10 January 2021

Catherine Breillat's Romance (1999)


This is a pornographic film. Not. Rather, it's anti-pornographic, although it had to cross a number of censors' walls in order to convince. OK, there's a small amount of graphic, real (meaning unsimulated) sex in this movie, but it's in no way titillating, nothing here is designed to arouse men's lust. This is a feminist film in which Breillat's intention is to depict image as idea, characters with emotions: quite a distance from porn.

Virtually everything is seen from a female point of view, with the protagonist Marie (Catherine Ducey) being the watcher and the doer, and she provides the voiceovers. She lives with her boyfriend Paul (Sagamore Stévenin) in a flat that is almost entirely white, not modern, chic white but hospital white, virgin, characterless, sterile. And sterility, or sexlessness, is the name of the game here. Marie (now there's a name!) hates cotton as she finds it stifling, and yet Paul wears a white cotton tee-shirt in bed and only reluctantly takes it off when Marie asks him to. But even though he has a hard-on and she starts sucking he's not interested: in fact he's not interested in sex.

Already the tables have been turned here: the macho male is hoist by his own petard. At the beginning of the film Paul (a male model) is seen being made up for a photo session by posing (ahem) as a bullfighter in the arena in Arles with a woman he has to pose on tiptoe with in order to redress the balance of height. But Marie is so sexually frustrated that she seeks an outlet elsewhere, and sneaks out of bed with Paul to take his car and drive into central Paris to a bar where she finds herself staring at a man.*

The coup here is that Breillat has recruited Rocco Siffredi, the hardcore porn star, to be Marie's physical Paul, here known as Paolo: in other words he fulfils her sexual needs, but that's all: he's just an object Marie's using, a reversal of the usual objectification of woman.

Then there's the sale mec in the corridor who offers to lick Marie for 'cent balles' as she goes home after watching the sexless Paul reading Bukowski in a restaurant on his own, and although she's not against the licking he then rapes her. Plus, although dyslexic, she (rather badly) teaches French to young kids and attracts the attentions of the head teacher Robert (François Berléand), who invites Marie back to his place, tells her on two occasions that he's fucked 10,000 woman, and introduces her to the delights of sado-masochism.

Paul, Paolo and Robert are all made to look a little ridiculous here, as if Marie had triumphed over them, but who is the real winner when Marie gets pregnant and she blows up his flat? Or is that just a dream, like most of this movie? No matter how many times I might watch it, my conclusions will probably change frequently.

*Thanks to Google I was able to see that Marie had driven 4.5 km from 99-101 rue Bobillat, 17e, to Le Basile bar on the corner of rue Grenelle and rue St Guillaume, 7e.

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