02 May 2006

Images and Romance

Romance - dir. Catherine Breillat - 1999 - France

If you were keeping tabs on the history of the recent European (and American, if you count The Brown Bunny) trend of unsimulated sex in film, you'll find Romance at the beginning of your list. Surely, it's not the first film to have done such a thing, but it certainly started a trend, whether Catherine Breillat meant to or not. Back in 1999, Romance was a hot ticket. Intellectuals could get the rocks off without feeling smutty and look completely sophisticated for appreciating a film of this nature. "It's like Last Tango in Paris for the end of the century, only they really fuck!" (Coincidentally, Breillat has a small role in that film) There was a backlash too. As I was under 17 at the time, I wasn't allowed in the theatre, so I had to rely on my friends' testimonies to form an opinion. A lot of them were turned off by the film's coldness, while others laughed at the metaphor of a penis to a bird. Either way, I was clouded with negativity before even seeing it. When I actually did, I think I found it as silly as my older friends, but how does a sixteen year old begin to relate with a Catherine Breillat film? Now that I'm older (and hopefully wiser), have a lot more film experience under my belt, and an understanding of Breillat's other work (namely Fat Girl and Anatomy of Hell) and the trend I spoke of earlier, I thought it was about time to revisit Romance.
Sure, the bird metaphor that Marie (Caroline Ducey) uses while holding her boyfriend's dick is a bit silly, but I hardly found it as silly as I did as a sensitive teenager. What Breillat presents is not simply an intellectual's porn film, stimulating the mind instead of the libido. She doesn't replace facials and double-penetration with thoughts on gender and sexuality. What she has to say is important... no matter how you feel about her work, her resounding voice demands respect. Yet what bothered me about Romance this time around is what bothers me about most play-to-film adaptations. Breillat has a fairly extensive background in literature; she wrote her first novel, entitled L'Homme facile (The Easy Man), at the age of seventeen. She also co-wrote the screenplays for several respectable directors like Liliana Cavani (La Pelle), Maurice Pialat (Police), and even Federico Fellini (...And the Ship Sails On), in addition to writing novels and adapting them into films. She adapted her novel Le Soupirail into Une Vraie jeune fille (A Real Young Girl) into a film in the mid-70s (though it was banned in France until just a few years ago), as well as 36 fillette in 1989, yet it probably wasn't until Romance came out that Catherine Breillat was ever considered "important" in the film world. She became "important" because she demanded importance. Her films were not going to go unnoticed, and from then on, they didn't, and perhaps this has most to do with the graphic sex, but I doubt that was Breillat's point.

Romance remains a failure though because it doesn't lend well to film. This is probably best explained in contrast to Fat Girl and Anatomy of Hell, which is why I'm glad to have rewatched it after having a better understanding of Breillat's work. To say that Romance doesn't lend well to film is not to bare my secret prudishness, for that isn't true; it's meant to express my doubts toward Breillat as a filmmaker at this point in her career. The visual medium can be tricky for those trained in the written word. Romance falls somewhere between Fat Girl and Anatomy of Hell in narrative. Fat Girl follows a more tradiontal structure, in which characters are exactly that. She infuses philosophy and thought into the story of the two sisters. In Anatomy of Hell, her characters don't even have names. It's meta to the fullest, and it helps that she cast a Gucci model and a porn star as her central figures. Romance is a semi-narrative about a woman, Marie, and her search for sexual gratification as her boyfriend Paul (Sagamore Stévenin) has lost interest in her sexually. The narrative is cut by Marie's interior monologue about obscenity and degradation. Her sexual encounters range from a well-endowed widower (Rocco Siffridi) to her boss (François Berléand) who likes to tie her up. Marie is given a name, an occupation (she's a school-teacher), and Breillat gives us her thoughts. Yet, at the same time, she is meant to represent a larger scale of women, sexually unsatisfied and denied of their urges. This is not a successful union, as Breillat allows for the viewer to become somewhat attatched to her instead of letting her stand as a theory itself.
As for the visual nature of the film, Breillat's literary background hinders a greater appreciation again. While certain films (Bergman's Cries and Whispers comes to mind) use the color scheme to aid in mood, Breillat's knack for color comes off as annoyingly evident here. While the colorless white of Anatomy of Hell works perfectly for the film, it does not here. In Paul's apartment, the decor is minimal, all white or blanched; he is only seen wearing white or the palest of tan, just as Marie appears to be draped in white throughout most of the film. Get it... white is the color of virginity. When the change in color finally arrives, we saw it coming two reels ago. And, of course, it had to be red. Fire, passion! Her use of red and white seems rather textbook and painfully obtuse.
Breillat's intellect makes it truly difficult to outright dismiss Romance. She really has a voice of her own, and not one that's heard very often in the realm of cinema. Post-Romance, she's really hit her stride. However, as a film, it's also difficult to applaud her. The deconstruction theory of sexuality and femininity does not translate well here. Yet, further still, her ability to provoke (though provocateuse is probably too harsh a word to describe Breillat) and stimulate must be recognized. Breillat demands it. To discuss the nature of unsimulated sex onscreen would take a whole 'nother blog (or, better yet, a thesis paper), so I shall save that for another day. Romance will always have its place in the film history books, if only briefly mentioned after a passage about Larry Clark. But there is where a grave distinction between filmmaker and provocateur needs to be drawn.

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