rated - SIMMERING
Catherine Breillat's film Romance is anything but romantic. She uses
the title with heavy irony, because all of the sex she shows in this
film is divorced from romance. It is analytical, physical,
metaphysical, fantastical, mechanical, painful - anything but romantic.
In fact the closest the film gets to romantic relationships are those
between Paul (Sagamore Stéverin, playing a male model) and
himself, and perhaps between Marie (Caroline Ducey) and her baby.
This is the film that Australian censors didn't want us to see,
allegedly because it contains scenes of actual sex, instead of
simulated sex. How ironic that is, since the film is a serious (but
often funny) exploration of a woman's relationship with her sexuality.
With almost icy detachment, it poses questions such as:
- How different is romance from love and love from sex?
- Is female sexuality something that is part of us or can we exist
separately from our sexuality?
- Is sex - or are our sexual organs - "dirty"?
- Is rape sex? Is it something to be ashamed of?
- What happens to a woman's sexuality when she's pregnant? Is
- What happens when a sexual organ becomes a birth canal?
During the film, I was thinking so hard about all all of these issues
that I didn't have time to find any of the graphic images of sexual
acts and organs either "sexy,""erotic,""provocative" or "offensive."
There was so much to pay attention to in the sex scenes: how Marie was
reacting, what she was saying, what her various partners were saying
and doing and how Breillat was moving the camera over the bodies,
emphasising this or that (often THAT!). Breillat uses the camera with
an unflinching eye: keeping it firmly on Marie, showing her body and
telling her story. This makes us realise how much self-censorship goes
in in current cinema - how many times the camera cuts away in scenes of
intimacy. How much the same sex scenes in movies can be.
Style plays an important part in this film too. The characters'
clothing is all fabulous, modern, hard-edged, with impeccable design
pedigrees like Dries Von Noten (the Belgian designer, whose clothes I
love - in fact I wore some to the screening in his honour!). All the
settings were gorgeous - either modern minimalist apartments, chic
restaurants (one called, in a cinematic joke, Tampopo!) and discos or
bars, or opulent oriental dens. Apart from Paul the male model, none of
the characters could possibly have afforded this kind of lifestyle. But
it was important to show that these people were living in a
style-oriented world - constricted, wearing what they should wear,
driving what they should drive (Paul drives a classic Mercedes sports
car). In one scene, Marie and her boss Robert (François
Berléand) go off to a restaurant after a sexual encounter and
"celebrate" by "overeating and drinking too much". The celebration is
most lugubrious - they sit in luxurious surroundings, scoffing caviar
and throwing back vodkas, declaring that they're having fun but looking
miserable. There's no fun, no romance, no sensuality, only the
superficial appearance of it. In another scene, couples dance and
singles drink in an extremely cool disco and bar. Everyone looks
fabulous, but but no one's having fun.
Some critics seem to have thought the film took itself too seriously.
However, as I've said, the film is funny. How could a film which opens
like this one does be said to take itself too seriously? In the first
scene, a Paul's face is being made up for a modelling shoot. He looks
at his made-up face in the mirror - approvingly, but
professionally-detached as well. Paul is dressed as a matador. The
director urges him to "look edgy" and tells him to pull himself up to
look tall and straight. He draws himself up to his full height: tall,
rigid, alert, prepared for action. He's like a penis! Then the director
orders the female model next to him to "look submissive". She slumps
onto Paul's shoulder. The director says: "Not that much." Another
question: how much submission is necessary?
The other thing to note about this film is that it is about a very
dysfunctional couple. She loves him, but is not loving to him. He says
he loves her but loves only himself. They don't have sex. She thinks
she should go out and have sex with lots of men "to fill herself up".
She has crazy ideas. So does he. Some critics have thought it very
"artificial" that Paul refuses to have sex with Marie after the first
stage of their relationship. But isn't this often the way of things -
after the first infatuation is over, sex can cease to be the most
important thing in a relationship? With Paul, Breillat has only
stretched that point to an extreme.
Marie tends to shy away from anyone who shows her tenderness.
Ironically, the only characters in the film who show any tenderness are
the characters played by the porn star Rocco Siffredi - who gives a
lovely performance by the way - and the character of Robert, who is
into bondage & discipline. Marie may be confused, but her attitude
to sex gives the director all the opportunities she needs to explore
the questions she is interested in.
Including the nature of rape: there is another tremendous moment which
follows what, for me, was the most disturbing scene in the film. Marie
is raped by a man who mistakes her (impecably dressed as she is) for a
street prostitute. When the rapist leaves, Marie shouts after him "I'm
not ashamed!" It's a great moment of dignity and power. Later, Marie is
examined gynaecologically by one intern after another, and they all
take turns to use their instruments on her. Who is the rapist now?
Marie says that during her pregnancy, her gynaecological examinations
were her only sexual contacts. A most disturbing thought.
The final scenes involve the birth of Marie's baby at the same moment
as a death (real or imagined?). It's marvellous footage shot from
dead-on at delivery-level. It shows all, as clinically as any of the
sex is shown. This, of all scenes, is when the audience winced. But is
this not the very essence of humanity, raw and uncensored? Romance is
dead honest and true. It doesn't turn its head away at the last minute.
It only makes you think: we've come a long way in the cinema, but even
in the year 2000, this sort of honesty is all too rare.