French director Catherine Breillat has a dirty mind, the sort that usually gets women into trouble, jail or the bitch house, and only sometimes into the approving public eye. The relatively obscure French novelist and filmmaker, who‘s been letting her female demons out to howl for three tumultuous decades, has a mind that teems with the sort of filth women are supposed to discreetly hide away — with sanitary pads, strawberry douches, dainty white panties, and orchestrated moans and postcoital sighs. Nothing if not ironic — deeply, bitterly, even a bit comically — the title of her latest film is Romance, and, needless to say, it has nothing to do with candlelight dinners, sunset walks on the beach, Venus or Mars.
Not that Breillat’s bony heroine doesn‘t sometimes seem like a chick from another planet, or at least an entirely foreign film. Marie (Caroline Ducey) is a schoolteacher whose boyfriend, Paul (Sagamore Stevenin), refuses to sleep with her. The film opens with Paul, dressed like a matador, having foundation applied to his alpine cheekbones, a gambit that elegantly tips Breillat’s ideas on intractable male narcissism. A model, Paul has lost all sexual interest in Marie but refuses to explain why. He sleeps in his underwear (“They keep my balls warm”) and pushes her away reproachfully (“There‘s more to life than that”), content to let TV gymnastics lull him to sleep. Confused and distraught, Marie feels the rejection to her core, convinced that the reason he won’t bed her is because he hates that she‘s a woman. And, as far as her writer-director is concerned, she’s right.
In most movies, Marie would soon be wielding a knife or some ghastly self-help truism, drying her tears with cliche, but since this is a Breillat film, she‘s soon fucking and sucking her way to her authentic self. Marie begins by taking a lover, Paolo, a stranger she picks up late one night at a bar. In the film’s neat schema, Marie is loved by Paul, who refuses to fuck her, and fucked by Paolo, who doesn‘t know how to love her. Since Paul refuses to give her love and sex both, Marie has opted to divide herself between men — giving herself emotionally to Paul but erotically to Paolo. Furthering this schema, Paul is dark, slight and modestly endowed, while Paolo is blond, well-sculpted and played by the European porn star Rocco Siffredi, a professional of majestic stamina.
But when Paolo kisses Marie, opening himself up to love, she rejects him. Her obsession is with Paul, and it’s her frustrated, angry desire for him that keeps her on course. Soon after disposing of Paolo, she has anonymous sex in a stairwell, paying a passerby to eat her out. Her stockings pushed around her ankles, her head thrown back, the stranger lapping between her open legs — the image is scandalous, but, like much of this movie, feels tepid. It‘s not that Breillat isn’t interested in heating up Romance; she just doesn‘t want the film to boil over, or at least not often or overly much, in part because too much frisson would distract from her greater point. To that end, Breillat initially adapts a cool, neutral style that’s reflected in Marie‘s beige-and-milk-colored ensembles, the austere decor of her and Paul’s bedroom, even the unadorned mise en scene and discreet camera work. Breillat wants to turn us on, but mainly above the neck.
All this cool reserve goes out the window, however, once Marie starts seeing Robert (Francois Berleand), the much older principal of the school where she teaches and a committed albeit courtly sadist. A Lothario of prodigious statistics, and not a few wattles, Robert is one of those boudoir veterans whose dimly lit bachelor pad looks as if it were mail-ordered wholesale out of Playboy circa 1970. More impressive yet is his hardware, all of which he is soon applying, carefully, methodically, fetishistically, to the willing schoolteacher. Thereafter, everything changes in Romance — the muted color scheme heats up, as does Marie, whose freedom is rediscovered with every slipknot, every twist of rope and every mouth gag.
Breillat‘s spin on female liberation is certainly unorthodox, especially for those who believe there’s such a thing as right and wrong sex, even between adults. It‘s no doubt anathema to some that smart, strong women can get bound with rope at night and fight the good fight the following morning, and it’s in her refusal to yield to sexual stereotypes on the one hand and sexual prescriptions on the other that Breillat is a true original. She isn‘t suggesting that all women are masochists, and neither does she seem to think that being a masochist is necessarily good — or bad. It’s just female reality. Of course, there‘s a big difference between being born into a masochistic position and assuming that identity through sexual play. Breillat’s radical suggestion — which, along with her sense of the surreal, makes her spiritual kin to Buñuel — is that one way for women to shed the burdens of their socially determined masochism is to work through that masochism sexually.
When Marie gives permission to Robert to truss her up, she‘s turning her social status and her emotional crisis into a spectacle and a ritual. Recent literature and an impressive amount of pop culture are crowded with women who fuck, but most of these women come across as born losers. The heroine in Susanna Moore’s acclaimed novel In the Cut is hot to trot, but she‘s also fairly dumb, and, inevitably, depressingly, doomed (Jane Campion and Nicole Kidman are, one hopes, turning the book into a far better movie). If she weren’t so wildly popular, the mindlessly nattering Bridget Jones (whose Diary is also slated for the screen) wouldn‘t be worth the bother, just another breezy self-hater whose fluctuating thighs and brittle wordplay are meant to stand in for a self. Bridget is Ally McBeal with a British accent, sister to the haggard waifs of HBO’s Sex and the City, who, with their pint-size brains and big talk about blowjobs, might seem funny if they weren‘t so pathetic.
Given the current female-unfriendly landscape, Breillat doesn’t just seem gutsy, she seems flat-out revolutionary. And while her specific kink may not be everyone else‘s — tie me up, tie me down, indeed! — it’s pretty persuasive. It‘s also mind-blowing. Although much of the film — including Marie’s first lesson in bondage and domination — is deliberately unmodulated, it‘s never dull. Not only because this is art-house porn (Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses being the closest comparison), but because it‘s never clear where Breillat and Marie are headed. In this sense, the actress seems as brave as her director. Ducey’s performance is wildly naked, in part because her character is so unsympathetic, in part because she‘s repeatedly called on to spread her legs for the camera. The actress has a slight, childlike body with tiny breasts and boyish hips, but she has a monumental bush that sits on her vulva like a throw rug. Her pubic hair is the most adult part of her anatomy, and it might not be worth commenting on if all that dark, luxuriant hair, so at odds with the vogue for neatly manicured, little-girl pubes, didn’t give her sex a vaguely menacing quality — it‘s like a small animal ready to jump up and bite the nearest appendage.
Ducey doesn’t just feign sex in Romance, she actually has it — she sucks off one co-star (Stevenin keeps a straight face, but his uncooperative member seems mortified) and, in shocking close-up, gets fingered by another (Berleand, whose gesture is distinctly clinical). Ducey never seems particularly turned on (or off) by any of this. Most of the time, she looks vacant or glum, or else keeps her face in a knot of despair. Neither the actress nor the director attempts to make Marie likable, which, finally, seems even braver than all the film‘s smutty bits. The character behaves quixotically, coldly, even stupidly, and at times her obsession borders on the tedious. But if the urge to slam a copy of The Second Sex on her sleek head can seem overwhelming, it’s also true that throughout this difficult, fascinating movie, Marie remains painfully real, one of the realest women ever seen in film. There‘s never been a movie character like Marie, just as there’s never been a movie director like Catherine Breillat, a fearless visionary and one hell of a woman.