Tucked away on Sky Arts, Hard is a chirpy, sly French-language comedy from Canal+ and writer/director Cathy Verney. It takes its cue from high concept, outwardly subversive US shows like Weeds and Hung, that feature well-meaning, law abiding middle class characters forced by circumstances to cross real or imagined boundaries. With a second series already broadcast in France in 2011 and a third on the way, I’d love to see series two air in the UK and the US.
Hard opens with the accidental death of a devoted husband to Sophie (Natacha Lundinger). He’s a businessman and good dad; she’s a lawyer who never practiced. Her contented life in Paris implodes, as she discovers that her husband’s business, Soph’X, is an adult film company in financial trouble.
Sophie’s a prim, repressed caricature of a Catholic wife, whose perfect make-up, extensive collection of twin sets and silk scarves indicate an internalised revulsion for her own bare flesh, never mind anyone else’s: she’s no idea how to react to her teenage daughter’s burgeoning sexuality and her son’s isolation. She recoils at the idea of making Porn and determines to sell Soph’X. Meeting the staff in the first two episodes does little to change her mind – not least since they too are caricature: a sleazy leather-jacket wearing director, luxuriantly mustached Eastern Europeans and cheery deviants.
The female performers are most hackneyed: tragically dead-eyed, lost girls without a scrap of self-awareness – they register as no more than so many sets of enhanced breasts and panting mouths. None are given the time in 30-minute episodes to develop into a character, except for the company’s biggest (sorry) star, Roy the Rod (Francois Vincentelli).
He’s sanguine about the shoddy sets and terrible acting, bright enough to be well aware of what he’s doing. Unlike his fellow actors, he’s ambitious in a way that’s acceptable to a stereoptyped suburbanite like Sophie. Rod’s an aspiring comedian who fell into porn to pay the bills. Still, Sophie is discomfited to learn he enjoys his work – she can’t quite reconcile his affable charm with the fact that he enjoys shagging anonymous Women from behind for money and on camera, while barely dressed in chain-mail and a horned hat.
Roy, by way of unapologetic silver-fox sexiness rather than reasoned argument for sexual liberation, begins to persuade Sophie that taking on the business for rescue would be preferable to its sale. She soon develops ambitions of her own for the company’s future direction: porn for discerning women.
Hard takes the view that porn would work better appealing to (white, educated, straight) middle class women seeking thrills with plots and believable characters, rather than the clichéd creepy trench coat brigade wanking to a bit of simulated girl-on-girl (because they’re the only people who enjoy a skin flick, and men don’t need a little story with the sex now and then, right?). To that end, Soph’X engages an aspiring art-house director and an acting coach who combines Method with the Joey Tribbiani School of Drama. Neither makes a dent in the established culture of straining for the money shot. Instead, Sophie’s abrasive law school friend Mathilde (a fabulous Anne Caillon) makes a startling offer of help, which leads to a business model EL James might but dream of.
In a friendly, non-confrontational way, Hard takes on the exploitative, narrow view of sexuality in porn, though Hard’s particular brand seems innocent relative to the dehumanizing, violent material available online. In its guilt-free message it manages to be more progressive than Sex and The City, which imagines that only straight, conventionally pretty women who want marriage and babies have guilt-free sex, and that anything beyond man plus women equals vanilla-ish sex is an naughty adventure, or an aberration destined to end in misery – see the risible episodes in which Carrie dates a bisexual man, or when Samantha briefly falls in love with a woman.
Even the magnificently self-possessed Samantha has the luxury of money and independence to guard against judgment. She’s also the only character who doesn’t almost always conform to the weird habits female characters on US TV have of drawing the sheets neatly up to their necks while having amazing sex, or posing to best advantage for the male gaze, then rising post-coital in full war paint. As the varying reactions to Girls, and Seth McFarlane’s turn at the Oscars demonstrate, the American entertainment business’ attitude exemplifies a queasy dichotomy: conspicuous consumption alongside tight control of women’s bodies.
While Hard jettisons this particular convention, it reinforces others: it takes a hot man to open Sophie up to her potential as a sexual being post widowhood, while Sophie’s mumsy disapproval prompts Roy to shake up his life. Worth watching for the hilariously bad porn scenarios alone, and the scene in which Sophie’s glamorous mother in law and business manager (Michele Moretti) delivers a crash course in adult film jargon using animal fridge magnets. It’s made empathetic by Lundinger’s portrayal of unfurling confidence, redolent of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance in Secretary, complete with a fourth-wall busting look to camera in its closing minutes. Though derivative and broad in places, Hard has just a little satirical, maybe even feminist, ire to go with its caricature.
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