“Romance”

Director Catherine Breillat and star Caroline Ducey follow the urge wherever it leads.

Topics: Sex, Love and Sex, Movies,

Had Catherine Breillat’s “Romance” been released 25 years ago, it would have caused an immense fuss in the press, and would likely have been a must-see for the stylish crowd. You’d have overheard people arguing about it in restaurants and bars. Hipsters would have competed to see who could be bored with the whole brouhaha first.

These days, who knows how it’ll be received? It is an art-house sex movie, and that term no longer has the allure it once did. But I found “Romance” to be one of the two or three most potent films about sex I’ve seen in the last few decades. And I hope to persuade you that it’s something more than just some arty turn-on, though among other things it certainly is that, too.

It’s quite different from “Basic Instinct,” “Eyes Wide Shut” or “Nine 1/2 Weeks.” No stars, no melodrama, no rock soundtrack, no flashy cutting. Instead, “Romance” is austere, even clinical. And where such gross-out date movies as “There’s Something About Mary” and “American Pie” suggest food fights at the Burger King, “Romance” is like an evening spent at a four-star restaurant, lingering over the pati and snails.

“Romance” is about Marie (Caroline Ducey), a sexually frustrated woman who is looking to be fulfilled, wherever that desire may take her. She’s a schoolteacher, mousey but chic, whose narcissistic, male-model boyfriend (Sagamore Stevenin) will barely touch her, and he won’t let her touch him. For the needy Marie, he’s like a Beckettian, cosmic joke. Depressed by his sensual neglect, she seeks physical fulfillment elsewhere. She finds an Italian stud (played by the international porn star Rocco Siffredi). Her boss at school (Frangois Berleand) provides her some surprises, and other men have a go at her too. Woven throughout is Marie’s voice, in an unusual kind of voice-over that’s part diary, part stream-of-consciousness.

Breillat has a talent for targeting and hitting raw spots. Attracted to images and situations where the gruesome and the voluptuous are hard to disentangle, she’s a specialist in unease. (When does she want us to laugh? It can be hard to tell, but the movie is occasionally very funny.) And in “Romance” she has created a landmark — the first movie to give a convincing, feature-length account of sex from a woman’s point of view.

In many ways, “Romance” is a version of the standard French novella about sex and death, the one with short chapters and lots of somber white space. But watching performers embody the explicit sex acts you’re used to reading about on the page changes the experience drastically. (“Romance” suggests a film from Femme Productions directed by Eric Rohmer.) The movie has the kind of daredevil oomph that those of us who treasure memories of moviegoing in the ’70s recall. Breillat seems to have been infuriated at all those films that feature manicured, coiffed Frenchwomen conducting unhappy affairs while looking poised and expectant even in bed. She wants to show us what following the sex urge out is really like.

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When did people decide that the aphrodisiac has no place in art? Some moviegoers have fallen into the habit of dismissing such work as “just a turn-on.” But that is to dismiss essential parts of major art traditions — Japanese, Italian, Indian and French film, just to start, which were once sought out by what were known as “adult filmgoers.” It was understood that a French movie wasn’t just an excuse to get out of the house, but also an occasion for visiting cafes and bars afterwards, to flirt, drink and flex a little intellectualism.

Another hurdle for filmgoers who might otherwise be open to more eroticism is the legacy of some feminist film theorists, who have long asserted that the camera is an expression of the phallus, and is thereby related to technology’s rape of nature, America’s rape of Vietnam, capitalism’s rape of everything — you name it. They have made a lot of educated people feel that it’s offensive to look at performers with adoration and lust, and to use movie images to keep our inner flames burning. (We do it anyway, but we react to being chastened by becoming crude.)

But taking erotic pleasure in filming and watching performers isn’t just some perverse hobby. It’s central to the history of movies. Certainly, there can be a kind of implicit pornography in shots of performers; there can also be admiration. Often, and perhaps ideally, there’s both. Stiller and Garbo, Hitchcock and Grace Kelly, Von Sternberg and Dietrich — these were collaborations, not acts of rape. Jean Renoir once said that the reason he went to all the trouble of financing, writing, directing and editing movies was to justify making close-ups of actresses he loved.

As moviegoers, we tend to luxuriate in the idea that the image before us is of both a made-up character and a real person. (That really is Nicole Kidman’s butt, and at the same time I accept it as the butt of the character she’s playing.) For much of film history, this duality — the fact that every movie is both a work of fiction and a documentary, more specifically a documentary about its performers — has been one of the major, disturbing attractions of the medium. It has always been part of what draws people into theaters, and draws some people into filmmaking itself.

Younger American audiences, particularly those raised in a P.C., media-saturated environment, are especially likely to find “Romance” objectionable. It won’t reward a channel-surfing, crack-wise-with-your-friends state of mind (as, say, “Sex in the City” and “Cruel Intentions” do). Worse, a full-bodied appreciation of the movie depends on having a range of cultural references that extends slightly beyond the purely pop. That lighting calls up Ingres, doesn’t it? And isn’t that image of scissors and clingy, wet panties reminiscent of Oppenheim’s furry teacup? Some familiarity with authors such as Colette, Tanizaki, the comtesse de La Fayette, Georges Bataille, Lady Murasaki and Strindberg won’t hurt either. Enjoying “Romance” depends on our ability to feel the seductiveness of beauty, to wince when it’s violated, and to recognize what it implies of an inner life. The spareness of the film’s visual design (the Japanese touches, the white/blue/crimson color scheme, the use of circles and visual frames), Breillat’s attentiveness to acoustic shifts, and of course the eyes, flesh and feelings of the actress Ducey — they’re what the movie is built of.

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In the 1970s, these aspects of film — a fascination with beauty, movie history, performers and sex — all boiled to the surface in what I think of as the “let’s fuck in a bare apartment until we arrive at an existential realization of ourselves, or die trying” genre. These films range from the sublime (“Last Tango in Paris,” “The Last Woman”) to the provocative (“In the Realm of the Senses”) to the preposterous (“The Night Porter”). Breillat had a small role in “Last Tango,” and has said that she was inspired to make “Romance” when she watched “In the Realm of the Senses.” Can art and porn be fused? Can a movie achieve the stature of, say, the novel “The Story of O”?

Breillat’s approach to moviemaking is lordly in a way that I myself usually find off-putting. (Of her previous movies, only the 1988 “36 Fillette” is available on video in this country, and I didn’t enjoy it much. A search on the used-book Web site Bibliofind turned up a copy of her novel, “A Man for the Asking,” which she wrote at 17. It’s ferociously pretentious, but pretty sexy.) She’s a ’60s princess with a weakness for dry theory, and in “Romance,” she’s aristocratically pitiless in the way she cuts her characters almost no slack. Yet in this case her temperament and approach yield some astounding scenes.

In one, it’s night, and Marie’s on foot. She passes a guy who mutters to her that he’ll give her some money if she’ll let him perform oral sex on her. She pauses, then assents. In an unbroken shot, he goes down on her for a bit, but then flips her over and semi-rapes her from behind. She claws the ground as he thumps away, but she doesn’t try to escape. When he’s done, he calls her vile names and hurries off. She yells after him angrily, “I’m not ashamed” — yet by now she’s just a wet, shuddering heap of flesh. Marie has kind of asked for what she’s gotten, and has kind of not asked for it too, and is now both proud of and disgusted with herself.

For the spectator, the scene has heat, and messiness and complexity too. Breillat has carefully set up a number of dramatic skeins to give this scene its shuddery effect. Earlier, Marie, suspecting her boyfriend of having an affair, tracks him down, only to find him alone in a Japanese restaurant, eating sushi and reading Bukowski. She doesn’t want to get home before him, so the passing stranger’s offer has an appeal. Marie has spoken earlier about not liking to see the face of the man she’s having sex with. And since being gone down on is like being worshipped, she anticipates that she’ll feel in charge and exalted. But then she’s up-ended, repelled and not in charge of anything at all, yet getting something out of it anyway. Like many other scenes in the film, it feels almost out of control, but it also perfectly fits in.

Breillat’s approach also yields some beautiful close-ups. In one scene, a suave older fellow proposes tying her up. She doesn’t respond out loud. Instead, she backs up against the frame of a door and bows her head. She can’t say yes, but she wants him to proceed — or at least she thinks she does. She’s shying away, hoping he won’t disappoint her, but she doesn’t want to give him any help either. You see her furtiveness, her excitement and uncertainty. In other scenes, her face is swollen with longing and rage as she lies in bed next to her dud boyfriend. She’s a misery junkie ennobled by her addiction. (These images are similar to some of Godard’s in “Hail Mary,” but Breillat’s are more specific, and more charged.)

However much “Romance” resembles some male-made porn, the fact that it was made by a woman with high intentions changes the experience of watching these images and scenes. We aren’t staring at them from the outside, so we have to wrestle with their content. These are facts of this woman’s life, Breillat is saying — and she’s saying that maybe they imply something about women in general, too. Marie’s adventures don’t happen in the take-charge way we Americans have been taught to applaud. It’s hard to think of a worse role model than Marie, and women who want to like or at least approve of a movie’s heroine may find “Romance” hard to warm up to.

Marie sinks into passivity and masochism. She’s released emotionally, at least somewhat and for a while, by bondage and thralldom. Sex here is presented as an occasion for pleasure, despair and shame, as well as for near-religious ecstasy. (Breillat wants us to acknowledge that, while sex can lead you into a sense of self-discovery, it’s just as likely to leave you overwhelmed by loneliness.) The theme of “Romance” is a woman’s relationship with her erotic being, and Breillat has the sophistication to acknowledge that if you don’t feel good, that doesn’t always mean you’re doing something wrong; no relationship is always happy. In one long, daring overhead shot, Marie is on her back, in bed, naked and masturbating. The camera travels from her crossed ankles up her tense legs, over her crotch and torso (her hand is hard at work), past her neck muscles and veins to her flushed, glossy, straining face. In a voice-over that resembles interior monologue, Marie says that she isn’t crazy about masturbation — “It’s only mildly satisfying, but it’s proof I don’t need a man.” Ultimate blasphemy, to present masturbation as something other than a triumphantly can-do form of self-empowerment.

The slim, dark-haired, covertly pretty Ducey had only had a few screen roles before “Romance.” The heightened and exposed way Breillat puts her on view is glorious but unsettling. There’s a narcissistic arrogance in the way Breillat works, as there was in the way Bertolucci worked at the time of “Last Tango in Paris.” (That’s part of the excitement of their work.) Your anxieties about the performers in these movies become part of your experience of the film. When Marie is untied after being bound for the first time she bursts into wracking sobs. The man — who a minute ago had sat before her, admiring the beauty of her trussed-up form — now tries to soothe her, holding her in his arms and anxiously petting her damp hair. You wonder whether what you’re watching is one actor trying to calm another after a scene has misfired; you half-feel that you’re watching something that should have been an outtake. She wails and gasps and, finally getting a little hold of herself, says, it’s OK, my hands were just beginning to go numb — i.e. it’s been Marie, not Ducey, all along. I can’t think of a scene that danced so close to the existential edge since Brando’s monologues in “Last Tango.” Soon Marie is back for more. After playing with shackles and rope, she and the guy go out for caviar and vodka.

Some scattershot criticism: The movie is both a study — in the “objective” French manner — of a recognizable character type and a parable about creativity. (Marie is named Marie for a reason.) She endures trials in her search for fulfillment — there’s even the hint of an immaculate conception. Her journey (and the film’s title) may remind us of medieval romances and make us wonder: If a man’s search for the Grail takes him outside himself, where might a woman’s take her? Breillat’s use of Japanese touches and of circles may make us think of Zen, and may also relate to Marie’s desire for obliteration. (She speaks of wanting to be reduced to nothing but a hole during sex, yet she also dislikes parting her legs.) The salacious elements and the humor, the shock cuts and the poised pacing all put stresses on each other — Breillat is as strict (and cruel) as a French chef in holding it all together.

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When I saw “Romance” for the first time, it was in New York at a festival of French films. The audience was largely French and largely female — the house was full of scarves, sweaters, makeup and disdain — and the humidity level got pretty high during several of the film’s sexier scenes. Outside afterwards, the women smoked and chatted appreciatively. The next time I saw the film was in a screening room, among a small crowd of New York media women who tittered happily and knowingly during the film’s first few minutes. There’s some just-among-us girls truth-telling in the film that resembles the sex-confession columns in the new grrrl-power-influenced women’s magazines, and the media women recognized and enjoyed it.

Then Ducey is in bed with the sweetly tender Rocco Siffredi, and there’s a yucky condom being held up and mused about — those Europeans, they’ll philosophize about anything! — and then Rocco gets hard, and my lord but he’s hung, and he politely asks Ducey — sorry, Marie — if she wants to be fucked in the ass (she declines, but graciously), and then, omigod, it looks as if they’re really having sex. From then on, the media women seemed agog. In the elevator after the film was over, most of them were visibly pulling themselves and their irony back together. But one woman looked at the others and asked straightforwardly, “Were you ready for that? Did you know what we were in for?”

These days, movies can be made more cheaply and with more freedom than ever before, and cable channels need programming. We also have a remarkable abundance of performers — especially women — with the gifts and drives to take dicey chances: Elizabeth Shue, Diane Lane, Georgina Cates, Rebecca de Mornay, Kelly Lynch, Fairuza Balk, Joey Lauren Adams, Elizabeth Pena, Ming-Na Wen and many others come to mind. We’ve even had a few small movies that have shown some worldliness — but Andrew Fleming’s “Threesome” and Amy Jones’ “Love Letters” went largely unnoticed. And when Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy,” which did have some success, was discussed, what got mentioned was the comically smutty dialogue, not the film’s tone of erotic melancholy, or its evocations of pain and regret.

But educated Americans, even while they’ve become more adventurous in their cooking and eating, have largely given up the pleasures of erotic movie art. They’ll rent porn, or watch a few minutes of a Cinemax “erotic thriller,” but they’ve lost the habit of searching out films that join sexual content with the psychological, visual and narrative power of real movie art. “Romance” can’t be beat as a way to remind ourselves of these pleasures, or perhaps to learn about them. Seeing it in a movie theater, in its full, stained-glass radiance, will certainly leave you with plenty to think about. Why not visit a bar, order drinks and talk the film over? That can be its own kind of erotic pleasure.

Ray Sawhill worked as an arts reporter for Newsweek.

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