At the Cannes Film Festival press conference for Gaspar Noé’s Love, the director suggested folks should fly to Paris to see it if the sexually explicit film ended up banned in their home countries. As it turns out, the movie will now be playing in far fewer Parisian theaters than previously expected. Love, an erotic 3D melodrama that was an Official Selection in Cannes, has been at the heart of a controversy over its age rating for the past few weeks. The situation has now stirred up debate on the ratings system as a whole and questions of freedom of expression.

Love was originally stamped with a -16 — the equivalent of an R — and then began its theatrical run on July 15. Now, almost three weeks later, its restriction has been bumped up to -18, aka an NC-17, in what is believed to be a first for a film in current release. In the States, it would almost certainly be stamped NC-17 or go out unrated given the graphic depictions. (Alchemy acquired the movie in Cannes and is understood to be planning a November release that includes VOD.) The judge who changed the rating said the repetition and significance of non-simulated sex scenes could “offend the sensibility of minors,” Le Monde reported.

France is usually a bit more relaxed when it comes to sex (Blue Is The Warmest Color and Fifty Shades Of Grey were rated -12, and Nymphomaniac I was -16, as was Noé’s own sexually violent Irreversible), but there’s a conservative attorney who’s been increasingly rattling the cages over what he deems too much, and he was involved in the Love reversal. Ratings are suggested by a Classification Commission within the national cinema body, the CNC. The Culture Minister then has the last word. When the Commission came back on Love with a -16, minister Fleur Pellerin exercised her right to ask for a second viewing. The film then got its -16, but was again revisited with Paris’ Administrative Court on Monday this week suspending its exhibition visa and switching the rating to -18. In the aftermath of the decision, Love producer, and Noé’s longtime collaborator Vincent Maraval tweeted:

“In France, love is now forbidden for under 18s.”

Maraval tells me the next step is for Pellerin to request an appeal to the State Council. In the meantime, the impact on the film remains to be seen. It will certainly play in fewer cinemas. Maraval says it’s espcially disruptive for the 2D release which Wild Bunch had planned to expand. It’s currently on 33 screens nationwide and has sold about 27K tickets. TV broadcasts will be limited and the age limit is also likely to incite those restricted from seeing it to pirate it instead. But there are also bigger issues here, especially in a country that values its freedom of expression so highly and which saw it so devastatingly attacked earlier this year.

gaspar noeWriters, directors and producers org ARP has wondered what legitimacy the Classification Commission has “when its opinions are now routinely called into question and reversed by judges?”

Recently, a rating for Saw 3D was changed to NC-17, nearly five years after its release. Behind that was attorney André Bonnet (aka Patrice André) who appealed the Love rating call, as well as those on such films as Virginie Despentes’ Baise-Moi, Universal’s Fifty Shades Of Grey, Cannes Palme d’Or winner Blue Is The Warmest Color and Lars von Trier’s two Nymphomaniac films. Maraval on Monday tweeted cheekily: “So now Patrice André is the man who decides movie ratings.” Bonnet/André claims to represent a conservative values group called Promouvoir, but many have questioned its actual existence. Maraval tells me, “It’s a fake association that’s really just one person who relies on an old text to systematically attack the Minister’s visas, asking the Administrative Court to annul them.”

Noé for his part this week told Libération, “It’s nonsense. A similar restriction, to under 16s which I thought fit, was in place, and a restruction to under 18s had been refused. And then, everything changes because of the intervention of Patrice André, this lawyer from the far right who is nothing more than a frustrated man who wants to come to the party but can’t… What really upsets me is that because of this kind of thing, directors or producers might become frightened. There’s a risk that filmmakers or writers start censoring themselves.”

Maraval accused André/Bonnet of taking the classification system “hostage” and told AlloCiné that the board no longer has a reason to exist because “this fundamentalist regularly flouts it. The minister is useless… And we who are in the middle of this improvisation have to ask ourselves if we can continue to distribute the movies we want to in France.”

For his part, and speaking as Bonnet, the attorney shared his position with AlloCiné today, saying the -18 rating for Love was simply a matter of the applicable law being used. He called some of the scenes “objectively degrading” and accused “unscrupulous directors” of wanting to “reintroduce pornography to mass audiences.” Incidentally, Deadline’s Pete Hammond noted during Cannes that a scene featuring a bodily discharge aimed directly at the audience (recall the film is in 3D) didn’t even cause a ripple in the room.

The influential filmmakers association, ARP, chimed in on the affair, suggesting the role and power of the Classification Commission be revisited. It noted, “Our society has nothing to win by being the exclusive terrain of conservatism and puritanism. The ‘moralization’ of works — an intimate friend of censorship — is a dangerous game that has weakened all nations it’s tempted. The filmmakers of ARP remain convinced that poetry, however sexual it is, made by a fimmaker — in this case Gaspar Noé — will be a better educational source than the porn debauchery permanently available on the internet.”