Film Reviews


Published March 25, 2000

“Most infidelities aren’t ugly, they just look as though they are.”
Adam Phillips, Monogamy
Given a normal passage into the Australian cinemas, an art house production such as Catherine Breillat’s Romance might draw only a small and discerning audience. If the film does rather better than expected, the censors can take the credit, since nothing stimulates public curiosity more than a movie that is banned amid fierce controversy, then released on appeal. When sex is the issue defenders and detractors tend to divide along predictable lines: libertarians are scandalised by the censors’ ban, the guardians of public morality by its overturning. The film becomes a convenient touchstone for a much broader subject: the degree to which sex and sexual imagery has become all-pervasive in popular culture. The permissive society heralded in the sixties has arrived by degrees – almost by stealth.
The internet, needless to say, has played a significant part in the un-revolutionary spread of permissiveness. When sexual content is so ubiquitous and so readily accessible to anyone with a computer and a modem, all attempts at censorship are rendered futile, including Senator Alston’s controversial legislation which can be only a minor irritant to the purveyors and consumers of cybersex. The free market, which the government are usually so eager to promote, is now a more potent force than any conventional morality – ensuring that supply will always answer demand.
It would be easy to over-emphasize the influence of the Net on public attitudes towards sex, because nudity, coarse language and “adult themes” are part of an average night’s entertainment on free-to-air television. The disclaimers which precede so many programs seem to act as a licence. They tell viewers: “You may choose to switch channels, if easily offended,” or perhaps: “You won’t want to miss this!” Likewise, popular music and sport are more brazen in their exploitation of sexuality than ever before. Elvis wiggled his sequined pelvis on stage, but Madonna produces an album of erotic photos. Sportsmen and women now routinely pose nude in the pages of magazines such as Black + White, or, in the case of the Matildas, in a best-selling calendar. Visual artists – at least the so-called “cutting edge” brigade – see it as their sacred duty to offend and challenge an audience.
It is probably no coincidence that those who were young in the sixties are now in society’s driving seat. Even allowing for the natural growth of conservatism that comes with age, the youth of the sixties did more than any other generation to counter sexual taboos and stereotypes. It was the sixties that made it possible to “explore” one’s sexuality; to see sex as “natural” rather than dangerous. It was also the time Herbert Marcuse coined the term “repressive tolerance” to describe the method used by western society to incorporate and defuse threats to the smooth functioning of capitalism. The progressive incorporation of pornography into mainstream culture is a perfect example of this process. Although a fuss is made about protecting children from sexual imagery, the bottom line is that sex poses far less of a threat to the social order than the ongoing debates about Aboriginal reconciliation, industrial relations, welfare, health and education. The idea that sex was a revolutionary force was one of the great furphies – and self-indulgences – of the sixties. For the most part, sex in popular culture functions as distraction, as entertainment: it is one of the few shared interests of a society divided along lines of age, gender, ethnicity, religion and income.
By its very nature, pornography can never become too respectable since so much of its appeal lies in its transgressive status. Yet respectability is precisely what the pornography industry is seeking. Pornographers now portray themselves as honest businessmen and women, peddling harmless entertainment for consenting adults. At times, the industry seems no less high-minded than its critics in its contempt for the more severe taboos of paedophilia or sexual violence, which still incite violently negative responses from press and public. But the single biggest hurdle that the industry faces is the widespread belief that pornography degrades women. If the pornographers could destroy that preconception and cultivate a larger female audience, they would be well on the way to the social acceptability they crave.
This is where a film such as Romance becomes significant.  Made by a female director, it breaks several long-standing taboos: erections, fellatio, and real, rather than simulated sex. There is also bondage, rape, and a very graphic childbirth sequence. Yet these events are portrayed with an almost clinical detachment. This may or may not be due to the gender of the director, but it is difficult to imagine that the same work by a male director would have found such widespread support. When it is a female director who oversteps the blurred line that separates art from pornography, it is harder to fall back on the stock idea that graphic sex scenes must be intrinsically anti-female. There is plenty of bare flesh, and the lead character is used – or allows herself to be used – in all sorts of ways, but as pornography Romance is a dismal failure. It is devoid of all the standard devices of titillation that seek to make a film ‘sexy’. The music is sparse and not at all seductive, the settings and costumes are often monastic in their simplicity. Marie, the young school teacher, whose sexual odyssey is the subject of the film, is a study in alienation. It hardly matters if the sexual encounter with porn star, Rocco Siffredi, is real or simulated, because the cinema has produced plenty of phoney sex scenes that are far more erotic than this brief, loveless encounter.
The way sex is treated in Romance is completely contrary to the daily spread of pornography into every aspect of popular culture. In pornography, sex is a vehicle for fantasy, a release from the emotional burdens of all human relationships. In Romance, sex and sexual desire are seen as problems. The scene is set by the first of Marie’s many interior monologues: “An invisible cage, heavy, leaden descends on me, a tacit interdiction.” This is not the stuff from which pornographic fantasies are made, and it immediately exposes the heavy-handed nature of the censors’ actions. Applying themselves to the letter of the law, rather than the substance of the film, they reacted to the mere appearance of an erection and the suggestion of actual sex. Marie is not a sex goddess – she moves through the film like a sleep-walker. She is unhappy with her body and unsure of her desires. Catherine Doucey’s performance is so blank-faced and robotic, she makes David Bowie’s role in The Man Who Fell to Earth seem positively Falstaffian.
Marie’s cinematic ancestors are the schizoid Catherine Deneuve, of Polanski’s Repulsion; and the same actress in Bunuel’s Belle de Jour. Sex is a problem for both these characters. In the first, a disturbed Deneuve is both attracted and repulsed by men, a dilemma with a murderous outcome. In Belle de Jour, a cold, aloof, society woman becomes a prostitute by day, entering into the experience with the same mixture of detachment and obsessive devotion that we find in Marie. In each case, one might say that the woman escapes from the stereotype of being the passive object of sexual devotion. The Polanski character comes to regard a sexual advance as a violation of her selfhood, whereas Bunuel’s protagonist enacts a perfect separation between social identity and sexual practise.
Marie is somewhere in-between, trapped in a self-lacerating relationship with Paul (Sagamore Stévenin), a male model who must rank as one of the most unpleasant narcissists ever portrayed on screen. She idolises this trophy boyfriend, but he is so indifferent to sex that he finds her advances “disgusting”. The scenes where she puts his small member into her mouth, in an effort to arouse his interest, could hardly be called erotic. The apartment they share is white and minimal, they are both dressed in white, the bedclothes are white. It is not so much virginal as germ-free. Paul feels that Marie should be happy that he has maintained an interest in her for three whole months, a new record for his sexual attention span.
When she demands that he give her some pleasure, Paul replies: “If I did that I’d despise you. I couldn’t love you anymore.”
His idea of love is entirely selfish. He should be free to flirt with other women at the disco, but withhold his sexual favours from Marie. The price of his fidelity to their bed is her submission to his imperious ego. This grim, masochistic relationship is Marie’s idea of “romance” – she loves and hates Paul, but she falls into line whenever he displays a glimmer of affection. Sexual desire, though, cannot remain unsatisfied, and she sets out to fulfil the needs of her body while remaining faithful to Paul in her mind.
This is the real subject of Romance: it has less to do with sex, than with the universal drama of monogamy and infidelity.  Marie’s self-perceptions and ideas – delivered in a series of solemn interior monologues – are persistently contradicted by her actions. She allows herself to be picked up in a bar by a handsome stranger named Paolo, (Rocco Siffredi), and struggles to maintain her ideal separation of body and mind. “It surprises me each time,” she thinks, “I watch myself giving in as if it wasn’t me.”
When they eventually go to bed, she tells him that she doesn’t like tenderness or being kissed on the mouth. She feels it is “too intimate” to kiss someone she does not love. Yet a few seconds later she kisses Paolo, and finds that it makes her stop thinking about Paul. Her reaction is to stop seeing Paolo, because it has become “a question of integrity”.
After another encounter with Paul’s disinterested member, Marie’s next excursion into physical infidelity is with the homely Robert (Francois Berleand), the headmaster of her school, who claims to have had over 10,000 women. He attributes his success to the fact that he is one of the few men who still bothers to talk to women. He argues, with a philosophical bent seemingly garnered from the Marquis de Sade, that “the only way to be loved by women is via rape… since they’re up for grabs they want to be taken.”
“Physical love,” he muses, “is triviality clashing with the divine.”
Marie, most certainly fits his blueprint. She wants to be taken so she need not feel she has been unfaithful by her own volition. She allows Robert to tie her up, slowly and deliberately, but when she becomes upset he turns into the most gentle and considerate of partners. The paradox is that this middle-aged bondage fiend is mainly concerned with giving Marie pleasure. His portentous philosophizing conceals a talent for understanding, in sharp contrast to the emotionally-scarifying relationship that Marie endures with Paul. She feels that to be dominated in this theatrical way is also to be appreciated; to be appreciated for the same body that Paul makes her despise. It is, indeed, to become nothing but a body, gagged and helpless, the all-consuming centre of Robert’s attention.
Back in the gleaming white apartment she masturbates with her legs closed while intoning yet another long-winded monologue about Paul. She feels, once again, that her body is not her own possession; that she is raping herself with her hand. She feels “like lost luggage”, and concludes that “love between men and women.. is a devious conflict.” It is painful to realise that Paul would prefer to sit in a restaurant by himself, reading a book, than be with her.
On the stairs she meets a stranger who crudely offers $20, “just to eat you”. She accepts, thinking: “that’s my dream. To know that for some guy I’m just a pussy he wants to stuff, without sentimental bullshit. Just raw desire…” When the encounter ends in brutal violation, it is brought home to her that Paul’s indifference is pushing her towards self-destruction. She finds salvation in the bondage sessions with Robert, which provoke her only moments of good humour in the entire film. “After these sessions I wasn’t gloomy,” she says,”.. we giggled. We partied and overate.” The change of heart is symbolised by a change of dress – now Marie is in red, and Paul is suddenly alert and insecure. She climbs on top and says: “Now you be me. You be the woman and I’ll be the man. I’ll be your guy, I’ll screw you.” He throws her violently onto the floor, but their hasty coupling – in which no-one came – has made her pregnant.
We next see Marie lying on a table, having her vagina examined by a group of interns, in a scene that comes across as a very slow and clinical form of gang rape. Now she feels like a slab of meat, not like an object of adoration. The rest of the story shows the continuing deterioration of her relations with Paul, who likes the idea of her carrying his son, but has even more contempt for her body and her despairing ideas about love. The film does not drift off into gloom, but ends in sharp, dramatic fashion. Marie gets her revenge, but one is left with a hollow feeling. She has taken control of her life when the damage has already been done. Her hopeless devotion to Paul and the sexual rites-of-passage that brought her to the brink, have left an unpleasant aftertaste. To triumph after such a neurotic, self-destructive ordeal seems an empty kind of victory, even though there will be viewers who are cheered by this ending. I was left with the impression that Romance presents a singularly bleak and depressing view of human relationships. This is very far from pornography, which seeks to blot out the real world in a blaze of fantasy.
Romance is a tragedy of monogamy, with sexual desire as the trigger. Monogamy and infidelity are complementary: each term is necessary to define the other. They are also absolutes – one cannot be slightly monogamous or partly unfaithful, but this is what Marie attempts. At the beginning of the film she tells Paul: “I haven’t cheated on you, but I should have. You don’t deserve my faithfulness.” Since he is confident that he deserves everything, he remains unmoved by her veiled threats. But her fidelity is Marie’s only weapon in this “devious conflict”, and, in her own mind, she gives this quality the exaggerated value she would like Paul to accept. As her sexual encounters become ever more extreme, she continues to reassert her underlying faithfulness to Paul, separating mind from body and sex from love. Eventually it seems as though sex and love are perfectly antithetical, with sex bringing pleasure and love causing only pain.
Paul, for his part, takes a sadistic delight in dragging her along to discos and bars where he drinks with his friends and goes through the motions of seducing other women. The fact that he breaks off before he succeeds in these mock seductions is his way of proving his fidelity to Marie. It is also a kind of torture, a domination more complete than Robert’s ropes and gags.
The really dismal aspect of all this is that Marie is the author of her own distress. She could walk out on Paul at any time, but she prefers to wallow in the misery that he generates. She is in love with her own victimhood, and this gives a nihilistic cast to every scene. It is her own narcissism that binds her to Paul’s galloping indifference.
The long passages of muttered philosophizing that punctuate this film are often banal in the extreme. While this is an unhappy trademark of recent French cinema, a sign that says “art” rather than “entertainment”, it is possible to believe that the platitudes are intended to display the shallowness and self-absorption of the characters. Robert tells us: “Beautiful women get taken by ugly men. It’s a well-kept secret.” Marie muses that “love is just a power trip”, and agrees that “a woman isn’t a woman till she’s a mother,” echoing words De Gaulle once uttered in relation to men being fathers. It may be that Romance and pornography converge at a single point: they both have nothing good to say about love. The pornographic mentality sees love as an irrelevance, when sex is so free and easily obtainable; Romance portrays love as a game of self-hatred and self-delusion that ends in tears and violence. The few moments of rapture that occur in this deadpan, bitter film, are associated with physical sensation overpowering morbid introspection. It makes one think fondly of a film such as Now, Voyager, where the doomed passion of Claude Rains and Betty Davis hovers in the air with their cigarette smoke. Breillat’s Romance is a self-conscious riposte to Hollywood’s idea of romantic love, but it reads like a case torn from a psychoanalyst’s professional records. There is no suggestion that two people may be drawn together for any reason other than sexual gratification or emotional combat. Confronted with such an equation, it is tempting to believe that Hollywood occasionally got it right.
Published for the Australian Review of Books, March 25, 2000
A film by Catherine Breillat