This past week, the SAC department held a series of panel discussions on queer theory and film, drawing professors from across the country to participate in a discussion of film’s potential to challenge and redefine an audience’s understanding of sexuality. In the spirit of this discussion, the department screened Philippe Vallois’ 1976 film Johan, a film which exemplifies the controversy surrounding the boundary-pushing potential of the entertainment industry.
Johan is a mockumentary, or fake documentary, following a director who’s lead actor and lover has been arrested. Grief stricken at this separation and frustrated by the loss of his film’s star, the director surveys France for a new male actor comfortable with filming scenes containing explicit homosexual content.
A little background—although released in 1976, Johan did not make it into public discourse until decades later due to censorship and controversy. The film is daring and explicit, featuring multiple scenes involving sexual intercourse, between man and woman and man and man. Censors found the material far too offensive to be screened in theaters, and for years, Johan remained an unseen work. Years later, distribution mechanisms such as VHS, DVD, and re-screenings helped gain this film an audience.
The controversy surrounding Johan today involves more than the graphic portrayal of homosexuality. Some viewers highly appreciate the innovative style and bold subject matter of the film, while many others believe the film lacks an engaging plot. They believe Johan’s success is due entirely to controversy—a film that is style over substance, a film which generates controversy for publicity.
Had I seen the film without attending the lecture events, I would have fallen into the latter category of Johan viewers, appreciative of the film’s unique style (one of the first instances of mockumentary, the fake documentary style. A blend of color footage and black and white) but unhappy with the lack of an engaging plot and dramatic resolution. After considering film’s potential to influence public thought, I see Johan as a far more impressive work of art. Contextually, the film is a subversive attempt to redefine sexuality and ethics.
To understand Johan in an historical context, consider what the act of watching a film in the theater. For approximately two hours, a group of people walk into a dark room and stare at a series of moving images, contrived by a director to deliver not only entertainment, but also ideas about what the world is and what it ought to be. According to this idea, watching a film is like participating in a dream, seeing a new vision for the world.
Johan is a radical re-envisioning of social norms. Drawing on explicit sex scenes and portrayals of homosexuality, the film forces audiences to face a reality repressed—the fact that homosexuality and heterosexuality are both basic libidinal impulses. This is Vallois’ dream, and the affect of mockumentary helps not only to comment on society, but on the relationship between media and social norms. The director’s anguish and struggle to find the right actor demonstrates the conservative, repressed society that was 1976 Europe. In direct contrast to the portrayal of contemporary society is Vallois’ dream—a society where all forms of sexuality can be expressed freely. Films like Johan are powerful tools to redefine socially accepted behavior. There can be no change without a radical idea.