Romance, Catherine Breillat’s succès de scandale, is both dour and wickedly funny. Disconcerting combos are the mark of this film, whose heroine has the slight body of a preadolescent, except for her bush—the thickest and darkest to hit the screens of “legitimate” movie theaters since Maruschka Detmar’s in Godard’s First Name: Carmen. Outside of pornography, cinematic sightings of female pubic hair are rare. The exceptions—Julianne Moore in Short Cuts, Deborah Kara Unger in Crash—are shocking and memorable. Of course, if you count flashers like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, minor characters like the hooker in Eyes Wide Shut, or corpses, then the numbers climb.
But while Breillat’s graphic depiction of sex has brought her notoriety and—for the first time in her close-to-25-year filmmaking career—a European box office success, Romance does not aim to please. Audiences expecting titillation will be as disappointed as they were with Eyes Wide Shut, a film with which Romance has much in common. Had Breillat and Kubrick opted for more straightforward titles—something along the lines of Sexual Fantasies of a Wounded Narcissist—they might have avoided a certain amount of confusion. But using mixed signals to provoke thought is part of their games.
In Romance, a woman named Marie (Caroline Ducey) is involved in a humiliating, self-destructive affair with a man named Paul (Sagamore Stevenin). For a brief time they were passionately in love, but now he refuses to fuck her. And since withholding turns Paul on, and Marie doesn’t know how to take no for an answer, the suffocating relationship drags on.
The basic situation in Romance is almost identical to that in Perfect Love!, Breillat’s last film. But Perfect Love! was a melodrama, and the power struggle between the lovers ended in murder. In Romance, Breillat uses fantasy so that Marie can plumb the depths of her masochistic desires and come out the other side. For Breillat, following the temptation of masochism is a kind of rebellion because it involves breaking the taboo against self-destruction. This bedroom philosophy doesn’t exactly endear her to most feminists. And obviously the danger is that one could, psychologically speaking, drown in one’s obsessions or, like the heroine of Perfect Love!, actually wind up dead. Marie, however, puts herself through a kind of exorcism and emerges triumphant. In the classical sense, Romance is a comedy because it resolves in favor of its protagonist.
In order to get back at Paul and regain her power, Marie embarks on a series of sexual adventures. Whether these are real or imagined is not a distinction that Breillat bothers to make. Like her first film, Une Vraie Jeune Fille (which, after a 23-year ban, has finally been rereleased in France), Romance is part of the surrealist tradition of film as dreamscape. And if you accept the film as part fantasy, it will keep you from asking a lot of literal-minded questions like “How could she afford those clothes on a grade-school teacher’s salary?” or “Couldn’t she have spared the cat?”
While Paul hangs out in sushi bars reading Charles Bukowski or lounges in bed in their white-on-white apartment watching muscle men on TV, Marie has sex with (1) a gorgeous, thick-headed, as it were, stud (played by European porn star Rocco Siffredi); (2) the pudgy, middle-aged headmaster of her school (François Berleand), who turns out to be an expert in bondage and an accomplished Lothario, having fucked 10,000 women, including the ice queen herself, “Grace Delly”; (3) a guy who offers her 20 bucks to suck her pussy and nearly becomes her Jack the Ripper.
A dark and unsparing study of female masochism and a brittle sex comedy of manners, Romance is unsettled in tone, to say the least. Much of the humor comes from the fact that, like anyone in the throes of sexual obsession, Marie can’t see the absurdity in her situation. Thus, when she’s in bed with a guy who’s giving her the fuck her boyfriend has been denying her for months, she can’t restrain herself from whispering in his ear such Lacanian sweet nothings as “I disappear in proportion to the cock that takes me.”
Breillat settles perhaps too easily for a generic fashion-magazine look, or rather a send-up of the same. Her visual style is the least interesting aspect of her filmmaking. Her direction is extraordinary for the ideas she puts in play and the courage she inspires in her actors to risk baring their souls as well as their bodies. The two extended s/m scenes between Ducey and Berleand are remarkable. Berleand has a moment when he’s searching for a missing piece of hardware that’s as ridiculous and sublime as anything in Buñuel.
Marie finally transcends her obsession by getting pregnant, which, of course, may be just as much of a fantasy as everything else in the film. Without spoiling the shock ending, it’s safe to say that in the annals of money shots, the climax of Romance qualifies as a first.
– Romance is a hard act to follow, and it’s probably not helpful to Allison Anders and Kurt Voss that their female-oriented comedy Sugar Town opens on the same day. Like Border Radio (1989), their UCLA Film School collaboration, Sugar Town is set in the Los Angeles rock scene. Sorry to say, the follow-up is neither as lively nor as tough as the original, and compared to the hardcore punk of Border Radio, the score for Sugar Town sounds like Muzak.
Actually, the subject of the film is not so much sex or music as it is being over-the-hill at 40 in L.A. The narrative, which is shaped as an Altman-esque round-robin, concerns some once-famous rock stars trying to make a comeback, the women they’re involved with, the women friends of the women they’re involved with, and the women who try to cut the throats of the women the rock stars are involved with or the throats of the friends of etc., etc.
Given Anders’s reputation as a feminist filmmaker, it’s disturbing that she’s so much gentler with her male than her female characters. The men in Sugar Town are kind of hapless, but they try. At worst, they seem like they don’t know what hit them. At best, they’re John Doe, who leaves the first lucrative gig he’s had in years because the Latina star is putting the moves on him and he refuses to be unfaithful to his wife.
The women of Sugar Town fall into three categories: airheads played by Rosanna Arquette and Ally Sheedy; dragon ladies played by Jade Gordon (a low-rent version of Nicole Kidman in To Die For), Lumi Cavazos, and Beverly D’Angelo; and mothers, or rather one very pregnant mother (played by Lucinda Jenney). The film’s message to women is that motherhood is sacred and if you haven’t experienced it you are to be pitied. I had a moment of doubting my extreme negative reaction to the sexual politics of this film. Then I read the following note by Anders in the press kit: “We made fun of everything that was once precious to me with the exception of childbirth and children.” Everyone to her own perversity, but I’ll take Breillat’s anytime.