One wants to give the benefit of the doubt to an ambitious film like Catherine Breillat’s Romance, particularly if one wants to seem hip and liberated; but what is one to make of the film as a film? It cries out for interpretation, but then it doesn’t trust us to do it — the movie helpfully interprets itself at every turn. The miserable protagonist Marie (Caroline Ducey), stuck in a sexless relationship with a dull male model (Sagamore Stévenin), mopes about numbly, delivering many Deep Thoughts (either aloud or in her head) about the metaphysics of sex, the allure of domination or anonymous fornication, and so on. How nice of Breillat to include the Cliff’s Notes for the movie within the movie itself.
Romance is bound to be praised for its bravery, its insistence on being a philosophical porn art-house film (though it’s not really pornographic — more on that later), but it’s little more than a glacially paced term paper on female sexuality, with none of the wit or perversity that directors like Stanley Kubrick or David Cronenberg (or, not to sound sexist, Mary Harron or Lynne Stopkewich) would have brought to it. At times, the movie plays like what might happen if Cronenberg decided to make a porn film (I mean a real porno, not Crash). The elegant photography by Yorgos Arvanitis, the cold-as-ice score by Raphaël Tidas and DJ Valentin — the style is definitely austere, distanced, clinical. Yet what feels rigorous and probing in Cronenberg comes across, in Breillat’s hands, as methodical and lumbering. The movie seems to have no curiosity about its characters, who exist only to represent one thing or another, or to prove one point or another. Breillat, we may feel, had this film in her head too long; by the time it got out, it had hardened into dogma.
Disgusted with her immovable boyfriend and with herself for being powerless to move him, Marie throws herself into a variety of joyless affairs. She declares her desire to become a mere “hole,” a receptacle for male lust. She meets a virile guy named Paolo (Rocco Siffredi, an Italian porn star) and takes him to bed, but her existential angst seems to rub off on him; at the first sign of his neediness, she’s quick to dump him. She moves on to her boss (François Berléand), a school principal (did I mention she’s a grammar-school teacher? shades of Looking for Mr. Goodbar), and the respectable-looking, gray-haired principal turns out to be a philosophical horndog who claims to have slept with 10,000 women. He also has quite the collection of bondage paraphernalia, only some of which he actually knows how to operate. They seem to make the perfect couple — they can have anguished BDSM sex and then dispassionately deconstruct it afterward. Ah, the French and their pillow talk. Somewhere in there, Marie also falls into an anonymous clinch with a man off the street (literally), who pleasures her orally and then flips her over for some rough rear entry. Her response to this, as he climaxes and scurries off like a bug, is “I’m not embarrassed, asshole!” Which, I suppose, can mean a woman has the real sexual power over a man even when she is being raped. I can’t imagine this film’s being a favorite of Andrea Dworkin.
Nor will it be a favorite of prurient guys (or women). Romance, like Crash, is too cold to generate much heat. But Crash was positing a sort of alternate universe in which the collision of metal was sexier than the merging of flesh, and probing the sexual imaginations of those who lived there. Romance locks us inside one unhappy, frustrated woman’s mind — could it be a high-toned version of Diary of a Mad Housewife? — and from the flat, declamatory tone of Marie’s pronouncements, we’re clearly meant to feel that her truths are universal truths. To her credit, Breillat does debunk a good deal of male bulling about female eroticism — the title is obviously ironic — and many women may connect with the spirit of some of Marie’s musings, if not their specifics.
But when it comes time to illustrate Marie’s loss of inhibitions, Breillat drops the ball. Romance is probably not half as explicit as you’ve been led to believe. Yes, at two points we do see the mouth of established actress Caroline Ducey make (brief) contact with a (limp) penis; we get a couple of vagina shots, which feel suspiciously like inserts, and a “money shot” during Marie’s fever-dream fantasy of a brothel in which only female crotches and legs are available to men. (As if that were all men wanted, when you strip away all the bullshit. It’s the old tired argument again.) We see why Rocco Siffredi is a successful porn star, too. But a lot of the sex here, while a good deal lengthier than you’d find in an R-rated film, is really no more revealing than anything you’d catch on late-night Cinemax. Much of it appears to be very skillfully simulated, not real. I mention all this only to caution those who’ve been waiting for a serious drama with hardcore sex. Keep waiting, or haul out your old copy of In the Realm of the Senses again.
One critic went so far as to compare Romance with Luis Buñuel’s erotic farce/masterpiece Belle de Jour, which is a little like comparing a dull Protestant minister’s sermon with a Lenny Bruce routine. Both films do show the character arc of a woman caught up in her own purple fantasies, except Breillat leaves out the purple. Her people are bleached robots in lockstep, and in case you didn’t get her point, she comes up with an ending that redefines “contrived,” involving a gas oven left on and a nick-of-time trip to the delivery room. Yep, once again Marie spreads her legs, becoming the “hole” she said she wanted to be, only this time the hole produces life instead of swallowing male insecurity. (The life it produces is male, too. Another man for Marie to coddle.) You can’t argue with a movie like Romance; it has its mind made up before it sits down to the table. Unless you’re French, or would like to seem French, there’s not much point to arguing about the movie, either. It is what it is, and it says what it says. It’s more tell than show.