Dutch Sex Wave in the City of Light
Kicking off the steamy Parisian summer season, La Cinémathèque Francaise pays homage to the Dutch Sex Wave in cooperation with the Dutch Embassy and EYE Film Museum. The programme, running from June 6 – 25, offers a selection of groundbreaking films from 1969-1975 representing the new sexual attitudes that arose in the late sixties and which kickstarted the Dutch film industry.
For a long time, The Netherlands was mostly known for its documentaries. Feature films were produced only sporadically and could not compete with foreign productions at the box-office. Change came when the first generation of students from the Netherlands Film Academy eagerly sought to carve out a living in filmmaking.
Among them were Wim Verstappen and Pim de la Parra who, in 1965, joined forces in production outfit Scorpio. Initially their goal was simply to make films, and lots of them. Despite their limited budgets, Scorpio quickly gained notoriety and received praise from no less than Jean-Luc Godard at Cannes in 1967. The erotic short Heart Beat Fresco paved the way for the 1969 feature Obsessions (co-written by a young Martin Scorsese), a psychosexual thriller that became an unexpected hit. The film proved that sex could sell – and to more than sixty five countries in fact. 1971 saw multiple successful Dutch films revolving around explicit displays of sexuality, including Scorpio’s biggest success Blue Movie, which drew in over 2.3 million viewers who witnessed an erection for the first time in a mainstream release. The year also delivered Paul Verhoeven’s first feature film Business is Business that performed even better at the box office. Fons Rademakers’s Mira introduced Willeke van Ammelrooy, who would become the lead actress in many of the Sex Wave films.
Frans Weisz made significant contributions with The Burglar (1972) and Red Sien (1974) – less raunchy than the Scorpio pictures, but with strong sexual motives nonetheless. Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight (1974), starring Rutger Hauer and Monique van de Ven, marks the apex of the Sex Wave. With 3.3 million tickets sold, Turkish Delight remains the most successful Dutch production to date.
The Sex Wave spurred the Dutch industry and proved that it could be competitive at the box-office. Cinemas located near the borders even flourished as special bus lines were organized to bring in several hundreds of thousands of Germans and Belgians coming to see what was censored in their own countries. An open, matter-of-fact display of sexuality on screen became the trademark of Dutch cinema in the early seventies.
“When the birth control pill hit the market around ’65 it caused a mentality shift – people could make love without all the consequences,” comments De la Parra, now living in Suriname. “The films we made then reflected society.” Casual, pre-marital sex for pleasure rather than reproduction became increasingly normal and cinema undoubtedly played a role in lifting taboos. For De la Parra, sexual liberty remains a pertinent issue to this day: “I still believe sexuality is the most repressed human emotion.”
Nevertheless there is some ambivalence to the success of the Sex Wave. Nowadays, it is impossible to watch these films without the sense that they express a male heterosexual gaze. Sylvia Kristel, star of the French 1974 softcore classic Emmanuelle, and Willeke van Ammelrooy have both expressed a dissatisfaction with the fact that their fame was directly proportional to their willingness to appear on screen naked. Van Ammelrooy pointed out that “nudity was solely intended to sell the film,” putting the liberatory dimension of sex on screen into perspective.
The Cinémàtheque Francaise programme therefore highlights these tensions between artistic freedom, commercial success, exploitation, and sexual liberation.
SEE NL Magazine #31 May 2018 / Cannes & Annecy Issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by EYE International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.