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Fox Searchlight Pictures is daring to challenge the NC-17 taboo. The specialty films division of 20th Century Fox said Monday it will release the uncut version of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, marking the first time in more than six years that a studio belonging to the Motion Picture Association of America has distributed a film rated NC-17, a tag that generally means commercial death. The last time a major studio ventured into NC-17 territory was in 1997, when MGM released Bent, which documented the plight of gays under Nazism. The Dreamers, which will be rolled out in platform release starting February 6 in New York and Los Angeles, contains graphic sexual content and full frontal male nudity. Bertolucci said in a statement: "The Dreamers is finally making it to the U.S. in its uncut version. I'm relieved--in so many ways--that the distributor has had the vision to release my original film. After all, an orgasm is better than a bomb." Set against the political backdrop of France in the spring of 1968, the film centers on the relationship of three students, played by Eva Green, Louis Garrel, and Michael Pitt. Left alone while their parents are on holiday, Isabelle (Green) and her brother Theo (Garrel) invite Matthew (Pitt), a young American, to stay at their apartment. There, they make their own rules as they experiment with their emotions and sexuality while playing a series of increasingly demanding mind games. In making the decision to roll out the NC-17-rated version, Fox Searchlight distribution president Steve Gilula said company brass "looked carefully at the historical evidence on the rating." "We found that it's largely unused and mostly dormant," he said. "There are films with similar content that get played as unrated movies, so by using this rating you are just testing audiences' perception. And we found that the rating doesn't carry as much baggage as it did some time ago." Movies in recent years that have earned the rating include such indie titles as L.I.E., Crash, and Requiem for a Dream and studio releases Henry and June and Showgirls. But studios have often insisted that their specialty divisions steer clear of the NC-17 rating because many in the industry believe that some newspapers will not carry advertising for such films and some theater chains will not play them. Miramax, a division of the Walt Disney Co., had to abandon plans to distribute Kids, which was released unrated through Shining Excalibur Films, a separate company set up to handle its rollout. And Universal Pictures refused to allow its October Films arm to release Happiness in 1998; it was distributed instead by indie firm Good Machine. Gilula said Fox Searchlight has not yet encountered any problems with theaters agreeing to play the movie or newspapers agreeing to carry advertising. He said executives at his company were dedicated to allowing Bertolucci's vision for the project to remain intact. "This is a filmmaker who has a history of dealing with daring and provocative subject matter that tests the limits in film," Gilula said of Bertolucci, whose previous works include Last Tango in Paris, The Conformist, Stealing Beauty, and Before the Revolution. A success in 1973, Bertolucci's Last Tango was originally released with an X rating, which predated the MPAA's current adults-only rating, the NC-17. "It's a film of serious subject matter that is very entertaining and deserves to be seen in the form that he intended by appropriate audiences," Gilula said of Dreamers. Searchlight is prepared to unspool the film in more than 100 theaters, Gilula said, but will take it wider depending on the public's response. "The Dreamers provocatively explores human sexuality in a frank way," Fox Searchlight president Peter Rice said in a statement. "By releasing the film as Bernardo originally intended, we are following in the footsteps of classic films like Midnight Cowboy and Last Tango in Paris. We believe that NC-17 is the appropriate rating for The Dreamers, given that this is not a film for children under 17; it is an audacious and original film for intelligent critics and discerning adult audiences." Sundance Film Festival attendees will have a chance to see Bertolucci's The Dreamers when the film makes its North American premiere in Park City, Utah, on January 20.