“It is very difficult to tie somebody up,” explains Catherine Breillat without a hint of irony, thoughtfully sipping espresso in a suite high above West Hollywood at the Bel Age Hotel. “First, you need a lot of rope. And you must have a very fine sense of drawing — you really have to concentrate.” The urgency in her voice suggests that bondage is the most pressing matter on the planet, and for all you know she may be right: The 51-year-old filmmaker and novelist takes no question lightly and answers none flippantly, least of all the ones about men, women, sex and power. Listening to her speak — at such a clip that her interpreter, Berenice Reynaud, works almost athletically to keep pace — you can‘t help but be swayed by the force and weight of her words, even when the subject is as simple as knots.
In a scene from Breillat’s new film, a stare-down with female sexuality called Romance, a schoolteacher, Marie (Caroline Ducey), allows herself to be bound with white rope and handcuffs by one of her three lovers, the principal of her school, Robert (Francois Berleand). Far from the kind of familiar storybook S&M full of leather and apparatus, the scene plays like the first run-through of a religious ritual: awkward, slightly comic and, at the same time, solemn. “I demonstrated the kind of tying I wanted on my assistant,” Breillat recounts. “Then I told Francois, ‘Look, you have to re-create Mondrian’s cross; you have to reach some level of purity. You have to draw some lines, and they have to be very straight.‘ The scene was very long and painful for Caroline, so out of respect for her he had to do it as quickly as possible. And I shot it the first time, without a rehearsal. I told the D.P., ’It‘s okay — I want to shoot it as it’s happening.‘ I did not want it to be academic.”
For all Breillat’s eloquence, her explanations dense with theory and obsession with getting things right, she is herself surprisingly unacademic. Her reasons for making movies are more visceral and personal than didactic or political: “I wanted the right to look at myself in the mirror without shame,” she says. To achieve that — to, in short, strip sex of its shame — Breillat believes, you must peel away romantic cliche to reveal what some might consider less admirable reality. Certain critics have objected that no woman would behave as promiscuously as Marie does in Romance, but Breillat insists that such denials only intensify a woman‘s shame. “The reason I am showing this is to show that if you are a woman, there is no reason for you to be ashamed of behaving this way.” Predictably, she has elicited a certain degree of scorn her entire career — even her first novel, which she wrote in 1968 at the age of 17, was banned to readers her own age. She waited eight years after her 1979 film Tapage Nocturne to make another, and when she did — 36 Fillette in 1987 — she provoked the very same beasts of morality to rise up against her: 36 Fillette concerns a 14-year-old girl’s determined quest to lose her virginity.
It‘s not that Breillat is looking for trouble. She’s looking for truth, and truth as she sees it means lingering on imagery some people find revolting: Romance features a lingering close-up of a baby‘s head erupting from its mother’s bloody vagina; her 1976 debut, Une Vraie Jeune Fille, includes a shot showing pieces of worm wiggling in a girl‘s pubic hair. That film was banned in France. Trimark Pictures will distribute Romance without a rating in the United States, which seems not only a fair decision but a necessary one. It’s hard to imagine what the ratings board would make of a movie in which a woman holds forth about the ignobility of a thin penis while her lover (this time, Paolo, played by sufficiently thick-membered Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi) prepares for penetration. It‘s more mind-boggling still to consider how it might interpret repeated scenes in which a pregnant Marie undergoes gynecological examinations by an entire class of medical students.
“Obscenity is an aesthetic value, not a moral value,” Breillat insists. “And aesthetic values fluctuate depending on who is trying to be dominant in the culture. We have to think hard about the fact that every part of a woman that we cover comes to be regarded as obscene — that it’s enough to cover a woman‘s head to make it become obscene.” Removing those chadors, wigs and gynecological sheets, she believes, is essential to reclaiming the sacredness of women and sex.
For a woman whose six novels and seven films have all been devoted to uncompromisingly graphic explorations of sexuality, Breillat is remarkably wholesome, from her fresh-scrubbed, blue-eyed looks — her round face and rosy complexion remind me more of an outdoorsy Midwesterner than a chic Frenchwoman — to her deliberately theological word choices. Talking to her about sex feels no more shameful than asking a priest about the meaning of Catholic rituals, and in fact, in many ways, it feels the same. She describes Marie as “radiant” in the moment of orgasm, she says, “because I want to use the vocabulary of mysticism. I want to show that sex is a door that allows us to access the sacred.” She rails against the split between sacred and sexual selves imposed on women when guilt is attached to sex: “Cutting a woman in half, as monotheistic religions do, reduces a woman to being just an object of lust — only when sex is pure again, can women be whole.”
She questioned that split in her 1991 film Sale Comme un Ange (Dirty Like an Angel), in which a woman regarded by her philandering husband as too pure and perfect embarks on an affair with her husband’s boss — a man 20 years her senior, and, like Marie‘s Robert, ugly, too. (Breillat is fascinated by the desire of a beautiful woman to sleep with ugly men.) In Romance, Marie embarks on her sexual adventures after the boyfriend she loves and lives with tells her he has lost his desire for her and thereby splits her sexuality from her intellect and spirit, which he claims still to love. Only in bondage are her selves brought together again. But it’s a grueling ordeal. The binding of Marie ultimately ends with her lying on the bed, shuddering in anguish, her pantyhose wound down around her thighs and her bewildered and apologetic tormentor trying to comfort her. “I‘m so sorry,” he murmurs tenderly. “I thought I could go far with you!”
“I had to shoot several takes of that moment,” Breillat says, “because in the beginning, Caroline would just cry in the usual way, like any other actress. I wanted her to cry like a baby. So I said, ’Caroline, it‘s not enough; I want people to be deeply moved by your crying. I want you to cry like a child, because a child is pure.’ Marie is becoming pure again, you see — that‘s what bondage does; that’s the paradox of this moment. I told her, ‘It’s not enough, because your sobbing stops. I want something else — the kind of sobbing that does not stop.‘ She said, ’Yes, I get it,‘ and then, suddenly, she did. Finally, she did it. She gave me the kind of sobbing that does not stop.”
This central tenet of hers — that sexual acts, from straightforward intercourse to S&M, can be transfiguring — is a notion that runs contrary to much of Western social morality, “which has built upon taboo to give us the idea that sexuality is degrading,” she says. “Even porno movies do not take into account that orgasm takes us beyond ourselves, that it is a state that is physically transcendent. But I think it is the duty of cinema to film that transfiguration, which happens both on the inside, where it is invisible, and which also bursts out.”
Gratefully, the people who fund movies are no longer so afraid of Breillat’s fulfilling that duty, nor is she as alone as she once was among women with such subversive missions: “In the last two years, a lot of women in France have started to make movies — movies about this very subject, and also extremely violent movies, full of sexuality.” Still, they differ from what men make: “Men like to put things in boxes. Women are very complex, contradictory beings,” Breillat argues. “They exist between two levels, between pure exaltation and debasement. We are capable of seeing a thing and its opposite as being true at the same time. I think I know how to speak to women. I tell them things that they realize are true, and they‘re very happy to discover that truth.” Even men, she notes, have begun to progress toward accepting such truths. “I have been happily surprised that men, especially in Europe, have not reacted as if the movie was set against them. For me, it’s better if a man looks at this not as a war but as a journey. A journey,” she says, “in the country of women.”