the part of producers, directors, but also actors. I was begged, threatened, manipulated. Janine Piguet, she remembers the day when an actor slipped her a remark of a pornographic nature just before the take. “It shocked me, I had to do this scene with him in a bed, it was horrible. Everything happens very quickly and I think we have to learn to talk in the moment. To disagree, to demand, to formulate very clear conditions in writing: the actresses have gradually opted for firmness and also testify to experiences, for some, very positive.

On the men’s side, the Vaudois Kacey Mottet Klein says he has dealt since his debut in the 7th art with very attentive professionals. However, he remembers a time when, without warning him, someone tried to “psychologically force” him to change the content of a scene. “An actress and I were only supposed to kiss. She was barely of age, and that was already unsettling me. At the last moment, the director demanded that we undress. She had to put on a bra, me half naked. We refused, he insisted heavily, but we stood up to him.

A framework, even a firewall

Therefore, is the commitment of an intimacy coordinator perceived as necessary for the actors to feel protected? For Noémie Kocher, “if this presence reassures everyone and creates confidence and gentleness in moments lived in a feverish and tense way, that’s great”. On the artistic level, we would gain, believes Janine Piguet, who sees through the expertise of a professional an opportunity to create original and well thought out sequences. La Romande, who is herself a director and producer, sees a danger, on the other hand: “This new role must not become one more legal tool to absolve itself of responsibility in the event of rape, even if sexual violence rather occur off the sets.

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Noémie Kocher shares this opinion. She had been one of the rare women, at the beginning of the 2000s, to lift the lead weight weighing on the cinema by filing a complaint against the director Jean-Claude Brisseau. The latter had been sentenced for sexual harassment in 2005. “This situation, extremely violent, had taken place in casting and in rehearsal. On the set, it seems to me that I have always been in front of benevolent people, ”she delivers. On the other hand, let us recall the confession of Alyssa Milano who, in 2019, had testified to a sexual abuse suffered while the camera was rolling.

For Kacey Mottet Klein, if “everyone is protected, on the set and on the production side, it’s a good compromise”. The Vaudois adds that it is necessary “to supervise this environment where there is a lot of admiration, machismo and patriarchy, and where malicious people can easily have a hold on you”.

“Enormous impunity”

Moreover, Noémie Schmidt does not hesitate to display a clear-cut position. For her, the fact that cinema needs intimacy coordinators reveals deep flaws. The Valaisanne says she has experienced significantly more filming “with harassment than without”. She launches: “If we find ourselves faced with concerns about consent, it is because there are concerns about listening. In France, a major problem is that people accused of sexual violence continue to shoot in the studio on the sidelines of their trial. There is enormous impunity.” She thus considers that the commitment of guardians of intimacy would only be a “temporary bandage” placed on a wound which will take time to heal… provided that we are willing to take care of it.

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As we can see, those who aspire to a post-#MeToo remain vigilant. For this new era to come about, the whole representation of sexuality must be rethought. What do we want to tell and how to go about it, with respect for everyone? To be continued…

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In post-#MeToo cinema, guardian angels of consent

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