(Catherine Breillat, France, 1999)


Three Chances at Romance


1. Fire and Ice

Catherine Breillat, whose brilliant and frequently controversial career began at the age of 19 with her erotic novel L’Homme facile (1967), likes to intermingle her media: prose, poetry, essays, cinema – and we could even add interviews, since she sometimes treats them as occasions for high-voltage, conceptual performance. As well as adapting films from her own books, she has (like Marguerite Duras) simultaneously produced certain works in two forms or versions, for the printed page and the screen.


There is an intensive circulation between the elements of these different texts by Breillat – transpositions that call into question not only the boundaries between, but also the very status of, these various, different modes of fiction and creation. Where does a coherent story end and a wayward thought begin? Is there a natural limit to what a character’s dialogue or voice-over narration can cite or express? What realms can the dreams and desires of imaginary beings open up for exploration?


An example. In “One Day I Saw Baby Doll …”, an inspired reflection (written for Positif magazine and translated in the annual Projections) on Elia Kazan’s 1956 film, Breillat insists on the movie’s harsh truths about sexuality – its lessons about men and women, boys and girls. “Shame is what drives the girl towards Man as much as attraction. She is also sufficiently egocentric to realise that beauty must be her domain. Beauty is her prerogative, the tribute she pays to the Beast. Opposites attract”. (1)


What are these words, exactly: urgent, personal thoughts, analytical observations, script notes? Breillat tells us that the day she was first “transported” by Baby Doll made her instantly “determined to write 36 fillette [1987] as if the film I had just seen had given me the password”. Seeing Kazan’s movie again some years later (“I watched the tape four times, just as I had watched the film four times in the cinema”) returns her to its texture, its profound and shocking insights: “In love, the respect of a man is the worst humiliation a girl could experience”. (2)


But what is Kazan’s and what is Breillat’s in this swirl of films and texts, thoughts and memories? Whose truths are these, and in what film do they reside – in Baby Doll, in 36 fillette? When does the memory or analysis of a film go beyond appreciation or homage into full-blown re-creation, into the imagining of a new work? Breillat finds herself, in the face of Kazan’s film, both transformed (transported), and also confirmed, taken into her deepest self. And the circulation of elements does not stop with that essay: in 1999, Breillat tells an interviewer that women filmmakers “add the point of view of shame” to the screen’s depiction of sexuality (3) – and she places those lines quoted above about Beauty and the Beast almost verbatim into the mouth of Robert (François Berléand) in Romance (1999).


The general response to Romance among Australian reviewers was, on the whole, rather dim. (See below for a consideration of its adventures at the nation’s Office of Film and Literature Classification.) Reviews harped on the supposed unlikeableness of the heroine, Marie (Caroline Ducey), and the implausibility or thinness of her psychology. What’s her journey, and where is its third-act resolution? The heavy-duty, voice-over narration also caused much discomfort, occasioning the usual trite, dismissive, defensive gags about how “very French” is all this existential angst and ennui. (It’s just as well the media press kit didn’t brandish the respectful, deft summation of Breillat’s preferred subject matter offered by French critic-filmmaker Luc Moullet: “Objectivity, existentialism, behaviourism, the absurd, incommunicability”.) (4) One reviewer complained that Breillat was transparently putting her own words and thoughts (about men, love, sex) into the heroine’s mouth. And the film’s general, defining, resolutely ambiguous mixture of ritualistic solemnity, droll perversity and hallucinatory, escalating intensity obviously short-circuited more than a few minds.


Why was such a vast, uncomprehending blank drawn on Romance? Primarily because, quite simply, we do not see many French movies like this on our arthouse and festival circuits these days. Everyone remembers the Nouvelle Vague but, it seems, few understand its living legacy. That’s perhaps understandable (if not forgivable), given that the successive post-Nouvelle Vague transformations in French cinema – the work associated with names including Philippe Garrel, Danièle Dubroux, Christine Pascal (to whose memory Romance is dedicated) and Jacques Rozier – have basically never been allowed in by our film culture gatekeepers.


As a result, Romance is judged against models of narrative and art cinema to which it bears little relation – and is, of course, found terribly wanting. Yet the necessary reference points for an appreciation of the Breillat’s native tradition can be cobbled together from local viewing experience, at least if we use our collective memories and imaginations. Think of the free, interpolated voice-overs in Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, yoked to the John Cassavetes-like emotional intensity of Maurice Pialat’s films, assembled according to a formal, Jacques Rivette-style dialectic of real-time flows broken by disconcerting ellipses, not to mention an internal journey-narrative, grounded in restless, corrosive desire, that draws its sly, subtle dream-logic from the cinema of Jean Vigo, Luis Buñuel, Nagisa Oshima


Breillat’s films draw their special tension from the pull of opposing impulses – hers is a cinema of fire and ice. “Cinema is a mode of expression that allows you to express all the nuances of a thing while including its opposite. There are things that can’t be quantified mentally; yet they can exist and be juxtaposed. That may seem very contradictory. Cinema allows you to film these contradictions”. (5) The affinity between Romance and other outstanding, contemporaneous films about sexual desire and its vicissitudes – in particular, David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) and Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – comes from the adoption of a still, hushed, glacial style that is new to her work. That mode is especially well expressed in the music score of Romance credited to Raphaël Tidas & DJ Valentin; rarely have the quiet, ambient loops of techno-dance been used so systematically, subtly and effectively (on this sonic terrain, Breillat’s work meets that of Philippe Grandrieux).


Those who have seen 36 fillette (the only previous Breillat film to have appeared in Australia pre-Romance) are likely to remember its raw, provocative, deliberately vulgar evocation of impatient, frustrated, confused teen libido. The strong elements of her early cinematic work in the 1970s (Une vraie jeune fille) and ‘80s (Tapage nocturne) were dually derived from the grand, lost era of art-porn (movies by Serge Gainsbourg, Walerian Borowczyk, Miklós Jancsó and Oshima), and the fiery, violent, exacerbated naturalism of Pialat (with whom she worked or, rather, clashed). At the same time, overlaid on this combo is Breillat’s rich and multiple literary mode: according to Moullet, a juxtaposition of the “traditionally pretty vocabulary” of poetry with “geographic, scientific, geometric and medical vocabularies”, as well as “pornographic, scatological and advertising terminologies”. (6)


36 fillette marked a breakthrough in Breillat’s film work because (Moullet again) an “excess of the clinical […] seems to create a sort of superior lyricism” (7) – the inaugural, successful meeting of fire with ice. But her first masterpiece, to my mind, came a little later, with Sale comme an ange (Dirty Like an Angel, 1991): an utterly unique film that begins as an urban cop thriller and suddenly becomes a bruisingly intimate tale of transgressive amour fou, going the distance where Pialat’s Police (1986), semi-scripted by Breillat, fell short.


Breillat’s other outstanding film of the ‘90s, Parfait amour! (Perfect Love, 1997) likewise starts in one mode – a true-life docu-drama about the fatal affair between a middle-class woman and a younger, streetwise guy – and spins into an almost metaphysical account of the alienation, miscommunication and violence that pertains between the sexes. Breillat’s philosophical debt to Georges Bataille and Jacques Lacan is evident in the bleakness of this face-off. In interviews, she happily expounds her theories of female shame and debasement (sometimes reaching the other side of liberation and self-worth), as opposed to the possessive male need for control and violation – and women as beings who can be “transfigured” by sex in contrast with men, whose “mundane” orgasms never allow them to leave the dull earth. Poor guys! In 36 fillette, the drama of adolescence already proceeds on these fiercely divided gender lines: at puberty, “boys are simple: no longer whole, not knowing where they are, but knowing what they don’t want”, whereas “a girl exists only to stop existing. She is a being who commits suicide, who passes from a future where everything is possible to probable banality once her destiny has been sealed”. (8)


The remarkable fusion of such musings with those mysterious flesh-and-blood incarnations called characters, and the strange fantasy-romance known as a plot, indicates that, in Breillat’s films, we move close to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s dream of a cinema of poetry that would speak and visualise itself in a free indirect discourse. Here, fictional characters and their worlds become a vehicle, pretext or launch-pad for the passage of some other consciousness: not the auteur’s mind, solely or necessarily, but certainly some thinking-feeling organism that grows and recreates the world in its own, impossible image.


Another, related way to conceive of Romance is as a special kind of essay-film – not the discursive kind pioneered by Chris Marker and bludgeoned to death by his army of pale imitators, but a dramatic essay-film, an essayistic fiction in which words, images, characters, stories follow a line of inexorable mutation as they express thoughts, ideas, sensations, perceptions. Agnès Varda was already there in her fiction films of the 1960s, such as Le Bonheur (1965). “I create a film that surprises me because its meaning has escaped me”, remarks Breillat (9) – and her movies bear witness to that extraordinary, enigmatic, transformative power.


2. Joy of Sex?

Romance is a profoundly ambiguous film – perhaps more so than even Breillat is aware (her films are among the very few that seem genuinely “projected from the unconscious”, with all the risk of incoherence that entails). It is too easy to embrace the movie as a triumphant manifesto on behalf of women’s desire, feminist cinema, and show-all permissiveness – the kind of hype that its Australian history with the Office of Film and Literature Classification now, unfortunately, invites.


It is certainly a bold, provocative work that tests many limits in the fuzzy field of arthouse erotica. But where, exactly, is the joy in Breillat’s depictions of a woman’s sexual adventures? At every step, the film details the confusions, dissociations and alienations of its young heroine, Marie. The film closes like a vice around its viewers – and also around its central character. Driven to torment by the inexplicable coldness, evasiveness and game-playing of her smug boyfriend, Paul (Sagamore Stévenin), Marie pursues a series of casual encounters and affairs. It seems to me that Breillat neither celebrates nor condemns Marie’s rather grim, desperate journey of exploration; the film is, at every moment, alive to what is quietly, drolly amusing or unexpectedly enriching in this strange, wayward quest.


Take the men. Paul is a familiar figure: every woman’s nightmare, insensitive, ungiving – but also a subtle master at the old double bind of emotional manipulation. Later Marie falls in with Robert, her primary school principal who also happens to be a renowned seducer (he tells an odd tale about how – ­ despite being neither rich nor especially handsome – he slept with the celebrity “Grace Delly”!), and an expert in bondage-and-discipline practices. He could easily have been presented as another male monster; but it is in fact only in Marie’s moments with Robert that Marie attains any lightness of being. Their B&D scenes communicate a real, palpable tenderness – with Breillat’s virtuosic deployment of close-ups in long takes coming to the fore.


Romance makes a fascinating double bill with Eyes Wide Shut. The films share many traits and motifs: a colour scheme built around cool reds, whites, blues; a sparse, creepy, repetitive musical score; a narrative which, beginning from a slight disturbance in a couple’s everyday life, becomes an initiatory (and potentially fatal) journey into a sexual underworld. Where Kubrick subtly infused his version of contemporary New York with the aura of old Vienna, Breillat fills her film with numerous “oriental” details of dress, décor and cuisine – in homage, no doubt, to Nagisa Oshima’s equally confronting movie about sex and death, In the Realm of the Senses (1976), among her avowed favourites.


Like Kubrick or Robert Altman, Breillat wonders how the physical experiences of sex and desire can possibly fit into the daily, banal continuum of bodily sensations. Hence the scene in which Marie extrapolates from her perverse “bitter delight” during gynaecological examinations into a hardcore pornographic fantasy that is infinitely more disturbing than titillating. Kubrick’s film, for all its darkness, was finally a romance in a conventional sense: it held out hope, however fragile, for the (monogamous) sex life of its central married couple. Breillat’s title, however, is ironic and corrosive. One of the film’s most devastating moments comes when Marie’s voice-over optimistically states: “It was the first time in months that Paul and I had made love”. She quickly adds: “And also the last”. What follows that declaration is an indeed extraordinary turn of events.


Romance is characterised by such sudden, paradoxical reversals and starkly contradictory sentiments. Marie’s breathless voice-over narration – recalling, in its disquieting, stream-of-consciousness intimacy, the interior monologues of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) – jumps alarmingly between the themes of transcendence and degradation, tenderness and rape, faithfulness and revenge.  Ultimately, the film can only be truly understood and appreciated as a special type of dream or fantasy. Its hallucinatory, solemn, relentless manner dispenses instantly with any known code of dramatic realism. Its radical chronology – short passages of time observed in minute detail, alternating with disconcerting, unannounced leaps forward of weeks or months (one sees the sure, Godardian hand of veteran editor Agnès Guillemot here) – adds to the prevalent air of eerie unreality.


Romance is the X-ray of a disturbed inner state, a malaise. Beginning with the ordinary world – a meal, a walk along the beach – it escalates eventually, anamorphically, into a wild melodrama of the sexes, reminiscent of the flamboyant film fantasies of the 1960s (complete with wailing rock guitars). What starts as an intimate chamber piece about two people in trouble becomes a sweeping dissertation on souls, Eros and Thanatos, eternal Sexual Personae. On this terrain, it meets up with the deliberately outrageous cinema of Jean-Claude Brisseau, as well as that of Buñuel.


Breillat’s film is the portrait of a particular type of madness. In its dreamlike, heightened way, it shows how the world goes awry (to the point of apocalypse) once sex becomes the central focus of an individual’s existence, the magnet for every conceivable neurosis. If self-esteem is so tightly bound to the pleasure-principle, life becomes a nightmare of doubt, anxiety, restlessness and dissatisfaction – of almost cosmic proportions. Breillat shows us this Hell without apology or judgment. The brilliance and power of her art springs from the fact that, simultaneously, she presents this psycho-sexual gauntlet as something also intense and urgently fascinating.


3. X Marks the Spot

I am unequivocally glad that Romance is able to be seen, without cuts, by a section of the Australian public, and that the initial decision to ban it was reversed. That said, there are aspects of the censorship case around this movie that have not, I believe, been sufficiently recognised, canvassed and debated during the small media frenzy it prompted. Why such aspects have been quietly overlooked is itself a matter for conjecture and analysis.


Censorship and the passions it unleashes in the public realm are not reasonable phenomena. The very fact that we so easily and earnestly hurl about words like banning and censorship in relation to Romance, rather than the more neutral term of classification, is the first sign of this inflamed unreasonableness. Both the processes of government classification, and the anti-censorship campaigns that arise in response, are fuelled by intense, often unspoken assumptions and projections. One avoids the irrationality – the hysteria, even – of the pro-censorship and anti-censorship dance at one’s peril. 


On the side of the classifiers, harsh and defensive moral judgments (moral panics, as they are rather glibly called nowadays) can hide under the cloak of technical decisions, legislative guidelines and woolly invocations of so-called community standards. On the side of anti-censorship campaigners, the effort to interpret the punitive decisions of the classifiers leads – quite understandably, at one level – to a hermeneutics of suspicion (as historians of the intelligentsia call it) unrivalled by any critical theory of the 20th century.


In other words, we easily and immediately suspect of the censors – and read into their rulings – the evidence of the most malign ideological sins. A contagion of conjecture begins and, for a brief while, runs wild. In the case of Romance, this led to rhetorical questions like: Does the ban manifest a hatred or fear of women’s sexuality (or even women’s cinema)? Is the extreme violence of other (i.e., men’s) movies implicitly condoned, while the extreme eroticism of this one (by a woman) is explicitly condemned? Is a lingering, possibly critical gaze upon masculine sexuality (in the form of erect penises, some fondling and a brief, interrupted blow job) perhaps subversive of the patriarchal myths and fantasies underlying standard, male-centred erotica/porn? Are the daily facts of women’s physical existence – as unflinchingly covered by the film in its scenes of gynaecological examination and childbirth – somehow too much reality for the censors to bear and allow to be seen by adult citizens at large? Barbara Creed was among the feminist critics to pose some of these questions in public. (10)


A less instantly emotive reading of the OFLC’s documentation of its initial decision reveals some fascinating nuances to their deliberations (it was, as was widely publicised, a far from unanimous ruling). Taking our cue from a certain contemporary tradition in cultural studies focusing on the governmental – its piecemeal formation and implementation of policies – we should at least attempt to understand, in the first instance, what constraints the classifiers were working within, before we leap to the high (and rather abstract) moral ground of ideological denunciation. (11)


Let me be perfectly candid. The first time I viewed Romance, at its world premiere in the Rotterdam Film Festival in 1999, the thought gripped me: this film will never be released anywhere! The film’s potential problem with classification boards and their varying guidelines around the globe was (I figured) absolutely obvious, concentrated in just a few seconds of the movie: its fantasy scene involving pregnant women, shot in the manner of a hardcore pornographic movie with evident real-life penetration occurring. (Aesthetically, the fact that this scene occurs at an already speedy, hallucinatory point of the film doubles its potentially freaky, nightmarish effect for some viewers.)


Interestingly, when word of the ban was first made public and journalists started ringing around for the usual expert opinions (mine included), everyone consulted had a slightly different take, a different perception (or memory) of what the sticking point of this movie would exactly be – we were all guessing, we didn’t yet exactly know. Variously nominated problem areas were: the blow job, the frank sexual language, the masturbation scene, the erect penises, the close-up of childbirth, the bondage scenes.


Such wild speculation continued even after the film’s eventual release. In the progressive suburban newspaper The Melbourne Times, for example, Deb Verhoeven commented: “Yes, there is a very graphic display of male genitalia in this film. There is also an even more graphic display of female genitalia, but the censors didn’t seem particularly interested in that”. (12) Her remark glosses one of the most powerful arguments against most censorship regimes in a patriarchal world, as articulated (for instance) by Luce Irigaray: the curious fact that the male sex (with its erections and ejaculations) is deemed the visible (and therefore dangerous and shocking to look at) sex, as opposed to the supposedly invisible sexual manifestations of women. (13) Another version of that argument flips the values attributed to those terms entirely: it is the female sex which is truly subversive to show – to make visible – while our culture valorises (in all manner of direct and displaced ways) the already hyper-visible phallus!


Large-scale arguments aside, were the classifiers really so centrally, fixatedly interested in Romance’s images of genitalia, male or female? In fact, only two scenes, just two moments in Romance were deemed problematic by the classifiers in making their ruling – and each scene posed a quite different technical problem for them. The bureaucratic guidelines that necessarily had to be brought to bear upon these moments – and the implications of choosing to enforce these guidelines or somehow overrule or circumvent them – are precisely the aspects of this story left largely untouched by commentators in the media, whether pro or con the film itself.


The Board Report of 14 January 2000 lists the film’s “explicit depictions of sexual activity”. (14) Of these – which include the scenes involving fellatio, penile masturbation, and “simulated rear entry thrusting intercourse” (but not, strangely, the scene of female masturbation) – it is clear that all are considered as able to be accommodated within a ‘R’ rating (as is the “adult theme of very high intensity” involving bondage). No moral judgement on the film’s themes and representations is explicitly offered by the Report, and all the descriptions of the film’s erotic content are quite neutral and objective (or, at least, as objective as they can reasonably be – on which, see below).


However, what I have designated the hardcore scene – of which “a majority of the Board considered that the penetration was explicitly shown” (and I agree) – posed a real problem to the film’s inclusion with the ‘R’ guidelines. These guidelines state, as is cited in the Report: “Sexual activity may be realistically simulated; the general rule is ‘simulation, yes – the real thing, no’”. Any film that contains actual penetration automatically falls under the province of the ‘X’ classification: a classification precisely created (I assume) to handle the less public market niche of pornography.


But the ‘X’ guidelines come with their own tripwire where Romance is concerned. In the ‘X’ context, the problematic point of the film is not at all the hardcore fantasy, but its scene of “implied sexual violence” between the heroine and a stranger she picks up on the street. If the film was rated ‘R’, this scene could be accommodated. But, within the ‘X’ rating, “No depiction of sexual violence, coercion, offensive fetishes, or depictions which purposefully debase or abuse for the enjoyment of viewers is permitted”.


There is something only implicit in this particular document, something I read in to it. The regulatory ban on, or exclusion of, such depictions from the ‘X’ classification must arise from the history of campaigning – from several sides of the political spectrum – against films that show acts of rape and other associated acts of sexual violence (including, at the farthest extreme, snuff movies). In other words, the ‘X’ guidelines are a way of controlling the field of pornographic consumption according to an established system of community standards. Is it necessarily ideologically reprehensible, necessarily against the ideals of free speech and free choice, to feel that – in this one area – censorship has earned its powers of rightful sanction? That it may have successfully policed and instituted a standard of what is deemed acceptable and what is not?


The fear amongst the classifiers – and again I am speculating on an unspoken implication in the Report – may have been that any precedent that broke the boundaries around either the ‘R’ or ‘X’ guidelines could open the floodgates: admitting either hardcore pornography into the mainstream, or violence (back) into customised pornography. So it can be concluded that Romance, quite simply, fell between the system differentiating ‘R’ and ‘X’ classifications – and the rules and policies devised to contain and regulate each category. The Report declares as much in this standard disclaimer: “The Board’s role is to reflect and not to lead community standards in the application of statutory criteria”.


There was, in all of this, a simple way out – the classification mechanism of discretionary overruling of the guidelines in the name of art, of a special, exceptional work – as happened (remarkably) in the UK and elsewhere with regards to this film. The ‘R’ guidelines, after all, speak of a general, not an absolute rule in relation to representations of the Real Thing of sex.  Finally, this discretionary mechanism prevailed, with the overturning of the ban by the Classification Review Board.


However … Romance – now taken from the angle of its richness and ambiguity as a film – does not leave entirely settled a number of the questions and problems raised by its brief banning. So, I would like to briefly consider the movie as a gesture within and against definitions of the obscene – the processes of naming, locating, policing the obscene.


One wag on an Internet letters page sarcastically congratulated the Australian exhibitor and distributor of Romance for insinuating an ‘X’ into its advertising graphics – as if to pass the film off, no matter what the eventual classification decision, as the ultimate forbidden fruit available in a respectable, arthouse joint. In fact, this ‘X’ appears in an original French poster (overlaid on a detail of the heroine’s masturbation) designed for the movie’s European release – and, more crucially, its appearance there derives from the credits of the film itself, where a red ‘X’ fills the frame behind the main title, dividing, shattering and fragmenting the pictorial space. Breillat, provocatively and grandly, gives us her film under the sign of this abstract but instantly menacing ‘X’, this brandishing of a projected obscenity rating. (Another gesture of this sort occurs later with the unveiling of Rocco Siffredi – a real-life Italian porn star – in a key dramatic role; he brings with him a strange and disconcerting kind of semi-amateurish performance intensity that is actually quite common in Breillat’s cinema.)


The drama and situations of the film are often unsettling, and are designed to work that way on us. One powerful and currently contentious aspect of sexual relations on which Breillat insists – a little in Camille Paglia mode – is the ambiguity of consent, and the difficulty of ascribing clear positions of aggressor and victim in situations of seemingly rough eroticism. One might also add that Breillat’s remarkable practice of mise en scène – with its indebtedness to the mysterious, fantastically complex polyvalency of raw emotions and exchanges caught by such forerunners as Cassavetes and Pialat – seems to want to positively shame and curdle the linguistic capacities of anyone who tries to describe her sex scenes in words.


Offering an account of any sex scene in cinema is an extraordinarily treacherous task, invariably revealing of the deepest and least questioned assumptions and values of the critic/commentator who foolhardily takes on this task . I am reminded, for instance, of those descriptions by gay critics Robin Wood and Richard Lippe, writing about movies from Love Letters (1983) to Vive l’amour (1994), who seem to view every scene of vigorous heterosexual coupling as unequivocally violent or grim – and (according to them) transparently intended that way by the filmmaker. As a critique of patriarchy. (15) In relation to Romance, one need only consult Evan Williams’ review in the newspaper The Australian to turn up a swag of questionable, loaded descriptions of the sex acts in it – especially the designation of the scenes between Marie and Siffredi as “a humiliating affair”. (16) Humiliating to whom? It is fully consensual, seems to satisfy the heroine’s emotional and physical needs at that time, and ends at exactly the point when she decides to end it!


In general, the recuperative strategy of disconcerted reviewers, when faced with a movie like this, is to grant its seriousness, but to portray its sexual content as sad, tragic, degrading, humiliating, joyless. These moods and emotions may not indeed be entirely absent from Breillat’s film and its discernible intentions; I have argued above that the movie is as much concerned with sexual neurosis and dissociation as with pure pleasure and desire. But it is surely a more ambiguous text in this regard than, say, Under the Skin (1997) – favourite comparison point for many reviewers (instead of, say, Cyril Collard’s Savage Nights [1992]) – which rhetorically used a golden shower scene to dramatically fix the heroine’s moment of degradation or going-too-far in her sexual quest.


At any rate, it is interesting, in this light, to dwell again upon the OFLC’s description of Romance’s scene of “implied sexual violence” – since the bureaucrat who drafts a report is no less prone to these tricky problems of interpretation and description than is a film critic. “A man approaches Marie as she is walking back to her flat at night and offers her money if he can ‘eat’ her. She agrees and is shown sitting on the stairs in the building with the man’s head between her splayed legs in implied cunnilingus. This activity appears to be consensual. Subsequently, the man orders her to turn over. She objects, tries to scuffle away from him, shakes her head at him as he roughly turns her onto her stomach and thrusts aggressively in implied rear entry intercourse. He calls her a bitch and a whore. After implicitly ejaculating and withdrawing he states on leaving ‘I reamed you good’. Marie is left shaking on the stairwell saying ‘I’m not ashamed’.”


My problem with this account is that I did not see Marie try to “scuffle away” during the scene, or be forced to turn over. Although it is certainly a confronting scene depicting a rough sexual exchange, I do not believe Breillat is presenting an act of sexual violence as currently defined. And compare the description here – especially of Marie “left shaking on the stairwell” – with Jim Schembri’s summary in The Age: “In one jaw-dropping scene, she prostitutes herself, is debased, then, as her anonymous defiler disappears into the night, screams defiantly that she is not ashamed”. (17)


It will not solve any of these issues to now claim that obscenity is in the eye of the beholder, or somesuch banal truism. One of the most remarkable aspects of Romance is the way in which it inscribes in its own material ambiguous designations of obscenity. The film and its public life remind me of a talk given by Lesley Stern in Melbourne in 1995 about the censorship and classification issues surrounding Pasolini’s Salò (1975). Referring to the extraordinary scene of Lisa Lyon’s dance in Raúl Ruiz’s Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983) – a sequence in that has been in fact snipped out of some circulating 16mm prints, presumably for the sake of a private collection rather than on a self-appointed censor’s whim – Stern insisted that censorship is a complex process both politically and psychically. It is not merely a question of cutting out or excluding something from view but rendering something murky and fuzzy within representation and thought, somehow marking it as obscene (just like the surreally obscured and thus “censored” genitalia in Ruiz’s scene).


A scene in Romance that does indeed offer a “graphic display of female genitalia” in unflinching close-up is the climactic scene devoted to childbirth. This scene, naturally, does not rate a mention in the OFLC’s list of pertinent moments in the film requiring comment, justification or adjudication. But why not? And what is so natural about this exclusion? The classifiers must have considered the scene (if they consciously considered it at all) as a clinical depiction of a normal – and inoffensive, because non-sexual – bodily function. Yet it is precisely the system of these differentiations and distinctions – between the sexual and the non-sexual realms, between what is banally physical and arousingly physical, between an innocent or clinical gaze and an eroticised or perverse one – that Breillat’s film puts so thoroughly and vertiginously in question.


The film’s hardcore fantasy scene is the centre of this exploration. Like Ruiz’s set-piece, it stages a dissociation or contradiction directly inside the image itself, inside the scène of its mise en scène. Triggered by the experience of a line of medical students spreading her legs and then looking and feeling inside her body, Marie imagines a brothel for pregnant women. Here, the upper half of her body (and the bodies of other pregnant women) is in one, clinical space, with presiding doctors and men holding their partners’ hands. But it is also, in a spooky architectural plan, a circular space; and on the other side of the wall (as it seems), the lower halves of these prone female bodies are being serviced by a hot and sweaty band of masturbating studs lining up to insert their members in the anonymous vaginas (surrounded by the “enticing” apparel of belts and garters, a ritual drolly remarked on by the voice-over) presented to them.


As an intense, truly transgressive picturing of a psychic fantasy, the scene plays out all the confusions – I mean both the discrepancies and the similarities – between anonymous, casual, lawless encounters and intimate, socially sanctioned unions (and therefore, at some level, between heterosexual and queer mythologies of sex), a site of confusion which the film traces and probes in every scene (supremely via the figure of Robert the school principal, whose bondage rituals lead to an unexpectedly light and formal relationship of care and trust between himself and Marie).


The split marked by the wall between two starkly contrasted realms of social and psychical reality – between two images of what is conceivable and imaginable as constitutive of reality and experience – is mirrored by the violently visible join between two orders of representation, two halves of the same set. On one side, the fictional, the naturalistic, the staged and acted; on the other side, the pornographic, with its faceless body doubles engaged in real, live sex acts. But where exactly is the obscenity, the freak-out here – in the action on the outer rim of this imaginary circle, or in the split, the distinction, the abstract ‘X’ which itself forces such a hallucinatory dissociation?


MORE Breillat: Anatomy of Hell



1. Catherine Breillat, “One Day I Saw Baby Doll …”, Projections, no. 4 12 (1995), pp. 28-29. back

2. Ibid., pp. 29, 31. back

3. Robert Sklar, “A Woman’s Vision of Shame and Desire: An Interview with Catherine Breillat”, Cineaste, Vol. 25 No. 1 (1999), pp. 24-26. back

4. Luc Moullet, “De lyrique au clinique”, Trafic, no. 2, 1992, p. 31. back

5. Sklar, “A Woman’s Vision”. back

6. Moullet, “De lyrique”, p. 29. back

7. Ibid., p. 30. back

8. Breillat, “One Day”, p. 29. back

9. Sklar, “A Woman’s Vision”. back

10. Barbara Creed, “Embracing Sexual Difference” in Media Matrix: Sexing the New Reality (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2003). back

11. See, for example, Ian Hunter et al, Accounting for the Humanities: The Language of Culture and the Logic of Government (Brisbane: Institute for Cultural Policy Studies, 1991). back

12. Deb Verhoeven, “Romance”, The Melbourne Times, 1 March 2000. back

13. See Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One (Cornell University Press, 1985). back

14. These quotations are from an official document that is no longer available online. back

15. See Florence Jacobowitz & Richard Lippe, “Obsessions in the Melodrama; Amy Jones’ Love Letters”, CineAction!, no. 2 (1985), pp. 15-21; and Robin Wood, “Vive l’amour”, Film International, no. 19 (2006), pp. 44-49. back

16. Evan Williams, “Romance”, The Australian, 5 March 2000. [2019 postscript: Williams (1935-2019) was a notoriously conservative cinephile (and high-level governmental worker) with a habit of describing almost any film with queer content – including the documentary Paris is Burning (1990)! – as “desperately sad” or similar.]
. back

17. Jim Schembri, The Age Entertainment Guide, 3 March 2000. back

© Adrian Martin February-March 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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