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(Credit: Vincent Gallo Productions)

Film

Revisiting Vincent Gallo and Chloë Sevigny's notoriously important film 'The Brown Bunny'

'The Brown Bunny' - Vincent Gallo
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Vincent Gallo’s 2003 film, The Brown Bunny, is one of the most controversial films ever released. Featuring the notorious scene towards the end of the picture in which Chloë Sevigny, acting as the dream-like Daisy, performs unsimulated fellatio on Gallo’s opaque protagonist, Bud Clay, as soon as it premiered at Cannes Film Festival in May that year, it shocked audiences. 

A road movie shot on 16mm then expanded to 35mm to give it that “old-school grain”, The Brown Bunny was always intended as a piece of art, even if off-screen, the man behind it, Vincent Gallo, is of questionable political opinions and has a rather inflated view of himself. You’ve got to give it to him and Sevigny, though, the film was way ahead of its time, and in terms of aesthetic and essence, it took the mantle from the films of Andy Warhol and John Waters. 

A marvellously hazy ode to isolation and heartbreak – but at the same time a frank discussion of abuse – the film has aged well. It’s almost as if the time it has taken society to mature between 2003 and now has done a lot for the film.

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Audiences aren’t so highly strung as they were 18 years ago, and although The Brown Bunny wasn’t the first film to have such a “shocking” scene, as Waters’ Pink Flamingos had a similar one, it seems as if society is more comfortable in seeing the film for what it is, taking that scene in the proper context. The #MeToo movement and the proliferation of the internet have also helped it to find its true place in popular culture.

Famously, Gallo got into a heated spat with lauded critic Roger Ebert after the Cannes showing. To put it into context, reports of the film being heckled and leered at were topped off by the fact that every time Gallo’s name appeared on the credits, the crowd jeered in disgust. The reaction to the film was so negative, in fact, that Seiichi Tsukada, an executive at Kinetique, the company who financed the film, said: “I was at Cannes. I felt injustice. The bashing in Cannes is not for Brown Bunny. I think they’re bashing Vincent. I don’t know why”.

Roger Ebert wrote that The Brown Bunny was the worst film in the history of Cannes, to which Gallo retorted by labelling Ebert a “fat pig with the physique of a slave trader”. Ebert then extended the surreal war of words by modifying a quote of Winston Churchill’s. He said dramatically: “It is true that I am fat, but one day I will be thin, and he will still be the director of The Brown Bunny“. 

Then it got even weirder. Gallo being, well, Gallo, claimed to have put a hex on Ebert’s colon, cursing the veteran critic with cancer. The quick-witted Ebert had another parry up his sleeve, though. He said that watching a video of his colonoscopy had been more entertaining than watching The Brown Bunny. After the notorious spat, Gallo reaffirmed his position and claimed that the ‘hex’ had actually been placed on Ebert’s prostate, but that he intended it as a joke, and that it was misconstrued by a journalist. He also said that that he found Ebert’s colonoscopy quip to a brilliant comeback.

The furore around The Brown Bunny confirmed one thing; it is a true art film. It shocked and offended some, and was lapped up by others. An underrated modern gem, it was praised by some of the most celebrated filmmakers around, including Jean-Luc Goddard, John Waters and Sean Penn. Even Werner Herzog loved it, describing it as “the best portrayal of the particular loneliness a man feels”.

Aware of its nature as an art film, and effortlessly cool, Sevigny told The Associated Press not long after the film’s release, “I knew people would not understand it”. She explained: “When you see the film, it makes more sense. It’s an art film. It should be playing in museums. It’s like an Andy Warhol movie”.

For understandable reasons and the way that the scene is hugely intimate, for anyone other than Sevigny, it would have ruined their career or personal lives. But she used it to her strengths. Although Sevigny has claimed at points that it strained some interpersonal relationships, it seems as if on the whole, Sevigny’s career benefited from the scene. It was a could not give a fuck moment, and that is Sevigny to a tee, the queen of cool.

(Credit: Vincent Gallo Productions)

In the January 2011 issue of Playboy, she explained: “What’s happened with that is all very complicated. There are a lot of emotions. I’ll probably have to go to therapy at some point. But I love Vincent. The film is tragic and beautiful, and I’m proud of it and my performance. I’m sad that people think one way of the movie, but what can you do? I’ve done many explicit sex scenes, but I’m not that interested in doing any more. I’m more self-aware now and wouldn’t be able to be as free, so why even do it?”. Frequently asked about the film and the scene, in 2017, she explained that she decided to do it to push back against her growing level of fame at the time.

At the Provincetown Film Festival, when promoting her directorial debut, Kitty, Sevigny told IndieWire: “I think it was a way of kind of reclaiming myself, which sounds odd, but after the celebrity and stuff, being like: ‘No, that’s not who I am, I’m this other thing, and this is what I stand for.’ Or wanting to push the envelope”. 

A challenging film dealing with tough topics, in the age of the #MeToo movement where personal ownership is a hot topic, The Brown Bunny is more pertinent than it was back then. Artfully beautiful and artfully challenging, it’s a dense film that you can take a lot from. Arguably Gallo’s finest moment, to gain the love of filmmakers such as Herzog and Goddard, he must have done something right.

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