Tainted love

"Romance" director Catherine Breillat explains why women hold more power than men in the bedroom -- and talks about what happens when you bring a porn star onto the set of a "real" movie.

Published September 17, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

French director Catherine Breillat's "Romance" -- a movie in which the sex is real and not simulated -- has already sparked debate: Is it trash or is it art? The question seems beside the point. "Romance" may be one of the most sexually explicit movies to make its way into the mainstream, but Breillat's exploration of female sexual fantasy is often deliberately un-sexy. In "Romance," a young woman aggressively seeks a variety of sexual encounters after her boyfriend, with whom she's deeply in love, refuses to have sex with her. It's not that the fantasies she fulfills for herself -- which include bondage and anonymous sex -- won't be recognizable, or at least understandable, to many women. But Breillat's movie is more than just a study of female wish fulfillment. It goes deeper than that. "Romance" is about the profound sense of loss that one woman feels when she tries -- and fails -- to possess someone else.

Like the film itself, Breillat is a study in contradictions: ambitious, provocative, occasionally arrogant. Here, she explains why no man could have made her movie.

Given the exact same script, could a man have made this film?

I refuse to make a difference between men and women. But directors -- they are not interchangeable. I think that the director is a singular artist. It's as if we said Michelangelo could create Titian's painting -- they are different people, they cannot do the same thing.

That being said, I am profoundly a woman, and a man couldn't do this, ever. Had I been a man, I wouldn't have been able to do it.

The film is not in the end very romantic -- it's really about desire, not love.

For me, romance is the illusion of love. Paul doesn't understand Marie. He has a hard time expressing who he is, and she doesn't listen to him. And he doesn't listen to her either. He is the object of her love, he is her idol, he is beautiful, and she placed her love on him because she needed to. And he placed his love on her because he also needed to reassure himself. And this moment where the spark of their encounter, of the romance which makes us believe in the illusion of love, when this moment is finished -- they are at [that] stage of the illusion. Paul has a real problem of identity, and Marie doesn't take this into account at all. She is in her own closed world. But with me as director, Marie has the love of the camera, so we excuse her -- while Paul, we accuse him. But one is as egocentric as the other.

So you deliberately created Paul as little more than a sex object?

(laughing) "And God created man." So beautiful.

You say Marie has the love of the camera -- is it because you identify with her character?

Am I identifying myself with Marie? No! She is also my creature.

But it's true, Marie has a deep sincerity. The depth of a person is the depth of their sincerity. She goes deep in her own emotions, and this is an honest approach. But she doesn't know that she is not honest with herself.

She is left to live out her fantasies, and Paul confronts her with the reality of this [by withholding sex from her] -- and it's a test lived by both of them. What she's after is not a sadomasochistic pleasure -- it's what we call curing the ill by the ill, to take the road to hell in a quest for the Grail.

Love is the road of hell. We pass through things which we'll never know what they really are -- they have the appearance of one thing, but they are something else, effectively. For instance, Marie's sadomasochistic attachment with Robert [the school principal] has the appearance of a perversity, but it's something that makes her pass through to the other side.

I was very honest when I wrote this. I had to be. I wanted to make sure that no matter what Marie does, she doesn't get destroyed. I wasn't conscious of this when I wrote it; it was like a drawing that grows under the eye. I didn't want this young actress, who is very pure, I didn't want her accepting this role [if it was going to be] a vision of her own lack of self-consideration; she needed to have grace, and then it would become the contrary.

Apparently Caroline Ducey, the actress who played Marie, was somewhat disillusioned by the way the film turned out, and the two of you have since gone your separate ways. Were you disappointed by this?

We are always a bit disappointed when the actors move on to a new role. It's like that. It's life. Film is an act of possession -- we say my actor, my actress. Therefore it's normal that afterwards, the separation is difficult. We are all disappointed.

But more specifically, she mentioned how disturbed she was to learn -- the day of the shoot -- she would be doing scenes with a porn star, Rocco Siffredi.

I felt that had I told anyone I was going to cast Rocco for the role, there would have been an uncontrollable reaction in the press, and then I would have lost Frangois Berleand in the role of Robert, which would have been a shame. Why shouldn't one put them in the same film? If I hadn't cast him, I wouldn't have this film. It was a radical idea, because it went against myself and against my inhibitions. My inhibitions are those of society and they are not profoundly me, but to fight against them is very, very difficult. But this is why we have a radical film. The [head technician] and the camera director -- who was very important to the project -- wouldn't want to be in the same room with him because they had prejudices. So I didn't want to say it immediately.

But it was obvious that they [Ducey and Rocco] were an extraordinary couple. I knew they were extraordinary. They knew only that being a porno star is not extraordinary at all. That's true, but Rocco is a very charismatic being. I had confidence in my choice, but there was terror on the set when he arrived.

It was very, very difficult. And extremely difficult for Rocco, because there are so many biting tongues on the set, a lot of culpability and shame put on him -- it was intolerable for him. For Caroline, how do you want her to be able to bear this? Well, she bore it for hours, for hours, for hours. She bore it from 10 in the evening till 3 o'clock in the morning. At 3 o'clock in the morning she couldn't stand it anymore, it's true. How could she be the only one to find it normal to film with Rocco when everybody else was appalled?

But in fact he did turn out to be an extraordinary performer.

You know, bad actors look easy in front of the camera -- it's more difficult for an actor to move well than to pose well. To move, it's more difficult -- to go through a door, to move through a space. Rocco is like a cat, he has a feline body. He is someone who is in absolute harmony with himself. There are an enormous [number] of porno actors who make believe they don't have a physical inhibition; I think that they [do have an inhibition], because they move badly and they even make love badly -- they make rough, discordant gestures. They make the body very ugly -- we all become ugly because of inhibition. While Rocco is in harmony; he is a very harmonious being.

What I find very beautiful is that those two beings [Marie and Rocco's character, Paolo] find it absolutely impossible to communicate. And that in their total solitude, however, from the bottom of it, each understands the solitude of the other. Rocco, who is probably the most virile man in the world, does have to prove that he is a man. In making love, he goes from being strong to being the weakest, in the absolute. He is asking the woman to love him, in a despairing way. He's afraid of not being loved, and this is what I find beautiful.

Have you found that women have responded more favorably to the film than men?

Generally the women are rather troubled by it. They are forced to recognize the things with which they are not very happy, generally.

I don't know, some tell me it's harder for the women because they get a feeling of humiliation sometimes. There are parts -- the scene at the gynecologist, for instance [where several male medical interns examine Marie in succession]. Women don't like to admit it's a vision they've had themselves.

It's difficult to tell people's impressions when they're leaving the movie because they are often very, very sad and inside themselves. Finally even those who hate it, when they leave, they simply leave the theater -- but the film doesn't separate from them. When they think about it again the second day, and the following day, the opinion is different.

One of the most shocking moments comes not during the scene in which Robert attaches Marie to a bondage apparatus, but directly afterward, when Marie -- apparently distraught at what has happened -- unravels. And Robert turns on a dime, from being her torturer to being her heartbreakingly tender caretaker.

It's true that this is a moment where pure magic happens. Pure magic, because on the set all of a sudden there was a veil of death, [a sense of] really hallucinating. And that all of a sudden when he takes her like this, the body has no weight -- for me it was something extremely magical. Because I didn't have rehearsals, I had told myself that was [a very long time to] attach her like this. Attaching her was already an ordeal. Then there were the lights, so we had to pass the bodies [in a certain way], which was something that I had never done -- that in itself it was a scene. So I decided to film it and not to have any rehearsals, to at least catch what would happen. And evidently the magic catch happened the first time we did it. We were amazed; it is very beautiful. To say, "We did this, we did that ..." is one thing, but it's only when we see it that we believe it. And it's true, it is by far my favorite scene, this scene where there is a passage of power.

At one point, Marie bluntly tells Rocco that men are weaker than women. It feels partly like bravado, especially coming from this women who is so clearly desperate, but we see from his reaction that there's a troubling element of truth to it.

It's a fact that men are afraid to stop being strong -- it's their misunderstanding that they believe they are stronger than women. I think that the women are stronger. There is a power shift in a physical relationship. This is the subject of the film in the pure sense -- that in the physical love, the man starts by being the predator and the strong one and ends up being the one who is possessed by the woman. The sexual power of the woman is stronger, and the woman's desires are more powerful than are the man's desires. This is absolutely true. And that the man loves to flee is a very beautiful proof of this. We talk about a loss of power, but it is a very beautiful love exchange.

Was making this point your main intention in making the film?

I think that the film has a lot of meaning. It cannot be reduced to a little risumi like this. I think that when we are inside, we are in a hypnotic voyage -- it's very sensorial. The purity, the chastity and the explicit sex, of which we are afraid, are all mingled. So that's it -- this is why cinema is so necessary. We cannot sum it up in words.

By Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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