To say the NC-17 rating has fallen short of its ambitions is like saying the Marquis de Sade might have had a bit of a dirty mind. Launched 23 years ago with high hopes that, as a designation of explicit but sophisticated fare, it could break the porn stigma of the X, the NC-17-soon lost all credibility. These days, studio movies get chopped down so they can wriggle in under the R, or if they’re independent films that don’t need to be rated, they just go out unrated, as we explored in this story last year.

One of the reasons the NC-17 has become so irrelevant is that theaters are extremely reluctant to show movies with the rating. That prompts filmmakers and studios to do anything they can to avoid it. It’s hard enough to get screens as it is; who wants to appeal to a booker with one strike against them? 

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The biggest (and most principled) opponent in the theater realm has been Cinemark. The country’s third-largest chain, based in Plano, Texas, has an official policy against showing any movie rated NC-17. (The other chains have various informal policies but nothing written in stone.)

So it was noteworthy Wednesday when the Patch news site reported that “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” the explicit but upscale French lesbian love story that's rated NC-17, would in fact be shown in a Cinemark theater. Bookers for a theater (singular — it was just one, in Evanston, Ill.) were set to play the movie this weekend.

“It’s strictly a one-theater test that we’re trying with this film and this theater,” Cinemark marketing manager Frank Gonzales told the site. “There’s no overall policy change at Cinemarks across the country.”

The Cinemark policy has always seemed a little silly, if not downright problematic. Any official ban on an entire category of film should stir some discomfort. But it’s more than that.

Enacting a ban for a rating whose intent was to remove some of the tawdriness associated with any adult-oriented film seems to miss the point. Cinemark wants, presumably, to keep hard-core material out of its theaters. But by banning NC-17 movies outright instead of making a more flexible, case-by-case determination, it doesn’t keep out inappropriate material. It just ensures that a lot of inappropriate material gets slightly less inappropriate and jammed in as a very hard R, a movie rating Cinemark of course regularly shows.

And because an R is a lot easier to get into than an NC-17 — hello, older brother — the amount of inappropriate content that actually passes in front of the eyes of children is in fact higher than if there were a legitimate adult rating that would allow all those hard Rs to bump up to an NC-17, which theaters like Cinemark could then cordon off and monitor as needed..  

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It’s not clear exactly what the “test” is with “Blue." Is it to see if there are mass protests? It's hard to imagine that large groups of people, in this age of readily available explicitness on the Internet and elsewhere, will get in a lather about one French-language upscale drama playing on one screen.

Or is it to see whether the movie does well? If that’s the case, then, well, what was the NC-17 ban for in the first place? We have a ban, but if a film is popular, well, so much for that. The Times reached out to a Cinemark spokesman, but a call wasn’t returned.

Even with all this, the news is encouraging. The most basic conclusion is that it shows a (slight) loosening in standards for a conservative movie chain. But maybe more important is the effect moves like this could have on the rating itself.

“Blue Is the Warmest Color” is exactly the kind of film that proponents of a more legitimate adult designation argue there need to be more of. It's won the Palme d’Or, scores of critical raves and the endorsement of Steven Spielberg. IFC, which is releasing the movie, could have gone unrated. But it went (for reasons of courage or marketing), with the NC-17. (At its own theater in New York, incidentally, it said it would not enforce the rating, its own little shot across the bows at the NC-17 and the MPAA.) By releasing it this way, the company might finally make a small dent in the NC-17 stigma, showing theaters and consumers that an NC-17 doesn't mean a movie is automatically a bottom-feeding porn extravaganza, but could also be a complex, interesting drama that also has some strong sexual situations.

In explaining the move to Patch, Gonzales said he couldn’t explain exactly why the exception was being made. “It just happens to be the right movie at the right time,” he said. Here’s hoping.

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