By Alan Scherstuhl
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Anyone who doubts that moviemaking is an essentially masturbatory endeavor would do well to come preferably aloneto Jean-Claude Brisseau's Exterminating Angels. Women may often have the upper hand in this red-hot fantasy of distaff diddling, but the middle-aged French auteura former schoolteacher, believe it or notappears largely in business to service himself.
As Gallic film devotees are well aware, the writer-director was found guilty in 2005 of sexually harassing a pair of young actresses who had been persuaded to masturbate while auditioning for parts in Secret Things, his film about female pleasure and transgressing taboos. Brisseau did receive a stiff fine, but a one-year prison sentence was suspended, and the bulk of charges against him were droppedin other words, he got off. Around the same time, Brisseau was putting the finishing touches, so to speak, on Exterminating Angels, in which a writer-director is accused of . . . uh, sexually harassing a pair of young actresses who had been persuaded to masturbate while auditioning for parts in his film about "female pleasure and transgressing taboos." Some of the incidents have no doubt been changed by Brisseau to protect one member or another of the ménage. But the movie hardly skimps on the sex. This is risible material in more ways than one.
Hilarious from the get-go, Exterminating Angels begins by suggesting that its emotionally abusive filmmaker was himself the victim of sexual entrapmentsnared by two extremely hot young apparitions in tight black tank tops. ( Disclosureonly hinted at the phenomenon of the wanton harassment of men by bitchy wraiths.) Visible only to themselves and us, these fallen angels (Rapha Godin and Margaret Zenou) find the unhappily married François (Frédéric van den Driessche) in his Paris bedroom late one night and begin to strategize his slow humiliation at the hands of mortal femalesthe sort of work they've apparently done before. "This one will be too easy," boasts the more aggressive of the pair. Indeed, a bevy of babes, at least one of them acting on instructions whispered to her by Angel No. 1, soon head in rapid succession to the auteur's casting couch, confessing their erotic secrets and making him uncomfortably hot. François never lays a finger on the women (that'll be his defense), instead compelling two of the most eager actresses, Julie (Lise Bellynck) and Charlotte (Maroussia Dubreuil), to finger themselves (and each other) most memorably in a crowded restaurant where even a busy waitress (Marie Allan) takes noticeand gets turned on.
Despite the title, this movie is more salacious than surreal. Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angels is about people who come for dinner and stay for days; Brisseau's Exterminating Angels is about people who come . . . and come and come again. Charlotte, the chief beneficiary of hand-delivered gifts, eventually goes nuts in a way that only sexed-up chicks in French movies do (think Betty Blue on E). Julie goes off the deep end, too, though more gently, and the waitress voyeur gets in on the act, literally climbing atop the other two hopefuls on her way to fame. François discovers he's got more estrogen on his hands than any man can manage, but he can't say he wasn't warned: The other supernatural presence in the opening scene is his dear departed old granny, who urges, "You have to watch out for yourself."
Exterminating Angels is one audaciously, endearingly ludicrous movie. Indeed, not since Basic Instinct has a modern noir gotten so playfully aroused by straight-male sexual phobiathe twist in this case being that the maker of the film has firsthand knowledge of the subject. "I realized that sex is quasi-virgin territory," Brisseau gushes in the press kit, verily spilling innuendo. "I wanted to dive into it." Casually reaping the benefits of his celebrity, François is an immediately unreliable protagonisthis collar open far too wide, hair arrogantly unkempt, reading glasses hung from a string around his neck. (He's like a 60-year-old version of the smug shooter in Antonioni's Blow Up.) The more assertive his auditioning actress is about achieving pleasure, the more François stiffensdefensively, that is. Exterminating Angels reads like a guilt-ridden perp's absurd exoneration of himself, but it plays more like a confession. Consciously or not, Brisseau makes the women more sympathetic by far than his passively coercive, believably creepy alter ego.
There's even a sense in which the titular avengers take over direction of the movie, one of the angels calling for a suitably punitive "final act." Brisseau may imagine himself an emasculated martyr for the cause of sexual liberation in le cinéma, but somehow the women in his distinctly male fantasy have the last laugh. The key line belongs to crazy Charlotte, lounging in post-orgasmic bliss after a typically steamy screen test. "We work and come at the same time!"
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