Comparing The BBFC And The MPAA, And How Antichrist Illustrates The Differences

On Friday, the BBFC announced their classification for Lars von Trier's Antichrist and it became an instant news story that the film was to be released fully uncut in the UK. Indeed, Russ Fischer wrote /Film's report on the matter. For greater context, however, I want to provide a discussion of how the BBFC work, how this is different (and to my mind, better) than the MPAA, and some very specific details of the Antichrist ruling. It is safe to proceed beyond the break, though those of you wary of Antichrist spoilers will want to opt out at the BIG SHOUTY warning below.

The MPAA rating system is, for what it's worth, voluntary. This amounts to very little, of course, because there's hardly any cinemas in the US that will screen an unrated movie, at least outside of festivals. In commercial terms, the MPAA rating seems all but essential. In the UK, the BBFC rating system is mandatory for all films given a wide release to either cinemas or on any form of home video. Of course, there's a loophole which means local councils can grant permission for films without certification to be played in their area to over 18s, or for that matter, for films with certificates to be banned from playing in the region.

The BBFC have a range of options available when classifying films, and many of them are similar to those of the MPAA while just a couple are crucially different. The BBFC's U certificate is like the G, we both have PG, we in the UK have a 12A which equates roughly to PG-13... and then the systems diverge.

In the MPAA system, the remaining two options are an R rating and an NC-17. The R rating permits children under 17 only when accompanied by a guardian of over 21; the NC-17 prohibits any viewer under 17 at all. Do note that an NC-17 film is unlikely to get anything like a wide scale release. In the UK, the BBFC have 15 and 18 certificates, each of which prohibits the admission of anybody under the given age.

Unlike the NC-17 rating in the US, cinema chains across the UK are happy to screen 18 certificate films. There is no way you could call an 18 badge "the kiss of death", as many have done for NC-17.

Just a couple of examples to illustrate the point: In the US, one could take a seven year old in to see Hostel, whereas in the UK only those aged 18 were ever allowed to attend; Eyes Wide Shut was released completely uncut in UK cinemas, where US screenings featured only an altered version with CG props and obstructions placed about the orgy scene to hide some 'action'.

It would seem that the MPAA are rather touchy about sex and sexuality, but aren't too fussed about relatively strong acts of violence whereas the BBFC consider that acts of violence and sex, even unfaked and explicit sex, are acceptable for movies certificated for adults, but not really appropriate for kids. Somehow, the BBFC classification teams have a reputation as being hardball players but they really aren't anything of the kind – they actually release almost everything uncut. Infer from those details what you will about the gulf between UK and US society.

Lars von Trier's infamous psycho shocker Antichrist seems to be the latest, perhaps greatest, demonstration of these differences. While the film is due to get a very limited run in an NC-17 cut, the full UK release will be uncensored. Here come the HARD SPOILERS that will detail the BBFC's precise reasons for their certification decision.


The film was classified '18' for strong real sex, bloody violence and self-mutilation.

At '18', the BBFC's Guidelines state that the more explicit images of sexual activity are unlikely to be permitted unless they can be exceptionally justified by context and the work is not a 'sex work'. A 'sex work' is defined as a work whose 'primary purpose is sexual arousal or stimulation'. It is clear that Antichrist is not a 'sex work' but a serious drama exploring issues such as grief, loss, guilt and fear. The brief images of explicit real sex (sight of a penis penetrating a vagina during a consensual sex scene and sight of the man's penis being masturbated to climax) are exceptionally justified, in this context, by the manner in which they illustrate the film's themes and the nature of the couple's relationship. Their relationship is depicted throughout in a graphic and unflinching fashion, both psychologically and physically. The BBFC has permitted comparable explicit images in a number of previous features at the '18' level (eg L'Empire Des Sens, 9 Songs, Shortbus and Lars von Trier's earlier film, The Idiots) where it has been clear that the purpose of the work – and the individual images in question – is not simply to arouse viewers but to illustrate characters, relationships and themes.

Antichrist also contains two scenes showing violence towards genitals or genital mutilation. In one case, the man's genitals are hit heavily (although this is not shown on screen), resulting in sight of blood in his semen when he ejaculates. In the other case, the distraught woman cuts off her own clitoris using a pair of scissors. This act of self-mutilation is shown in close up, although the image is only on screen for a few seconds. The shot in question exceeds the BBFC's Guidelines at '15', where 'the strongest gory images are unlikely to be acceptable' and where 'violence may be strong but may not dwell on the infliction of pain or injury'. Even at '18' the BBFC recognises that the scene will be shocking and offensive to some viewers. However, the Board is aware of no evidence to suggest that the viewing of this scene is likely to be harmful to adults. The scene is not presented in an eroticised or attractive manner and is not likely to encourage emulation or arousal. Accordingly, the scene is acceptable at '18' where, in line with the consistent findings of the BBFC's public consultations, the BBFC's Guideline concerns will not normally override the wish that adults should be free to chose their own entertainment, within the law.

The film contains other examples of strong violence, including a scene in which the woman drills a hole through the man's leg with a bit and brace before bolting a large grindstone to the injured limb. Once again, although the scene exceeds the rubric of the '15' Guidelines, it was not felt to be harmful to adult viewers. The film also contains scenes of strong simulated sex, including female masturbation. These scenes exceed the '15' Guideline test that 'Sexual activity may be portrayed but without strong detail' but are acceptable at the '18' level.

Antichrist also includes a single use of strong language.

This work was passed with no cuts made.

And I'm so glad it was. I have to say, Antichrist is one of my most eagerly anticipated films in a very long time and to see it (or, for that matter, any other film) bowdlerised for commerical purposes would have left me quite disgusted.