Written and directed by Catherine Breillat

Oct 13, 1999 at 4:00 am
Am I a traitor to my gender because I didn't find this unabashed film about female sexuality erotic, brave or even -- can I say it -- interesting? The ironically titled Romance, directed by the audacious French filmmaker Catherine Breillat (36 Fillette), has become something of a cause célèbre wherever it has played, mainly because of its sexually explicit nature. In French with English subtitles, the movie shows a man's erect penis, a woman performing oral sex, a close-up of a man's finger entering a woman's vagina and a couple of tame bondage scenes. Marketed as an art film -- as are most foreign-language movies distributed in the United States -- the picture is being released unrated rather than getting slapped with an NC-17 rating.

Schoolteacher Marie (Caroline Ducey, a slender wisp of a girl who projects innocence and wantonness at the same time) is distraught when her self-absorbed boyfriend Paul (Sagamore Stévenin) declares he no longer wishes to sleep with her. In an effort to make him jealous -- and to soothe her own hurt feelings -- Marie embarks on a series of no-holds-barred sexual escapades. These include a romp with a man she picks up in a bar (played by the extremely well-endowed Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi) and an excursion into the world of sadomasochistic bondage with the principal of her school (François Berléand). Compared with these incidents, which end harmlessly, a later encounter turns ugly for the incautious heroine.

Despite her efforts, the lovesick Marie can't seem to get Paul out of her system, so every night she returns to his bed to try rekindling his passion. Her obsession with him makes little sense because he is a total narcissist and a bore, but, then, love isn't rational. More alarming is the way Marie seems to embrace feelings of humiliation and degradation.

Director Breillat's message in all this is far from clear. If she is suggesting that Marie is able to divorce sex from love and attain strictly carnal satisfaction, why does the young woman never seem to be enjoying herself, at least not on any discernible physical or emotional level? In truth, Marie's liaisons seem to be little more than intellectual exercises during which she keeps up a running voice-over commentary, dissecting and analyzing her actions and reactions in almost clinical -- and, what's worse, frequently pretentious -- fashion. "A man who can't love me physically is a fountain of all unhappiness," she intones solemnly. And later: "I disappear in proportion to the cock taking me." Later still: "A thin cock isn't noble." Do the French really speak in such phrases?

A key to Breillat's intentions comes from the writer/director herself, who declares: "I am telling the story of a woman who creates herself through various stages of sexual experience. She has this feeling of being cut in two, her body on one side and her soul on the other. She decides to plunge into the abyss as a way of reaching the light -- and a new understanding of herself and her desires." (Apparently the French do speak in such phrases.)

Unfortunately, Breillat's explanation proves almost as ambiguous and certainly as unsatisfying as the film itself. It turns out that Marie's sexual odyssey is actually a spiritual and intellectual quest for self-realization. A clinging masochist at the beginning of the film, Marie evolves into what her creator obviously considers a healthy, strong individual. Yet Marie's radical solution to the Paul problem is hardly one to be applauded, and if it's any indication of her new, enlightened self, it's not a psychological transformation that bodes well for her future growth as an individual or as a woman. Whether the ending of the film is taken literally or symbolically -- and apparently Breillat intends the latter -- it's an extremely militant cure that seems no better than the disease it is meant to eradicate.

A man couldn't have gotten away with directing this picture; he would have been accused -- and rightfully so -- of degrading women by presenting a docile, needy, submissive heroine and placing her in all sorts of compromising situations. The fact that Romance was written and directed by a woman doesn't make the film any better; it simply makes it objectionable on other grounds.

Opens Oct. 15 at the Tivoli.