The scene that opens Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999) puts us immediately on theme: a man dressed like a toreador and a woman dressed like a flamenco dancer pose for a photographer, who instructs the woman to be more submissive — but not too submissive — to the man. She’s able to comply to spec because she knows the drill from life, and the balance she finds is the same balance the movie’s protagonist, Marie (Caroline Ducey), strives for in her relationships with men. Breillat’s symbolizing of her heroine’s struggle in the costume and pose of Europe’s most macho culture leaves no room for doubt: Romance anatomizes (literally as well as figuratively) the sexual roles into which men and women have been shoe-horned, giving particular scope to the impossible position of one directed to submit, but who will be scorned the moment she performs her role.
Marie watches the photo shoot from the sidelines, the girlfriend of Paul (Sagamore Stévenin), who in turn is the model in the toreador suit. He lives up to our first impression of him, all anxious masculinity and macho tradition, reified to allegorical extreme (as Rocco Siffredi’s gay character is reified to allegorical extremes of misogyny in Anatomy of Hell). After a few months of sex, Paul expresses disgust with Marie and every other woman he’s slept with, and he shuts her out sexually and blames her (or her incorrect degree of submissiveness) for destroying the hunter/hunted dynamic that fuels his desire. Marie is quick to recognize his thrill-of-the-chase posturing and probes it. Paul fights for control of the dialogue and tries to shift accountability onto her as he languidly mansplains his philosophy. If Marie buys what he’s selling, she’s also stubbornly frank and holds him to the spot. It’s not surprising that, over the course of the film, she finds fulfillment elsewhere and explores the extremes of literal submission with an older, paunchier S&M lover (François Berléand).
Like many of Breillat’s women, Marie is an argument for the phenomenon of internalized misogyny; she makes observations like “You can’t love a face if a cunt goes with it” and “I disappear in proportion to the cock taking me” with despondent self-pity. She understands that Paul despises her sex and her sexuality even before he makes appalling statements like “A man needs to remake the world with his pals in a bar, or he dies” (as if women are discrete from the ‘world’ and their company’s some insidious toxin). She doesn’t need Robert, her bondage partner, to parrot society’s essentialist beliefs about the sexes while he gluts his gift of entitlement on an endless plate of lovely bodies. She puts herself in dehumanizing positions — positions that might otherwise thrill and gratify her if she were allowed agency and accorded her dignity (which of course, paradoxically, is exactly what she’s allowed during sessions with Robert, who blathers chauvinism but who plays at S&M with palpable fairness).
That’s what the audience expects, but Breillat drives us beyond the expected — the neat — and clouds her allegory with a tincture of irony. What makes Romance more than a predictable study about some men’s virgin/whore complexes is the manifestation of a similar complex in Marie. She absorbs men’s distaste for a ‘used’ woman and turns it back on them — a canny structure that allows Breillat to expose the absurdity of the virgin/whore formula in ways very different from how she does in Fat Girl. Ostensibly in love with Paul, the man who will no longer fuck her, Marie seeks out Paolo (Rocco Siffredi), the man who will. The similarity between these men’s names is intended to link them in the same way that Christian tradition has linked Eva/Ave (nomenclature is huge in this film, and Marie is an inevitable name for its heroine). She claims to hate the men who’ll sleep with her and love the one who doesn’t — who keeps his distance in a spare white apartment that reflects his obsession with purity. Marie, in turn, keeps her emotional distance from Robert and Paolo but gropes for closeness with Paul, which suggests that she’s driven by an analogue virgin/whore construction herself (a Gawain/Casanova complex?), yet one that makes her doubly burdened rather than liberated.
Forcing the same absurdity onto the men who force it onto her isn’t enough — the damage done by social pressures to submit not too submissively is too extensive. Breillat ends her film, and stalls Marie’s progression, by throwing her back into a palimpsest past that looks a lot like pre-Modern Spain. This time-shift isn’t whimsical. If (as Marie misconstrues an old adage) men ‘honor’ women by having sex with them, and if, as Robert proselytizes, childbirth cleanses women of their sexual filth, Marie has no choice but to have a baby with Paul if she wants to regain any sense of worth. Her son — Paul, Jr., one more bead on the patriarchal continuum — is born as his father dies, and his mother attends the latter’s funeral in what appears to be a throwback of more than a century. Not only does Breillat’s time-shift hark back to the moral she established with her toreador in the film’s opening scene (suggesting that our world and the world of the past are one and the same), it also denies that much has changed in the way we (mis)perceive female sexuality — in the way we continue to locate a woman’s purpose and worth in a stretch of skin between her legs. The idea of inertia — of a gender culture in stasis — is magnified by the movie’s dreamy pace and by its endless shots of figures lying down, held down or even tied down.
Romance is typical voyeuristic Breillat. It doesn’t shy away from cunts and phalluses, brandishing them like totems of anti-porn and reminding us that a filmmaker can’t honestly critique our irrational disgust of human-in-general and female-in-particular sexuality if she, just as guiltily, shies away from its objects — if she hides them beyond the frame, if she presents them in an artificially clean manner, if she pretends they aren’t there, thick, slick and trembling. This display of sexual organs doing what they’re designed to do is revolutionary not in their presence per se (they’ve been on camera since the day the camera was invented), but in Breillat’s refusal to censor them within the scope of a ‘real’ movie. The filmmaker is firm: there isn’t any need to censor them, especially when our own attitudes are far more offensive. In Romance, as in most of Breillat’s movies, cunt and phallus are restored and upraised — not as stimulant but story. They appear in Paul’s white world and in Robert’s red one (the white/red production design, and the anguish of individuals unable to communicate, makes Romance an extreme re-imagining of Bergman’s Cries and Whispers). They are objects that won’t be denied their legitimacy beyond the contained virgin/whore dramas of traditional pornography and traditional heterosexual relationships. With Romance, Breillat confirms that there’s no such thing as a gratuitous money-shot. Look close, and you’ll find an indictment of contempt and a study of sexuality’s fluid refusal to obey society’s rules. By presenting shocking content in quiet and honest frames, Breillat reaffirms her position as one of the great cinematic philosophers. Romance is finely acted, smart, and accusatory — a challenge trimmed in black lace and fuck-sweat. — Ranylt Richildis
Related: On the Films of Catherine Breillat
(Originally published on July 9, 2010 as part of In Review Online’s “directrospective” on the works of Catherine Breillat.)