Re-classification of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives from a certificate 16 to certificate 12 prompts debate.

Having divided critics in Cannes, Nicolas Winding Refn’s ultra-violent thriller Only God Forgives is now dividing France’s ruling Socialist Party.

The picture’s French classification as a certificate 12 has sparked a public spat between former presidential candidate Ségolene Royal and Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti.

Originally rated a certificate 16, the film’s classification was softened to a certificate 12 ahead of its May 22 release, following an appeal by co-distributors Wild Side Films and Le Pacte.

Under the French film classification system, the Minister Of Culture grants certificates on the advice of a 28-person commission.

Royal said in an interview with a current affairs TV show over the weekend that she believed Filippetti had bowed to “pressure from the producers” when she signed off on the modification.

“I regret that Aurélie Filippetti de-classified an ultra-violent film which was originally forbidden for under 16-year-olds,” said Royal. “We can’t contaminate youngsters with scenes of extreme violence.”

Starring Ryan Gosling as a violent Bangkok-based drugs trafficker, Only God Forgives’ Cannes premiere divided critics, prompting at once both boos and five-star reviews.

Even co-star Kristen Scott Thomas, who plays a demonic mother figure, told reporters Only God Forgives was not the sort of film she would normally watch due to the violence.

Filippetti’s cabinet on Monday denied the minister had personally interceded for the re-classification of Only God Forgives.

“The minister at no point intervened to change the visa given by classification commission on April 23 at the first examination,” a cabinet statement said.

She had instead permitted a review of the classification at the request of the distributors and that the commission had then decided to modify the rating to a certificate 12.

“In our appeal letter we pointed out to the minister that Only God Forgives was no more violent than Django Unchained or Rambo 4 which were both given certificate 12s,” Wild Side Films chief Manuel Chiche told Screendaily.

“If the film had been forbidden to under-16s, a number of theatres would have refused to show the film… especially within the mainstream circuits,” he continued. “It’s our job to make the film available to as big an audience as possible… every time you limit the diffusion of a film all you do is encourage piracy.”

Paris-based Wild Side Films is one of France’s edgier distribution companies. Upcoming releases include Jim Mickle’s cannibal picture We Are What We Are and US-Chilean psychological horror title Magic Magic - both of which recently played in Cannes’ Directors Fortnight.  Last year, the company also released Sightseers.

“This is an old debate that comes up periodically in France but if you want to shield youngsters from violence you better ban the internet too,” added Chiche. “To be honest, not many kids go to the cinema by themselves at age 13 or 14 – it’s still down to the parents.”

Opening the picture on 343 screens, Only God Forgives has sold some 360,000 tickets during its first two weeks on release in France.

The French release marks the beginning of the picture’s international rollout. It is due hit screens in a number of territories in mid-July, and the UK in August.

Chiche’s Django Unchained and Rambo 4 argument will hold little sway in the UK. The British Board Of Film Classification (BBFC) gave both pictures a certificate 18. 

“Comparing French and UK classifications might be a bit of a red herring. The UK is a lot stricter in terms of language and our sex and violence policy is tougher,” said BBFC spokesperson Caroline Anderson.

“We can’t comment on this particular film yet because it’s not in the system yet,” she added.

Only God Forgives’ UK distributor Lionsgate UK has yet to submit the film to the BBFC ahead of its August release.

Munich-based Tiberius Film, which will release the film in Germany on Jul 18, is aiming for a certificate 16, a spokesperson said.  A decision is due on Thursday.

In the US, distributor Radius-TWC released a red band trailer for the film in April and the picture will be rated R.