‘The central preoccupation of Catherine Breillat’s work is the sexuality of women. That is, in and of itself, no major accomplishment. How many male directors, by contrast, are not in some way preoccupied with women? Of course, the preoccupation with female sexuality in most forms of cinematic production is marked by exhibitionism rather than introspection; it reassures where it could tear apart. Even in a film like Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale (2002), any effort to revise the image of the figure of the femme fatale along feminist lines is undercut by extensive displays of the female body. In this case, the femme fatale may no longer be the cause of the noir hero’s downfall, but she is still the source of visual pleasure. Although, Breillat’s films also tread a very fine line between exhibitionism and introspection—she admits that they are, after all, always about sex—they do so under the guidance of a fundamental difference in conception. In Breillat’s own words: “I take sexuality as a subject, not as an object.”
‘But, of course, this formulation is only half right. Her films are, as I have said, uniquely concerned with a woman’s understanding of her own sexuality. The representation of this sexual reckoning encompasses a wide range of issues including the adolescent obsession with the loss of virginity, in films like Une vraie jeune fille (1975) and 36 Fillette (1988); a woman’s (possibly) masochistic relation to sex in Romance (1999); and the seemingly unbridgeable sexual and emotional gulf between an older woman and a younger man, in Parfait amour! (1996) and Brève traversée (2001). However, the films are also sexually explicit; contrary to Breillat’s assertion, sex is an object as well as a subject in her films. Moreover, the sexual acts on display in Breillat’s films are not only explicit, they are often unsimulated, a characteristic of her films that has contributed to her unflattering (in my view) international reputation as the auteur of porn. For Breillat, the visual display of sex is inseparable from the representation of the consciousness of her female characters. The representation of sex is also central to the development of her visual style—a level of innovation that has been grossly overlooked in contemporary film culture. And herein lies both the challenge and the controversy of her work.
‘Catherine Breillat’s preoccupation with the representation of female sexuality began very early in her artistic career. Breillat began as a writer, publishing her first novel, L’homme facile, when she was just 17. Ironically, the book was banned for readers under the age of 18 in France for its explicit and transgressive sexual content, thus initiating Breillat into a lifetime of controversy. Breillat would quickly gain a reputation as the female De Sade, the new Bataille—a purveyor of transgressive sexuality. Breillat went on to publish seven novels and one play, many of which she would herself adapt to the screen.
‘Breillat transitioned to filmmaking in 1975 with an adaptation of her fourth novel, Le Soupirail, retitled Une vraie jeune fille. Standing in between this transition from novelist to director was a brief, but no doubt highly influential, acting stint. In 1972, Breillat appeared in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, playing a character named Mouchette. Bertolucci could not have chosen this name more wisely, drawn, as it is, from the eponymous protagonist of Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1966). Bresson’s Mouchette, a very young, utterly disenfranchised girl who is both sexually precocious, sexually abused, and suicidal, was likely a template for many of Breillat’s own tortured adolescents. But Bertolucci’s film, which centers on the emotional anguish of an American man in Paris who begins an anonymous and transgressive affair in a empty, dilapidated Paris flat, was no doubt a major influence on Breillat’s representation of sexuality. Indeed, in 36 Fillette, Breillat cast Jean-Pierre Léaud, who also had a brief role in Last Tango in Paris. And, of course, the censorship problems that Bertolucci faced with Last Tango in Paris, for its representation of sodomy, amongst other things, were ones with which Breillat would become increasingly familiar.
‘Breillat’s first film did not see the light of day until twenty-five years later, when it was released in France in 2000. Une vraie jeune fille was shelved by its backers for, once again, its transgressive look at the sexual awakening of an adolescent girl. And it is not so hard to see why. Une vraie jeune fille is an awkward film. It represents Breillat at her most Bataillesque, freely mingling abstract images of female genitalia, mud, and rodents into this otherwise realist account of a young girl’s sexual awakening. In her summary of Susan Sontag’s defense of a literary strain of pornography, Linda Williams offers what stands as an apt description of Breillat’s approach in Une vraie jeune fille, where an “elitist, avant-garde, intellectual, and philosophical pornography of imagination [is pitted against] the mundane, crass materialism of a dominant mass culture.” There is no way, in other words, to integrate this film into a commodity driven system of distribution. It does not offer visual pleasure, at least not one that comes without intellectual engagement, and, more importantly, rigorous self-examination—hence Breillat’s assertion that sex is the subject, not the object, of her work.
‘The difficulty of Breillat’s work—that is, her steadfast refusal to make conventionally erotic images, or films, for that matter, which don’t deal with sex at all—has lead to a myriad of censorship problems. Her second film, Tapage Nocturne (1979), which also details the sexual longing of a young woman, and was adapted from her novel of the same name, also met with censorship. Although the film was released, access to it was forbidden to anyone under 18. But it was with the release of Romance in 1999 that Breillat would face censorship internationally, when the film was either banned altogether in some countries, or given an X rating. It was a situation Breillat spoke out about when she declared that, “censorship was a male preoccupation, and that the X certificate was linked to the X chromosome.” Breillat’s statement was echoed in the French poster for the film, which features a naked woman with her hand between her legs. A large red X is printed across the image, thus revealing the source of the trouble: a woman in touch with her own sense of sexual pleasure.
‘Romance, and the world-wide discourse about pornography that erupted in the wake of its release, best typifies the challenge and the interest of her work. Romance is about a woman, Marie, whose boyfriend refuses to have sex with her. Her frustration leads her to a series of affairs in an effort to not only find pleasure, but seemingly to arrive at some better understanding of her own desire. The film is sexually explicit, and features, as do many of Breillat’s films, acts of unsimulated sex, hence the many accusations leveled against Breillat that she is a pornographer. Indeed, Breillat willfully courted such accusations by casting Rocco Siffredi, a famous Italian porn star, as one of Marie’s lovers. Moreover, Marie’s sexual encounters are marked by a sense of sadomasochism. Indeed, after having her baby she winds up with a man who is also the principal of the school where she teaches, having blown up her apartment and her boyfriend (who is also, presumably, the father of her child) on the way to the hospital.
‘Romance was banned in Australia upon its release in January 2000. In his review of the Office of Film and Literature’s (OFLC) report on the film, Adrian Martin describes the reason for the ban. And in so doing, Martin arrives at precisely the thing that makes Breillat’s films so difficult, and so interesting. Martin surveys the censors’ objection to the scene where Marie is solicited by a man in the hallway of her building. In this scene, a man offers Marie twenty-dollars to perform cunnilingus on her, to which she assents without saying a word. Of course, more occurs, as Marie is turned over (or turns over) as her perpetrator then enters her from behind. As he continues, Marie seems to sob, and when he leaves, she shouts that she is not ashamed. Martin notes that in describing the scene, the writer of the OFLC report says that “he orders Marie to turn over,” and that she tries to “scuffle away.” Martin replies, “…I did not see Marie try to ‘scuffle away’ during the scene, or be forced to turn over.” Martin’s point is that this writer’s language reveals his own moral response to an image, as opposed to what is actually present in the image: “One of the most interesting things about Romance is the way in which it inscribes in its own material ambiguous designation of obscenity.” In other words, neither Breillat nor Caroline Ducey (Marie) give us any concrete signs of her own response to what is happening. We cannot walk away confident of Marie’s outrage, only our own, at best. Indeed, the whole scene begins with a voice-over where Marie proclaims that it is, in fact, her fantasy to be taken this way. Yet, the act itself is inscribed into the realist space of the plot, thus blurring the line between fantasy and reality that is signaled by Marie’s voice-over.
‘As such, when we watch this act on screen, and many others like it, we are left only with what we think of what we see. Moreover, we project our own values back on to the screen, as Martin further notes when he cites a review of the film that describes the scene between Marie and Rocco Siffredi as a “humiliating affair.” Of course, there is, to my eyes, no signs of humiliation in that scene. If anything, it is a frank and very physical depiction of a sexual encounter. Siffredi asks Marie if he can have anal sex with her, an act that stands as the possible source of said humiliation. However, this possibility is complicated by the fact that she very calmly consents, on the condition that he first continue to make love to her. Moreover, the scene begins with Marie telling Siffredi, while holding a soiled condom, how men like to keep things hidden—how easily they are disgusted. The only sign of shame in the sequence comes when she admits to Siffredi, in the middle of sex, that she only sleeps with men that she doesn’t like. If there is shame here, it is the viewer’s.
‘And that’s just the point. Breillat exposes us to sexual encounters, often very volatile ones, but does not tell us what to think about them. She does not, I believe, judge her characters, or their desires. But that does not mean, however, that Breillat’s images and characters are necessarily removed from moral consideration. Rather, the opacity of her characters, the material designations of obscenity, to borrow Martin’s phrase, only make the films more meaningful. For example, in À ma soeur! (2001), Breillat tells the story of the rivalry and sexual awakening of two teenage sisters. One sister, Elena, is fifteen, thin and attractive; the younger sister, Anaïs, is twelve, overweight, and subject to Elena’s hostility. À ma soeur! ends with a scene in which Elena, Anaïs, and their mother are driving on the highway. Out of nowhere a man jumps through the windshield, killing both Elena and her mother. It is a brutal and surprising conclusion to a film that has otherwise moved along very slowly, in a pace closer to De Sica’s Umberto D than the horror genre that it ends up resembling. After murdering Elena and her mother, the killer takes Anaïs into the woods and rapes her. The scene is horrifying, and is made more so (for this viewer at least) by the apparent lack of signs of resistance or even possibly distress on the part of Anaïs. Breillat and her brilliant young performer, Anaïs Reboux, resist the signs of terror that typically accompany such scenes. As Anaïs is escorted out of the woods by the police, we hear them say that Anaïs claims that no rape took place. And it is important, I believe, that we do not hear Anaïs say this. For one, by refusing coded signs of distress, Breillat, it seems to me at least, asks us to try to see this rape from Anaïs’ perspective. That is, Anaïs does not want to view it as rape, but as a sexual experience, especially as her age, body, and attractive older sister have previously stood in the way of her sexual desires. But this is not to excuse the rape. At all. Rather, by courting ambiguity, Breillat presents us with a complicated, if very controversial, portrait of the psychology of a young girl. We can judge this scene any way that we choose. We will likely be outraged and saddened. We can even condemn Breillat as the creator; however, our condemnation would, I believe, miss the point. For there is no question that what we see is rape; the question is why would this young girl want to see it otherwise. And our answer to that will not be found in easy, moralizing statements.
‘This resistance to simple, and therefore limiting, character comprehension, is the key to Breillat’s films, all of which stands as efforts to represent the consciousness of her female characters in extremely complex terms. She does not afford us the easy access to the mind of women that one finds in mainstream film where a woman’s consciousness is always externalized.’ — Brian Price, Senses of Cinema
Catherine Breillat @ IMDb
CB interviewed @ Film Comment
‘Fairy Tales & Insomnia: On The Films of Catherine Breillat’
CB’s films @ mubi
‘On Set With Catherine Breillat: “I never really invent anything”’
Book: ‘Pornocracy,’ by Catherine Breillat
Catherine Breillat’s books in French
Catherine Breillat @ Facebook
CB @ Pyramide Films
‘Catherine Breillat attaquée en justice par Christophe Rocancourt’
‘The joy of sex’
‘Filming the Impossible’
‘Catherine Breillat: “My sister’s scared to see it”‘
‘Catherine Breillat: “All true artists are hated”‘
‘Catherine Breillat’s Transfigurative Female Gaze’
‘Catherine Breillat’s politically incorrect films’
‘Sex is a Hen Decapitated: Bluebeard and the Eroticism of Catherine Breillat’
CATHERINE BREILLAT on INTIMACY
Rencontre Catherine Breillat
Interview with Catherine Breillat & Isabelle Huppert
Chantal Akerman + Catherine Breillat. Film Theory. 2001.
CATHERINE BREILLAT — TRANSGRESSOR
‘I am the pariah of French cinema. That can make things complicated for me: it is never easy to drum up a budget or to find a distributor for my films in France. Some people refuse even to read my scripts. But it also makes me very happy because hatred is invigorating. All true artists are hated. Only conformists are ever adored.’ — Catherine Breillat
‘In gonzo sex you see a camera man, and the camera man tells to the actors, ‘move like that,’ and a woman who is being screwed slides to the camera and asks ‘am I ok like this’ and they make fun… I think this is the high point of censorship. They are afraid of even a minimum of narrative. No wonder that the French cinema director Catherine Breillat, who tries to do precisely this both — emotionally engaging serious drama, plus full sex — cannot somehow really penetrate the big market.’ — Slavoj Zizek
‘As a woman, I respect Breillat on many levels. I don’t think most women have the balls to even murmur the subjects she portrays on film. What fascinates me the most is that she went from being a writer to a filmmaker, grabbing the bull by the horns, so to speak, and really nurtured her art. She didn’t let anyone else misinterpret or do it for her. Only time will tell if American cinema will catch on and be comfortable with sexuality – as John Waters said it’s the only thing American films haven’t done … it’s the last thing left.’ — Sasha Grey
‘(Breillat’s) filming and selling actors, rather than words, produces an argument that splits her Dworkinite theory into less passionate responsibilities that is seemingly at odds with the narrative. And her writing feeds off that exposure. Breillat is one of the few filmmakers who looks hard at what her films throw back at her. Her work is extremely self-referential but not blind to the salesmanship, collegiate dialectics or feminist lore she seeks to expand beyond Unica Zurn and Shirley Mills.’ — Peter Sotos
I want to ask you initially about how you began as an actor, and then you moved on to writing and directing.
No, I began writing a novel. In English it was called A Man for the Asking. In France it was called L’homme facile. I wrote it at sixteen years of age, but it was forbidden in France for anyone under eighteen. So it was illegal for me to read the book I had written.
An absurd situation, so you began writing and then you took up acting?
A little, very little acting, it was when I was very young, twelve, about that time. I wanted to become a moviemaker, director, a writer, singer, actress, but, in fact, my two real passions are literature and cinema. I wanted to be behind the camera, not in front of the camera. My sister became an actress, yes, because of me, and she was successful as an actress in France.
I have read quite a few interviews with actors who have worked with you. They have enormous admiration for you and loyalty. I am interested that you say you work behind the camera, and you prefer that, so how do you work with your actors; what is you role?
It’s like a …a translation of me…
Yes, but I don’t know how I do it. Suddenly I feel this urgency and I have to make something. And, I have success but I don’t know how. I think I am very tactile so I create very precise choreography. I talk with the actors a lot, but when I directed this sort of big spoof, which is Sex is Comedy, I asked Anne Parillaud, who I worked with on this film and who is a big star (because I think that I was too demanding with her), so I asked her if I was, am, too méchante (nasty), aggressive.
Never, she said to me. You never tell me what I have to do, just what I have to be. Always I ask my actors to propose something and when they have finished I say to them, that is exactly what all the other actors would do in this text so it’s not interesting. They have to propose to me something else, something that surprises me. It is very boring for me if they do exactly what I have written. If they do that, I have just published a scenario, like a novel. So, if I shoot the scenario it will be because there is something else in the script and they have to convince me of what this something else is.
That they find within themselves?
That they find in their passions.
Do you rehearse your actors a lot or do you work more spontaneously on the set?
I never rehearse. If the first time is good, I always keep the first take, even if it is contrary to what I want. If it is not good, I cannot shoot it again, because what I want is grace. I don’t like work—it’s a joke of course, but work is ugly, work always appears, your have to have grace. For me a good “shoot” is what I call a magic shoot. Everything is perfect, completely. The way we shoot, the way the actress plays, how it is framed, the time, and the musical time—that is a magic shoot. For me, I always want to have this and it’s completely marvellous. There is some kind of magic. Magic happens.
You shoot very fast too?
Yes. And I think more and more quickly, especially the last two films I made, Barbe bleue and La belle endormie. La belle endormie was shot in costume and in nineteen days.
That is surprisingly fast for costume dramas.
Yes, like that, you are never bored. How can I say? You are always under pressure to do a scene because you are directly exposing others. It is best when you are in danger—a mise en danger—and you have to respond.
Going back to your upbringing, I’ve heard you mention that you had quite a strict, catholic upbringing, and I wonder about your artistic life as a kind of rejection of that orthodoxy. For example, critics often talk about Anatomie de l’enfer (Anatomy of Hell, 2004) as being a film that re-addresses issues around religious symbolism.
Anatomie de l’enfer for me is not against religion. For me it is a theorem to explain and prove what is “obscenity” because every time censorship prosecutes obscenity, they can never say what it is. So I make a théorème, like a philosophical théorème, or half philosophic, half mathematic, and, of course, I fall on the evidence that obscenity is… a dream ideal. And, of course, not a catholic one. In fact, at the time I was making this film my assistant, who is Jewish, said to me, you are very courageous to make a film that is against the Torah.
The interdiction on images?
Yes, but I said no. It’s my ‘scene’ as I had never read the Torah. So when I was editing Anatomie de l’enfer I would go to the metro and I would read the Torah in the metropolitan, the subway, and yes, it was the same world because this world is…even if you are not Jewish, not Catholic, not Protestant, it’s an orthodox society.
So I made Anatomie de l’enfer because in Romance (1999) I didn’t go to the extreme limit because courage failed me—to really see sex in a movie that is not a pornographic one. In fact, I failed, Oshima did it, but with Romance, j’ai échoue, I failed. With Anatomie de l’enfer, there was only one subject. You cannot escape.
I find Anatomie de l’enfer a very powerful and surprising film, but my students, particularly my female students, much prefer Romance. As twenty-year-olds, this is the film they want to talk about. For me, Anatomie de l’enfer goes places that Romance fails to, and I also feel some anxiety about the depiction of female masochism. Can you talk about why you think you failed with Romance?
My obsession, I think, is that it should not be forbidden to see the sex of a woman because it is not an obscenity. I very much like the Courbet picture, L’Origine du monde. It is an art picture. It is not pornographic photography and everyone understands the difference, but they cannot say why and censorship boards are also unable to say why.
With Romance when Marie [played by Caroline Ducey] has the mirror between her legs, in fact, in the script at the time I make her look at her sex and then she brings up the mirror and looks at herself. This sex cannot have this face. This face cannot have this sex and yet, I didn’t shoot the female sex. I just shot the triangle so I was very prudish. I did not go to the final demonstration, the expression of which, as an artist, I should have. When I saw Romance for the first time, I wanted to make another one immediately, a remake. But the business of the cinema is not artistic, so it is not possible, as you do not have the money to say I want to make that scene again, but not the same. This scene is one for heaven, now I want to make one in water, in the ground, in mud.
Because Romance is uneven and, in fact, although I wanted to make Anatomie de l’enfer of the ground [earth], it is also uneven and I don’t know why because I went exactly where I wanted to go with this movie. It is a very ecstatic movie for me.
I want to ask you about the two things that always come up in relation to your work, sex and violence. You’ve already talked about issues around sexuality, women’s sexuality, and so I want to ask you about not just what you are trying to do in your films in relation to sexuality, but also in relation to society. I ask this partly because last weekend I met two women who were documentary filmmakers. They were making a documentary about 40 years of feminism in France, the MLF (le mouvement de libération des femmes). They said they felt a need to make this documentary because of the lack of interest—and urgency—on young women’s behalf and their sort of denial and rejection of feminism. They said they needed to make this film because things have improved but they haven’t improved greatly.
The times go backwards. It is horrible. We go backwards. In France, we are currently speaking about the liberty to wear the hijab, the thing is that some women in Islamic countries have no rights. Why? It [The hijab] is a symbol of something horrible. When you look at Benazir Bhutto, she was one of the guides of the Islamic republic, but she didn’t wear it like that; she wore something more normal like a scarf, something coloured. But it is not about death, it’s about life. This sort of religion is now about death, the death of women.
The Algerian women are completely dressed in white, but it is not a light white cloth, it is like the material for a catafalque. And now they say in France, the country of liberty, that I can wear the hijab, but I cannot walk in the streets with the croix gammée (nazi cross). It’s symbolic, the same symbol. Now in Afghanistan the women have no right to study, no right to work and so they are treated like beasts without a doctor, without a veterinaire. They even face lapidation.
You cannot wear a symbol as it is forbidden. It is not a question of religion, no it’s forbidden to have croix gammée and the hijab should be forbidden. Yes, a scarf like Benazir Bhutto, but not covered. It is ostensibly a symbol of the enslavement of women.
What do young French women who are not religious think of their own situation?
They think that when their mothers, a mother like me, was a feminist, it was against men and that we were wrong because we were furious about men. They do not understand that all they have now is because of what we did and it was not “against” men.
Younger men now I think are nicer, less macho, not all of them, but many of them. Feminine and masculine are a part of all of us and they are now composed in a new man with all the characteristics—with the strength and the beauty of weakness.
In an article in Télérama that invited directors like yourself to discuss violence in the cinema, you talked about how, when you use violence, you want it to be like an axe, something very quick and sudden, like it can be in life. I think this is how the violence works at the end of A ma sœur (Fat Girl, 2001). There is also enormous animosity towards violence in the cinema, a fear that it might be contagious.
No, because when I was young and I could never go outside with friends. I only had permission to go to the bibliothèque. And I read many, many books. There I found a book, an Iranian anthology. It was called a book of pleasure and as a twelve year old, I made a very close study of each of its chapters. All the passages I liked the most at this age and up to twenty years old where all written by men and were so violent against women. But it was my culture, my artistique culture. I liked this in an artistic way and they were very great artists. It was marvellous in literature but it may not be marvellous in life.
Me? I was also a very great fan of Dostoevsky—all is dark, but when it’s like that you can project yourself into the darkness and you never have to act. Everybody has some attraction for violence. If you read about it, if you see it, it’s not violence. It can better help you understand yourself because you have a sort of shame, everybody knows that you/we have an attraction for violence, but it’s just a thought. It is not reality and I think that fiction is made to put in front of you what you are. But it is fiction; it’s not fact, so I think this creates great confusion for censorship.
In Romance I make a rape scene, even in A ma soeur. Many journalists said to me, a rape, a violent rape, is a crime. Therefore it is of course normal that the scenes would be censored, either cut from the film or the film forbidden. I say, no, it’s fiction; everybody says that women have a fantasme of rape. You can have the fantasy, you can want to be raped in your fantasies, but the reality is a crime. The crime is not a fiction, it’s a reality, not a thought—fiction and reality is not the same thing.
11 of Catherine Breillat’s 18 films
Tapage Nocturne (1979)
‘Solange is a film director and mother, living with her husband with whom she periodically makes loves. She’s very attached to a bisexual actor, Jim, although this doesn’t stop her for finding other lovers, often up to two or three times a night. Solange is looking for mad love. She soon meets and falls heavily for Bruno, a director like herself. They set up severe codes to determine their behavior and they endlessly re-enact ” the first time “. It’s like trying to relive the same dream, night after night…. Perhaps the film is more personal for Catherine Breillat. Is it a record of her working methods during this period? Her films have always dealt with sexuality and maybe the filmmaker was simply using the medium to express her own thoughts and experiences. I love that; a great deal of why I love the cinema is the auteur theory which states the director is the author of a film; that links in an artist’s work can be found from work to work. Breillat surely qualifies, and I can see how this film influenced her later work.’ — collaged
36 fillette (1988)
‘Catherine Breillat’s 36 Fillette follows a few crucial days in the life of Lili, a 14-year-old French girl whose body is ripe and whose soul is troubled by an unhappy home life. One night during a miserable family vacation at a tacky resort, she talks her older brother into taking her to a disco and there she begins a series of risky flirtations with older men. We have caught her at a moment when her unhappiness has coincided with her sudden discovery of her sexuality and the power she can have over men. With a boldness born of anger and naivete, heedless of danger, she sets out to manipulate a man. Her psychological motivations are hinted at in a scene where her father is uncaring, but this is a film of observation, not analysis. The movie is controversial because of the difference in age between the two lovers, and because of the girl’s blatant, if naive, sexuality. But Breillat has made a film far more complex than it might seem. This film depicts the sort of situation one “should” deplore, but the film is so specifically about two particular people that it slips away from convention and just quietly goes its own way.’ — Roger Ebert
Catherine BREILLAT répond aux questions de Thierry ARDISSON.Ils parlent de son film “36 fillette”
Parfait Amour! (1996)
‘Another frank depiction of sexual obsession from Breillat which, despite several instances of full frontal nudity, is not particularly graphic until a short orgy sequence in the film’s latter stages. While the film is rather long and talky, it is also surprisingly compelling, aided considerably by its two excellent central performances, particularly Isabelle Renauld’s; its semi-documentary/flashback framework, then, leads to a shocking, inevitable finale. Having a relationship with a beautiful, mature woman is every young man’s dream and, for a while, Francis Renaud lives it but before long, his unwillingness to let go of his chauvinistic male friends (who are prone to graphically describe their sexual prowess in front of his female companion) and seriously commit to his relationship is too heavy a burden for them both; ironically, it is Renaud’s attempt at taking on the role of father-figure (by taking an interest in Renauld’s teenage girl) which triggers off the differences between them and which keep escalating as the film goes along.’ — Marco Gauci
‘It must have been a while since mainstream cinema audiences were invited to view a young woman submitting to be tied up by an older man (her employer, as it happens), the cord tied between her legs, through her vagina and pulled up good and tight: the unlovely impress of rope on genitalia represented in unforgiving close-up. Then the young woman interrupts the process in tears, not through rage at phallocentric oppression in life and art – nothing so dated – but rather anger at her own timid refusal of this adventure and naturally a vertiginous sense of the profound “enigma” in female sexuality. This is the burden and the song of Romance, Catherine Breillat’s opaque essay in eroticism, a film controversial for its explicit portrayal of male arousal: a pink orchard of erect penises. The film is often discussed in the context of censorship, but in fact it has not been cut: the BBFC have earnestly decreed that this is because it is “very French”. (Breillat herself caused a minor sensation at the Edinburgh Film Festival this summer, declaring that censorship was a male urge, and the X certificate was linked to the X chromosome.)’ — The Guardian
Fat Girl (2001)
‘The original title of my film was always Fat Girl, but since I am French and not at all bilingual, it was for reasons more mysterious than an anglicism. Of course, the little girl was fat, but the title also expressed an autism, a wall between her and the world that the foreign language reinforced. And she was not designated by her name but by her representation, “fat” and “girl.” It was something completely different from the French of “grosse fille”; it was musical sounding, like a jazz tune. Of course, it is easy to name someone imaginary in this way, but as for the little girl who was going to play the role, Anaïs Reboux, it was hard to tell her that, according to the title itself, she had to be fat and that that was part of the reason she had been cast. So I shot the film under two working titles, Two Girls and Two Sisters, because the other sister, Roxane Mesquida, whose character I was not fond of while working on the screenplay, was gaining in importance. Clearly, it was also a story about sisters, a story about “a soul with two bodies.” But I always wanted to come back to the first title. In my head, it had never changed.’ — Catherine Breillat
Making of ‘Fat Girl’
Sex Is Comedy (2002)
‘Perhaps no filmmaker has filmed sex more seriously and introspectively than Catherine Breillat, whose film Sex Is Comedy takes as its subject her own filming of sex scenes. When Breillat films sex, it’s as part of her movies in which the intimate aspects of the characters’ sex lives are integral to the story. This gives her work a substantial advance on that of most filmmakers. Censorship has fallen and sex dominates the media, yet most directors, even now, dutifully conceal their characters’ intimacy—and I don’t just mean the actors’ bodies—with a prudish aversion. This is both a failure of imagination and a failure of audacity. As Breillat makes clear in Sex Is Comedy, nothing puts actors, and filmmakers, on the line as sex does. For most contemporary filmmakers, sex is merely signified through the most banally pneumatic conventions. It’s as if directors and viewers were fulfilling a tacit agreement—don’t ask, don’t tell. Breillat’s films prove that without intimacy a story is a hollow shell, a diversion, a sham. Sex Is Comedy reveals the high price of that intimacy for the director, for the viewer, and, especially, for the actors. Which leads to another question: Is it all worth it?’ — The New Yorker
Anatomy of Hell (2004)
‘With Breillat’s latest film, Anatomy of Hell, Breillat wishes to free the woman – her body, her psyche, her soul – from this repressive nature of a fearful, contempt-filled – and religious – society by initiating the man, by allowing him to understand the other, and thus understand himself. “The woman in this film represents a Christ,” says Breillat, using iconography for the means of the iconoclast, allowing her female protagonist to take the “fall” so that this man might understand more. And as such, Breillat’s protagonist in Anatomy of Hell must exist as a savior, a martyr of society’s inflicted masochism, and a woman who must face a sort of “mutilation” of fluids, of “falling apart” – a diegetic manner that Breillat compares to Pasolini. And like Salò, “This film will elicit a strong hateful response because it’s about the forbidden aspects of religion,” Breillat warns. “… looking at a woman’s body like this is really scary for people. And I think that the film will have a violent reception. I’m sure that hate and anger will come from the fundamentalist establishment. I hope that they won’t kill me.” Whether or not Anatomy of Hell’s salvation disgusts or enlightens will depend on the viewer’s own reaction to the characters own actions – to the film’s presentation of their sexuality, their orifices, and their own eventual transcendence, and the moral implications of such a “transgressive” ascendance. Like a feminine or egalitarian adaptation of Nietzsche’s concept Übermunsch (which literally means over-human) Breillat wishes to save her characters from their own religion-generated-nihilism – and thus destruction – by beautifying their natural, organic bodies and lives, and liberating their withered selves from a declining, malevolent society –a society in which the characters are enslaved and guilt-ridden with “chastity” and “virtue,” and thus inherent impurity. Breillat’s feminist salvation is to make what is deemed impure beautiful, and to make what is sin – what is filth – a work of art, of righteousness, a Nietzscheian transvaluation.’ — David Durnell
The Last Mistress (2007)
‘In 2004, Breillat suffered a stroke and was confined to a hospital bed for five months, but remarkably a year to the day after the stroke, she began shooting her latest film, The Last Mistress. Based on a novel by Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly, the film is a period piece and thus a significant departure for Breillat whose previous work has all been deeply grounded in modernity. The story is nevertheless as erotically charged as ever: aristocratic Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Aït Aattou) marries the rich, devoted Hermangarde (Roxanne Mesquida) but is lured into infidelity by La Vellini (Asia Argento), the earthy courtesan whose primal desires match his own. The Last Mistress has all the trappings of a period piece – lavish costumes, elaborate sets, etc. – but Breillat makes the material her own by transforming Barbey d’Aurevilly’s 19th century novel into a vital and highly sexual noir. Breillat gets brave performances from her two ill-fated lovers, Aattou and Argento, and the stylistic grandeur perfectly offsets the emotional intensity of the film, which is Breillat’s most exciting so far if not also her best.’ — Filmmaker Magazine
‘Reviews have called Breillat’s film a feminist retelling, but that seems to me to be a knee-jerk reaction to a woman making a film of a fairy tale in which women are threatened with death but come out victorious and rich. It’s a popular label, and thus is becoming a lazy one. Angela Carter’s retelling, the 1979 short story titled “The Bloody Chamber,” had more obviously feminist elements—the mother coming to her daughter’s aid rather than brothers, the intense examination of marriage and sex—but Breillat’s aiming for something slightly different. The film can be described as feminine, to be sure. Rather than questioning the man’s actions towards the woman, which is more akin to what I’d call feminist, the film is occupied with women’s actions towards and feelings for each other, and how they interpret their relationships with other women via the roles they cast for themselves. Both Marie-Catherine and the little reader, Catherine (haha, get it?) are jealous of their sisters, Anne and Marie-Anne (yeah, you get it), and their sisters are jealous of them. But there’s also kinship and dependence in their relationships, which are severely tried by the end of the movie. Marie-Catherine and Catherine cast themselves in roles: the wife, the heroine, in order to break out of the role of “sister,” and one-up both their own sisters and their previous notions of their own identities. This is why it’s important that Marie-Catherine seem much too young for marriage–not because of any perverse desires on Bluebeard’s part, but because she is a reflection of a younger girl’s tendency to imagine herself as the heroine of a stories, to overcome the restraints of childhood and imagine herself independent and important.’ — Something to Read for the Train
The Sleeping Beauty (2010)
‘The Sleeping Beauty is hardly a shocking film when one considers the gamut of Breillat’s envelope-pushing filmography, but as Breillat exhibited in her adaptation of Bluebeard, Perrault’s fairytales hardly need much indulgent tinkering to be troubling. There already exists a wealth of material in fairy tales ready for exploring what they already imply about gender, sexuality, power, desire, justice, etc. The Sleeping Beauty is also far from a totalizing deconstruction of the fairy tale, and until its final few moments is perfectly satisfied with only its own colorful irreverence, but I’m not sure if that’s something these tales need anyway. What Breillat does instead is much more slight and interesting: she’s having fun with the genre and story as her template to toy with, then uses that foundation to engage with human sexuality as a subject, ultimately turning the otherwise tired “loss of innocence’ narrative on its head.’ — Film School Rejects
Abuse of Weakness (2013)
‘French filmmaker Catherine Breillat makes her most personal film yet with Abuse of Weakness (Abus de faiblesse), a largely autobiographical account of the filmmaker’s stroke, which left her partially paralyzed, and how a notorious con man she had lined up for her first post-hospital film project swindled her out of a lot of money. Based on Breillat’s book of the same title, Abuse of Weakness (a French legal term) casts Isabelle Huppert as the film director Maud, Breillat’s alter ego, and French rapper Kool Shen as Vilko, a character based on Christophe Roconcourt, the man who managed to get thousands of dollars from Breillat for business ventures and the repeated promise he would eventually pay it all back. Like in all of the director’s work, psychologically reductive readings of the characters are absent, though intriguing performances give audiences a way into the material.’ — Hollywood Reporter
p.s. Hey. ** Tomk, Hey there, Tom, old buddy! I’m good, busy, good. You? It would be awesome to have you around more if that suits, obviously. Yeah, I’m excited for you to see our new film. There’ll surely be a way at some point. I’m working on a big project that is currently mysterious, and the script of Zac’s and my next film, and random other things. You mean ‘The Sea of Fertility’ (at least in English)? Yes, I did, many ages ago, and I was very, very into it back then. Huh, it would be interesting to re-check that thing out. You’re 200 pages into a batshit new novel! That is Guided by Voices to my ears, man. Cool, batshit, very exciting. I can’t wait to hear more about it and eventually read it. Take good care. ** David Ehrenstein, Gould doc, cool, thank you. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Glad you’ll get to least least dip into the FC series. Really excited for you about your AFA series. I can’t wait to hear how that goes. Hm, Yemen Blues, I’m not sure if I’m quite magnetised based your review. But they sound curious. Big up on the dentistry fly-through. ** Armando, Hi, man. Nice to see you. I don’t want to talk about the Woody Allen allegations here. Seeing the related floodgates that opened here yesterday, I regret thoughtlessly dropping in my two cents. You or whoever can discuss it, of course, if you want, although I will suggest that there are plenty of other places out there that are hungry for that kind of thing. Twitter, for instance. Congrats on joining it. I’m not on it, but those who are should be given an entrance to your new realm. Everyone, Armando has just joined Twitter. If you do Twitter and want to hook up with him there, you can start doing that here. Bernhard rules, yep. Yes, I’m am chomping at Efteling’s bit and waiting for the friends who suggested a trip there as my b’day present to sort out a date. Have to disagree with you about the new ‘Blade Runner’, but such is taste. I never heard/bought the Slowdive album. You take care too. ** Have ANiceLife, Hi! Nice to meet you, and welcome to here. You know, one of the things I treasure about this blog is that stuff like the Woody Allen allegations, Trump, etc. etc. magically haven’t had hardly any presence here. I’ve been, and hope to remain, very grateful that this is a place where we can dwell on and talk about writing, film, art, music, caves’ mouths, amusement parks, friendships, and other non-trending things. I regret that in my rush and perhaps snippy mood I dropped that opinionated sentence about the WA matter. People here can talk about anything they want, that’s their call, but I try, albeit with slips and mistakes and failures, to keep the talk here oriented around the posts. But, before I put a lid on myself, I do want to at least say that when I wrote ‘lynch mob’, I was not referring to the actors who have donated their WA-related salaries to charity. The ‘Under the Skin’ film I mentioned liking was the ScaJo one. It’s not, like, god or anything, but I thought it was a good combination of fairly smart and fun. I know of the Adler film, but I haven’t seen it. I’ve heard intriguing things re: it. If you end up watching either one of them, I’d be interested to know what you think. And do come back and hang out here anytime, please. That would be cool. ** Alex rose, Hey! The p.s. does have this weird tendency to veer off the road right before it enters the beautiful cave. Wow, that was tortured. 26th, gotcha. Zac’s and my new film premieres on the 28th. So you’ll rid yourself of anxiety, or the first part, two days before I do. Which I guess means nothing even though it seems like it should? I need more coffee. Much more. I used to quite like Felt. Wow, I don’t think I’ve listened too them in ages, weirdly. Their album/45 covers were really beautiful, right? I remember assuming that what’s-his-name … Lawrence (?) … looked like that, but then he didn’t. Which was okay. Love you too, Alex! ** Jamie, Morning, Sheriff. I’m good. Oh, shit, but … whew, you passed through that cold’s gentle, unpleasant purgatory lickety-split, whew. Chug-a-lug orange juice and all that stuff, yes? Strangely, even magically I dare say, I have managed to dive whole hog into the neglected project, and I’m barreling forward with it even. My co-writer Zac might well end up thinking what I’m spinning is shit city, but I am locked in at least, and I even have a little backstage area in my brain to sketch out upcoming stuff re: the new film script, so I’m on a roll, I guess. Yeah, the cognitive dissonance between the cave post’s blatant inferences and my innocent, nerdy intentions is quite bizarre. Ha, I haven’t pursued further Kyros dope yet. Give me a week. ‘Over to you’, ha ha. Yeah, okay, I can see how that could work or help at least a little. I was going to say I feel weird that I’m writing screenplays when I don’t have the slightest clue about how they’re supposed to be written, but then I write novels the same way, and I guess that’s worked out okay if ‘cult writer’ qualifies as okay. Wednesday for me was just working on the post-neglected project. And some phone calls and emails re: the Rotterdam festival. Nothing much else. May your Thursday be like a front row seat at a Black Sabbath concert in 1971. Buzzy love, Dennis. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, Ben. I think you’ll like it. It’s gorg (as in gorgeous). ** James Nulick, Howdy, James. Uh, well, I would love to happen to be in Tokyo when you are. As God is my witness, I’ll be in Tokyo sometime this year. May luck strike. Never been there during Halloween, have dreamt wildly about what that would be like. You’re going to have a life-changing time there in Tokyo. I predict. Ah, connective tissue, that’ll fall or be tortured into place. No worries. De rigeur. Love, me. ** Okay. I have brought my old Catherine Breillat post back to life with a bit of an expansion after a couple or so years of death. Have at it please. See you tomorrow.