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Porn has been around from start of film

Published Nov. 13, 1996|Updated Sep. 17, 2005

Amid the hullabaloo over the first hundred years of cinema, one crucial aspect has been forgotten: The first public film screening took place in December 1895. Before the year was up, man was making porn.

The dusty, hintingly lusty pictures are from the last surviving two minutes of Le Coucher de la Mariee (Bedtime for the Bride), discovered in the vaults of the French Film Archives.

First screened in Paris in November 1896, it's an erotic parody of a farce of the same name which ran that year at the city's Olympia theater.

No doubt due to man's desire to get straight down to business, and because of the fragility of nitrate film, only the foreplay has survived. The copiously-dressed female star, Louise Willy, is barely down to her petticoat when the perforations run out on the reel.

Time has protected her "husband's" virtue even better. Not only is the name not known of the actor throwing furtive glances at Willy from behind a screen, in the surviving frames he doesn't remove a stitch of clothing and spends several seconds pretending to read a newspaper.

Shot, as was the tradition, on a theater set, Le Coucher de la Mariee is the work of Eugene Pirou, who saw to it that he was remembered respectably as "the photographer of kings" (he made his name filming the czar's visit to Paris in February 1897).

To serious French film connoisseurs, Pirou is the forgotten pioneer of an era for which the Lumiere brothers stole all the fame after they screened 10 short reels of film at the Grand Cafe in Paris on Dec. 28, 1895.

At the Centre National de la Cinematographie, an abandoned military fort near Paris where the film is stored along with 160,000 others in concrete vaults, an excited archivist said: "It is about time Pirou was given some credit. What a shame that it should be for a porn film."

Technician Daniel Courbet had never seen a reel in such bad condition. "I am sending this to be restored," he said. "If it sits any longer in its box, it will turn to treacle. That is what happens to nitrate film."

He estimated that the film's length had been seven to eight minutes and speculated that the stars probably never got down to business even in the complete version.

Film historians have proved prudish about recording the development of the erotic movie. Most consider the first pornographic film to have been A l'Ecu d'Or (also known as La Bonne Auberge), which was made in 1908 _ after the first Pathe newsreels but before the first Western feature film.

Henri Gigoux, a French journalist who organizes a festival of underground films every year, has produced a documentary about the history of pornographic films. Un Siecle de Plaisir (A Century of Pleasure) was recently broadcast in the late-night porn slot on the French cable channel, Canal Plus.

"I had no idea about Le Coucher de la Mariee," he said. "The first porn footage I found was an animated film from 1915, Comic's Porno. But I'm not surprised it exists. There is a tremendous amount of prudishness over the subject. At Canal Plus, several people refused to work with me or give me information for the documentary."

Among the highlights of Un Siecle de Plaisir is Consultorio de Senoras (The Women's Consulting Room), commissioned in 1926 by King Alphonso XIII of Spain.

"The development of the genre was mainly influenced by legislation and by the development of equipment," Gigoux said. "From 1933, porn films became more interesting and grew in number because the portable camera had arrived and brothels were showing them.

"Nowadays, of course, the video camera has revolutionized the industry _ everyone is making a porn film, and there is new stuff coming on CD-ROM."

He said pornographic output in France had suffered a decline after the closure of brothels in 1947. Conversely, quality improved because rich people commissioned them in the 1950s for private screenings. The current trend, however, is for low quality because porn is almost entirely confined to video.

Gigoux said legislation in different countries had favored porn production at various times. "Denmark was the first country to legalize pornographic films in 1969, followed by America in 1972 and France in 1975. Britain and Ireland are the only countries in Europe with legislation banning X-rated films.

"If I took a videocassette of my documentary to London, I would be breaking British decency laws. But Britain is now Europe's leading producer of porn _ dozens of actors and directors are making their first steps in their professions thanks to porn for export."

If the French consider cinema the seventh art form, is porn part of it? Gigoux wasn't so sure.

"On one hand, you have names like Man Ray cropping up, but overall it is just about lust," he said. "Of all the porn films I have seen, only one . . . includes the line "I love you'."