Catherine Breillat, legendary provocateur, on her sexual manifesto on film and why she hates porn

The auteur spoke to Salon about "Romance," censorship & being a female filmmaker in "the most misogynistic country"

Published February 10, 2022 7:08PM (EST)

Sagamore Stévenin and Caroline Ducey in Catherine Breillat's "Romance," 1999 (Strand Releasing)
Sagamore Stévenin and Caroline Ducey in Catherine Breillat's "Romance," 1999 (Strand Releasing)

The uncompromising filmmaker Catherine Breillat's sensational 1999 film, "Romance" has recently been restored in a new 4K HD version. The film is being showcased in a retrospective of Breillat's work screening Feb. 11-17 at the IFC Center in New York. ("Romance" is also available on Amazon.)

The program is not just an opportunity to see some of Breillat's rarely seen early features — "A Real Young Girl" (1976), "Nocturnal Uproar" (1979), "Dirty Like an Angel" (1991), and "Perfect Love" (1996) — but also revisit her classic "Fat Girl" (2001), her historical drama "The Last Mistress" (2007), as well as her "Fairy Tale" films, "Bluebeard" (2009) and "The Sleeping Beauty" (2010). Rounding out the program are her features, "Sex Is Comedy" (2002) and "Abuse of Weakness" (2013), both of which feature protagonists based on Breillat. (Sadly, her stunning "Anatomy of Hell" (2004), is not included in the retrospective.)

Anyone who has seen a Breillat film is familiar with her uneasy and explicit depictions of sex. That may be why the provocative French filmmaker has long had battles with censors. Moreover, her heroines are often empowered by their sexuality; Breillat highlights the power dynamics between men and women when it comes to sex and sexuality. 

RELATED: "The Last Mistress" emerges like an erotic dream

Her early films, "A Real Young Girl," and "36 Fillette" (1988) were about teenage girls exploring their sexuality and losing their virginity. In "Fat Girl," the title character, Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), looks on as her older sister Elena (Roxane Mesquida) is in the next bed with her boyfriend, Fernando (Libero de Rienzo) who is trying to deflower her. 

Her controversial drama, "Romance," follows Marie (Caroline Ducey), whose boyfriend Paul (Sagamore Stévenin) leaves her unfulfilled. She therefore ventures out to explore and has sexual experiences ranging from a tryst with Paolo (Rocco Siffredi), an S&M encounter with Robert (François Berléand), and is raped by a stranger (Reza Habouhossein) in a stairwell. 

In a recent Zoom interview Breillat spoke, with the assistance of interpreter Robert Gray, about her films and her career as well as debates about depicting sex and being censored.

"Romance" was your biggest success in the U.S. What does the film mean to you?

The film represents a huge step forward for me in my filmmaking. It was a film I had wanted to make for a long time; I was working on it for 20 years. To me, the film is about the question of century — the quest for sexual identity. I knew the film would be a challenge, and getting it released would be a challenge, because of the images I wanted to show. I'm very proud of the fact that I overcame censorship around the world through discussions and explanations of what the film represented — even in a country like Norway, where I was told the film would never be released. I wrote a piece explaining that the film was a quest for sexual identity, and in cinema, it is not the images per se, that are important, but the meaning the images have — the intent and the vision of the artist. The female censor in Norway not only came around, but she said it was a film that all young women should see.

This film isn't just a film, it's a manifesto for me, a statement about being a woman, and the problem of being a woman. Being a woman means, historically, that you've always been humiliated. It is an identity that is defined by sex; I have a vagina. Because of in terms of our cerebral hemispheres, there is nothing that distinguishes my cerebral hemispheres from those of a man.

Your films are often controversial, explicit, and provocative. I like that you make viewers uncomfortable. Can you talk about that?

I always say that it is not I who is provocative or scandalous, rather that the world is old and moldy. I refuse to allow myself to have censors dictate what I can and cannot show or decide for me what I, as an artist, should be presenting or representing. As both a woman and a director, I should be allowed to speak out and decide what images I want show, and how I am going to make my film. I forbid that censors dictate what my works are going to be like, or where I can place the camera or what I can show.

In terms of provocation and what is censored, we just have to think of Elvis who wasn't allowed to appear on television, or we can go back two centuries ago to Victor Hugo, the great French writer, and the "Bataille d'Hernani," which refers to a fight about censorship [that occurred after the performance of his play, "Hernani,"] created a scandal. But now, no one would think twice about not allowing all of his works to be read and distributed. When one is modern or ahead of their time, inevitably one provokes or creates scandals because society insists that we conform or be conformists. Anything that is new disturbs.

The endings of your films are often shocking. Why are you so confrontational in your work? 

At the end of "Romance," I love the idea of showing the birth of a child. I was often asked, "Why do you show it head-on like that? Usually we see births from the side." I realize this is like the Courbet's painting, "The Origin of the World." I realize with "Romance" I was quoting Courbet — we both had the same intention. When you see infant's head coming out with blue veins, it's the globe of the earth that is appearing, and that has huge symbolic value to me. It is essential for me to see where we're from.

I look to painters for inspiration. "A Real Young Girl" was based on hyper-realist American painters. When you look at painters, it is always about the framing. And cinema is framed. You have to choose what people will see and choose what you will pass over with an ellipse, what you are not going to show. And even though you may not show it, the spectator may believe that she or he has seen it.

You frequently focus on women's pubic hair and men's erect penises, which are so taboo in American cinema. Can you discuss filming and framing bodies? You are explicit, which makes your films more potent.

In France, also, it was absolutely forbidden, unheard of to show an erect penis. In fact, a lot of feminists criticized me for this — not for the erect penis, but for undressing women on screen. I said, all male directors do this for all sorts of reasons, or even no reason — they will invent a shower sequence just to show a woman naked. "Romance" was the first time in France that a film that was sexually explicit was allowed to get a general release. Normally, it would be forbidden or classified as a porn film. I am interested in debating the censors. I tell censors, I don't mind if you censor my film, but you have to explain why, which opens up room for discussion.

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Personally, I also hate porn films, I'm not interested in pornography, and I find them degrading to men and women. I have no desire to make porn films. Regarding sexuality, when we make love in our private lives, that is thought in motion, thought in movement. Otherwise, if it were simply the act itself, it would be repetitive, it would be ugly, and it would be without any pleasure. To me, sex is about transcendence, it's about the fiction and how we project ourselves in the act. It's about thought. In our intimate lives, when we are love and making love, we are not porn actors. There is no fiction in pornography, that is what distinguishes pornography from cinema. I'm interested in transcendence; I am seeking the exaltation that sexuality brings to our lives. If you look at Renaissance paintings of saints, both men and women, you see them naked and absolutely pure despite their nudity. I thought that must be true in cinema, too. It's not the image that is shown that determines whether something is art or pornography, but rather, it is the vision, the thought, and the meaning behind it.

You are an author as well as a filmmaker. What artists and writers influenced you?

As a girl I was allowed to do things that were "pretty," but I hated Marie Laurencin. I wanted to be savage and wild like the painter Francis Bacon. When I was growing up, I was marked by great writers like Henry Miller and Comte de Lautrémont, who were violent and absolute great misogynists. Nonetheless, what they wrote made me who I am. I chose to be influenced by them. When I was 16, I wrote my first novel, ["A Man for the Asking," which became the film "A Real Young Girl"] and when it came out, it was forbidden to anyone under the age of 18, which meant that I was forbidden to myself. And I refuse to be forbidden to myself! I want to be able to be who I am. In fact, Agnes Varda picked up the American paperback of "A Real Young Girl," and on it, there was a banner proclaiming "Banned in France."

Do you feel that you faced resistance because you are a female filmmaker?

Absolutely! We have to talk about the fact that why in France, as a woman, I was never accepted into a French film school. Even as a young girl, I was very proud and stubborn and insistent that I was going to take on the world on these terms. This was also the case of "A Real Young Girl." I was a female director in France that historically and traditionally has been the most misogynistic country in all of Europe. The Salic Law (loi salique) forbade women from ascending to the throne. Only a man could ascend to the throne. Napoleon perpetuated this with his code that kept women in guardianship even in adulthood. The great French Revolution, for which France is so proud, guillotined Hortense de Gouge who demanded equal rights for women. The motto: Fraternity, Equality, Liberty — what it really means is the liberty for all men to impose on fraternity and equality on all men and strip women of their rights.

"Romance" is a story about a woman who has to separate love (emotion) from sex (physicality). It's about male frigidity in that Paul is indifferent to sex. Marie's fulfilment comes from the pleasure and control she has in her attempts at intimacy with others. What decisions did you make about Marie's journey? 

You are right, this is the female experience — it's the problem that once a man falls in love with you, then inevitably, you become his mother. Then you are at the same time the virgin and the whore. When he puts you on pedestal, it is impossible for him to have an erotic relationship with you, because that would dirty you. In French, we say when a man is making love to a woman, he honors her. But at the same time, he dishonors her, so there is this contradiction which screws up all relationships, which makes it impossible to have a fulfilling sexual relationship. None of Marie's encounters harm her. She comes out of them as pure as she did going in — even the rape scene didn't hurt her. She is always looking at herself in a mirror. To me, it's about rejecting shame and assuming, embracing, and accepting who she is.

Caroline [Ducey, who played Marie] had a very hard time after the shooting coming to terms with the film and spoke very badly of it. She wasn't able to acknowledge who she was and what the film was about. Interestingly, it wasn't the scenes with Rocco Siffredi that were problematic for her, it was the rape scene, even though the sex in that scene was simulated. The actor [Reza Habouhossein] was an Iranian my assistant found in swinger's club. He was supposed to have non-simulated sex with Caroline, but once he got on set, he was unable to get a hard on, despite all our attempts. We decided the hell with it, we'll just shoot this as if it were a normal film in which we are pretending and not showing certain things. I am actually very happy that is how we went about it. The film is all the stronger for it. What counts in the film isn't what is shown, but the emotion in the filmmaker's gaze.

One thing that is essential to your films is the power dynamic between men and women. This is not just the virgin/whore dichotomy, but also about how the characters negotiate sex. Can you explain this more? You have made several films about teens losing their virginity.

This is the lovers' discourse. There is a medieval notion that codifies how a love relationship is to proceed and what steps a man has to follow to obtain his love one. Seduction is always about this codified step. That's the difference between flirtation, which is much more spontaneous. Virginity doesn't belong to women themselves, but to society, which determines when it can be surrendered and who it can be surrendered to. That is why, as I show in "Fat Girl," it is often the case that men suggest young women engage in sodomy so they would remain virgins as if nothing had happened.

It's also something that we say in France, that when a woman sleeps with a man, "she gives himself to her." And there is this notion, that the first time for a girl will mark her for her entire life. Whereas for boys it is something that is quickly forgotten. As a young girl, I wanted to relieve myself of my virginity so I would be the author of my first time and not have to submit to the idea that I should belong to someone else for the rest of my life.

Even about rape today, society imposes that women should be marked, traumatized by rape all their lives. I disagree. That refers back to Marie who is raped in "Romance," and comes out unscathed, as pure as before. Rape can be horrible, but what is horrible about rape is the violence and fear of dying that is involved — that's what's traumatizing about it. For a large part of my life, I was not the equal of men legally, and men had the right over me in terms of French law. Why is that the case? Society finds it very difficult to deal with and confront sexuality. I am not sure, even today, that situation is improving.

Any thoughts about your legacy?  

It's very difficult to know what my legacy will be. It depends on how society evolves. Cinema is so much about escapism, and entertainment, and I have nothing against that. But my cinema is marked by thought and by emotion. That is what I am trying to transmit. I think perhaps, I should write a book explaining what my cinema is about, because my cinema is so emotional, and it strikes people so strongly that I'm not sure the thoughts come through. It might be a good idea to put my thoughts about my work in writing, but I'm not sure I ever will, because, by far, I prefer to make films than write about them.

"Romance" and other films in the Breillat retrospective will re-release at New York's IFC Center Feb. 11-17. "Romance" can also be streamed on Prime Video. Watch a trailer via YouTube.

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By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Catherine Breillat Feminism Interview Misogyny Movies Romance