Few things are more provocative than a camera in a subaltern’s hand, especially when she turns it on her oppressor. The films of Catherine Breillat do just that, reproving the scolds and taking aim at those who impose rules on women’s bodies, who claim to be their stewards, who make them ugly by calling them ugly, who insist that men know best when a female body is ready for play, who deny us a right to our own sexuality or (something we aren’t always allowed) a right of refusal. It’s discomfiting stuff for viewers of any sex and sexuality, but it’s rewarding if we accept that we still need to be challenged. And we do. Breillat explodes the myth of a post-feminist society by the very fact of her presence; her films could only be inspired in a lopsided culture.
With her rep gaining traction year by year, and with the arrival of Bluebeard on North American shores this summer, the InRO staff decided to crack open Breillat’s body of work and squint inside — no flinching. If her movies are lumped in with the New French Extremity school of cinema, it isn’t just because her frame embraces intimate body fluids and hair — those inescapable phenomena Margaret Atwood described as the marks that distinguish adults from kids. It’s also because her subject matter is hatred — hate as visceral as orgasm. Misogyny (internal or institutional) is Breillat’s target, and she’s noted for being able to capture the loathing that steals across a room between two figures who ought to revel in each other. Detractors argue that Breillat’s position is too ideological for the time, when some societies are relaxing ancient strictures — and yet her films could hardly be made before now. They certainly weren’t tolerated in 1976 when she screened A Real Young Girl, which was subsequently banned in France and elsewhere until a few years ago.
Some of Breillat’s films are oozy and wet-edged, some are allegorical, and some are less shocking than their content might suggest. By literally shining a lamp on the human crotch and by shifting subjectivity away from the lusting male, Breillat demystifies and normalizes female — and indeed all — desire. A novelist and songwriter as well as a filmmaker, Breillat creates rich cinema that communicates mood and message in manifold ways. She combines graphic shots with contemplative voice-overs and jars us with the frankness of being. Her sex stories are anti-romantic comedies that study motivations generated from earthy insides without reducing gender politics to mean essentialism. The war between the sexes is arbitrary, her work argues, and individual sexuality should never be compromised by the desires of others. It doesn’t matter how crazy that girl’s body makes you — it’s hers and hers alone. Her cunt can only disrupt society as much as society insists it does, and her desire is free to appear in increments or all at once. Breillat insists on this not just through story but through her women, who make defiant faces at the lens that declare to each their own.
Breillat isn’t denying that some men grant personhood to women. She’s addressing those who don’t and the women who accommodate them. She’s considering the larger systems that continue to feed these attitudes, which is her artist’s prerogative. Why do some viewers dispute Breillat’s right to critique a common enough predisposition that’s on the wane in only some parts of the world, and only within our own lifetimes? Critics who adopt a not my Nigel! stance obtusely sidestep the discussions these films are designed to provoke. Working outside of academe, Breillat is one of the most important feminists we have; women have reported not hating their sexuality as much after watching her movies, and that’s huge. That’s power — and one that obviously continues to agitate the props of tradition. In this way, Breillat’s nay-sayers validate her argument despite themselves. – Ranylt Richildis
Related: A retrospective of Romance
(Originally published on July 7, 2010 as part of In Review Online’s “directrospective” on the works of Catherine Breillat.)