Romance (France; 1999)

RomanceStarring Caroline Ducey, Sagamore Stevenin, François Berleand, Rocco Siffredi.
Written and directed by Catherine Breillat.

Grade: B-

Review by Alison Tweedie-Perry.

Nothing packs a movie theater quite like the promise of explicit sex made legitimate by the respectable sheen of “art.” Lobby blow-ups of reviews and blurbs blared “Steamy!” “Provocative!” “...the boldest mainstream movie ever!” And even, “Makes Last Tango in Paris and 9½ Weeks look like Disney!” Needless to say, despite the staggered showtimes on two screens, every show on a Saturday night at the art house was sold out.

Romance does live up to its hype. It’s got explicit sex all over the place. Body parts engaged in activities normally limited to videos the local Blockbuster won’t carry are on full display. It’s all treated very unlike anything in American film. The way nudity and sex is handled is refreshingly unrestrained. Ducey and Stevenin as Marie and PaulWhat I mean is, there aren’t any extreme measures taken to hide, obscure, or dance around the fact that when people have sex, they use their genitals, which American films seem incapable of dealing with. I found that sensibility refreshing.

The film itself is the story of Marie (Caroline Ducey), a grade-school teacher whose cold-fish male model boyfriend, Paul (Sagamore Stevenin), won’t have sex with her. She repeatedly tries to arouse and engage him, and the more she does, the more he pulls away. She’s a self-loathing glutton for emotional abuse, and he gets his greatest pleasure, seemingly, in denying her. He insists upon keeping her around and she insists on staying, which makes it a pretty sad arrangement all the way around.

Ducey and SteveninEventually, because she isn’t getting quite enough degradation at Paul’s hands, she seeks sexual fulfillment elsewhere, first with some random guy she picks up at a bar (played by Rocco Siffredi, a Italian porn star of impressive proportions). Rather than getting the physical release and attention she claims to be seeking, she doesn’t seem to be enjoying herself much, and continues her philosophizing on the nature of sex and relationships while he’s engaged in his exertions.

Marie expresses the whole gamut of possible female views on physical relationships, from disgust and contempt to sheer nymphomania as she goes about her various assignations with various men, including her boss (François Berleand) who ties her up, and a rapist who helps her hit bottom in her quest for total self-sublimation.

Berleand ties up DuceyUltimately, after going to extreme lengths in her quest to make Paul the lover she wants him to be, Marie comes to some conclusions about where the power in the relationship lies. Because the film has, up to this point, been chock  full of images that stretch the boundaries of what can be depicted in a “mainstream” film, the (ahem) climax must be even farther beyond the pale. It doesn’t disappoint, as the exclamations among the audience I was in proved.

I would say this film would qualify as pornography if it were the least bit erotic, but it isn’t. I have heard it compared to Eyes Wide Shut in that the sex is a way of exploring the psychological landscape of the characters and humans in general through one of the most direct and complex indicators of it. I haven’t seen Eyes Wide Shut so I can’t comment on it, but that certainly applies to Romance. The thoughts it explores are interesting, but the method of exploration is pretty clumsy at times. It’s sometimes very funny, sometimes very smart, and sometimes just plain absurd. Overall, though (and largely because it ends at a place I could accept) it’s groundbreaking, if a bit too aware that it’s trying to be.

Review © September 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.

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