Let's note a 9-minute, real-time, no-cut sexual scene between a 14-year-old girl, Lili (Delphine Zentont), and a middle-aged businessman, Maurice (Etienne Chicot), in 36 Filette (1987), one film of a five-film tribute to the sexually provocative oeuvre of the French filmmaker, Catharine Breillat. Except for the age of the girl, the scene above is a typical Breillat groping: graphic, sexually explicit, believably real, yet supremely anti-erotic because there is such hostility and incompatibility between the bedmates.
The feeling is "love is colder than death" Fassbinder-like, but Breillat's unsexy, almost non-descript casts are missing the grotesque, reptilian sleaziness of Fassbinder's acting company. If anyone is the godfather of Breillat's cinema it's Maurice Pialat and his gallery of French lowlifes in such brilliantly pessimistic 1970s and 1980s French classics as Loulou, A Nos Amour, and Police.
What does Breillat believe? That love is folly. That men really hate women, after the sex goes. "Even with beauty queens, after three times they are dead meat," proclaims Christophe (Francis Renaud) in Parfait Amour! (1996), as he's gotten bored of sleeping with the older woman (Isabelle Renauld) whom, just weeks earlier, he adored and craved to marry. "Time I tore off another piece," is the thinking of Deblache (Claude Bresseur), the thuggish, misogynist cop in Dirty Like an Angel (1992), who mounts his best friend's wife out of hostility.
And Breillat's women? Though men are worthless, they need to have men fuck them. The only thing that counts is getting laid, and having orgasms.
Which brings us to Romance (1999), Breillat's breakthrough film. Different from the others, this one is big budget, shot in a studio, has a spiffy-looking cast, beginning with the dark-and-dewey-eyed, leggy lead (Caroline Ducey). The big influence here is Bunuel, specifically Belle de Jour and Catharine DeNeuve's degraded, perhaps-dream fantasies.
The story is typical Breillat. The young woman, Marie, can't take it that her model boyfriend, Paul (Sagamore Stevenin), would rather watch TV than screw. She goes on a spree of one-night stands, with a tanned sex-machine (Rocco Siffredi, an Italian porn star),with an older-guy expert in sadomasochism (Francois Berleand), with an orally talented stranger. After many adventures, she gets pregnant and has a baby.
I've seen Romance twice and, though several sophisticated women critics have championed the movie, this guy critic can't decide how he feels about it, or about Breillat's cinema in general. I do applaud the filmmaker for skillfully merging hardcore scenes (blow jobs, erections, open vaginas) and artsy ones - down with puritanism! - and for the persistence of her singular, obsessive, vision. What is she proving? In her inimitably uncompromised, artsy way, I guess, that Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus.