Here’s a question for the ages (or at least for The New Yorker): Does Catherine Breillat have a sense of humor? Sex Is Comedy, which has its local premiere at Film Forum next Wednesday, may not provide a definitive answer, although it does, among other things, feature the funniest use of a prosthetic phallus this side of Aristophanes.
Breillat’s self-referential movie about making a movie (namely her 2001 Fat Girl) opens with the faux Fellini-esque image of a crew arriving on a wintry beach. But there’s no doubt that the director (Anne Parillaud) has something to say. Imperiously self-dramatizing, as confident in her capriciousness as she is infamous for her sexually graphic films, Parillaud’s character flies in the face of nature. The weather is unseasonable and the actors are frozen. “They can’t even kiss right,” she complains of the inexpressive teenagers supposedly in the thrall of a summer love. “I want it in-ter-min-able.” Then the rains come . . .
A satiric, albeit glamorized, version of Breillat, the director is an irrepressible fount of complaints, theories, and lofty pronouncements: “I adore whatever mangles the landscape,” “antagonism is a tonic for desire.” Sex Is Comedy is enjoyable if light, until it becomes apparent that Breillat is not simply waxing narcissistic but fashioning a simultaneous critique, explication, and demystification of the lengthy, near-single-take defloration that is Fat Girl‘s centerpiece. The haughty Roxane Mesquida re-creates her virginal role opposite a clownish Grégoire Colin (a far better actor than her original lover). Sex Is Comedy is a fascinating exercise in actors acting as if they were acting; it will be richer for those familiar with the earlier movie (out on Criterion DVD next week).
The performers are in crisis—they hate each other as well as their manipulative director. (“It’s continuity; don’t argue,” is her mantra.) She has her own problem, figuring out how to block the epochal sex scene, which she does with the help of her agreeably hunky assistant, telling him, “You be the girl.” The next morning, the director panics—kicking everyone off the set so she can block the scene again. During the rehearsal, she’s on the bed with her stars, talking them through their moves. It’s a fascinating sort of seduction—and rather than the “fat girl” of the earlier movie, the director is the voyeur. Indeed, when the scene climaxes with the teenage actress breaking through to “genuine” hysteria, the director’s excitement is blatantly sexualized.
One might argue that Breillat should have taken the part herself—but then who would direct her? Not the least remarkable aspect of this auto-auteurist extravaganza is Breillat’s suggestion that her movies are her performances—and that the pleasure that she is representing is hers as well.