06 December 2009

The Decade List: Sex Is Comedy (2002)

Sex Is Comedy – dir. Catherine Breillat

Though obviously inspired by her experience working on Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat does more than simply “defend” some of the more provocative elements of her work with Sex Is Comedy, her underappreciated ninth feature. To call Sex Is Comedy a “defense” for Fat Girl doesn’t work for two reasons. Firstly, Breillat would never feel the need to justify herself in such pedestrian terms. She’s too smart for that; check out any interview with her or read any of her books, and you’ll understand. Secondly, Sex Is Comedy doesn’t even address what I would argue to be the more controversial aspect of Fat Girl (the final act, namely). Instead, it centers on the “scènes intimes” a director named Jeanne, played by Anne Parillaud, tries to authentically depict in her own film despite the frustration of working with two actors who seem to hate one another.

Sex Is Comedy, above all else, is a film about the illusions of cinema, and a transformative one at that. The film within the film supplies a bevy of illusions, most of them intangible (like the way in which a freezing, overcast shoot on a Portuguese beach can mask as a romantic summer interlude through camera trickery), some of them corporeal (the director has a prosthetic cock molded to prevent the likely case of the actor being unable to achieve an erection, among other reasons). The fallacy of Jeanne’s highest concern is that of passion. She suspects the actors of undermining her and the film itself, a concern she vocalizes to Léo (Ashley Wanninger), her assistant director. Whether the actors’ mutual dislike of one another is in fact a manifestation of their anxiety about filming the sex scene or an actual clash of personality, Jeanne makes it her primary goal to elicit the illusion of intimacy from the two, played by Grégoire Colin and Roxane Mesquida, essentially playing herself acting out the scenes she portrayed in Fat Girl.

In keeping things especially meta, Sex Is Comedy employs its own set of illusions. For starters, the film Jeanne and company are making only resembles Fat Girl though both the use of Mesquida and certain script specifics (like Mesquida’s character’s virginity and the use of a prosthetic penis). In the film, Colin’s character takes Mesquida back to his place, while, in Fat Girl, she invites her lover (played there by Libero De Rienzo) to her parents’ vacation home while sharing a room with her sister. Parillaud’s character, while bearing quite a few similarities to the director, isn’t named Catherine. Like Anaïs Reboux’s character in Fat Girl, Parillaud actually looks quite a bit like Breillat but, instead of a rounder, pre-teen version of the director, resembles a “movie star” projection (have you noticed that all of the women in Breillat’s films tend to be brunettes?). Jeanne’s slight immobility, as a result of slamming her foot too hard against the ground (“a metaphor for the film,” she adds), is simply coincidental, as Breillat didn’t suffer the stroke that left her physically impaired until two years after Sex Is Comedy was made.

The setting of a film shoot also vaguely masks the fact that the way Jeanne speaks of her art is precisely the way not only Breillat does but all of her characters seem to in relation to their sexuality, among other things. It is, given Jeanne’s closeness to the director, a believable one, but the more interesting fallacies of Sex Is Comedy are ones Breillat directly alludes to within the film. In one scene, Colin’s character crudely plays around with his fake cock amongst the crew in a veiled act of charming them, while Jeanne and Mesquida’s character both recognize it as a way of precluding his own nervousness about the scene he’s about to film. But the film’s most telling moment occurs when the cinematographer (Bart Binnema) points out that Jeanne’s frustration with Colin directly mirrors the way she’s felt about all of her male actors in the past. In calling the director out in failing to recognize the sexual prejudices she seems to notice in everyone else, Breillat dispels the same myths about herself as she does the act of imitating passion for the greater good of art.

With: Anne Parillaud, Grégoire Colin, Roxane Mesquida, Ashley Wanninger, Dominique Colladant, Bart Binnema, Diane Scapa, Júlia Fragata
Screenplay: Catherine Breillat
Cinematography: Laurent Machuel
Country of Origin: France/Portugal
US Distributor: IFC Films

Premiere: May 2002 (Cannes Film Festival)
US Premiere: 14 October 2004 (Austin Film Festival)

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