Legs Wide Open

Sheila-na-gig: Caroline Ducey in Catherine Breillat's Romance

Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

Is it rape if the perpetrator intended it, but the victim views it as part of an essential journey toward self-knowledge? Is the graphic tale of a woman's sexual humiliations somehow "liberating" if conceived and filmed by a woman? Catherine Breillat's French import Romance dumps such residual provocations in the viewer's lap, undigested. If few films so relentlessly--and thrillingly--expose the male body, Romance's offensively clichéd characters are much less rare. The film both arouses and infuriates--which may or may not be deliberate.

Breillat, a novelist and the director of five other French features, begins with that storied modern knot: the clinging, conquered woman and the self-involved, withholding man. (Penis envy, meet penis.) Paul (Sagamore Stevenin) has just told Marie (Caroline Ducey) that he no longer wants to have sex with her, though he doesn't mind her hanging around. Marie, unfortunately, does not pack her things and exit door number one. (In Romance, as in any horror film, you are always rolling your eyes at the implacable denseness of the heroine.) "I need to cling to him like a leech," she claims in a voiceover, "because I'm madly in love with him." Nonetheless, Marie decides to find dick elsewhere, while keeping her heart firmly fastened on Paul.

It's not that Marie desires sex so much as she seeks to degrade her rejected body. (Romance bears a bit of an unhappy resemblance to Breaking the Waves.) The first guy she picks up--a doe-eyed, gentle widower who's hung like a bull--doesn't satisfy because she ends up liking him too much. Which is too bad, since their sex scene plays so beguilingly fresh. Breillat's camera gives no quarter to Paolo (note ironic mirroring of boyfriend Paul), displaying actor Rocco Siffredi--an Italian porn star, natch--fore and aft with his mainsail raised. Meanwhile, Ducey spends a lot of time on her belly. Foreplay includes much droll commentary about condoms and penis length. "Do you like your back scratched?" the stacked Paolo inquires at one point, managing to embody vulnerability, not power.

Marie is on a mission, however, as she reminds us midway through the scene: "I want to be a hole, a pit. I disappear in proportion to the cock taking me." So exit Paolo, enter Robert (François Berléand), a veritable slut, with, he notes, 10,000 notches on his belt. "No one talks to women these days," he says. (Romance is built on such ridiculous pronouncements.) "I talk, they listen...and they're in the palm of my hand." Robert ties up the ready Marie--which first breaks her, then excites her. Marie rapes herself, and then she's raped by a stranger. "To be taken by anyone--a cunt to be stuffed...that's pleasure to me," Marie observes. "I reamed you good," huffs the stranger. "I'm not ashamed, asshole!" Marie responds, crying.

Okay, I'm telling you too much: irresponsible critic behavior. But I'm trying to lay out the story without coating it in disgust. I can't seem to separate my view of these filmic events from my feelings about these kinds of events in general. I find Marie willfully dumb and pathetic, these men creepy, and Marie's clichéd humiliations a sure road to nothing but more clichéd female humiliation and self-hatred in another 100 years of movies. You may feel differently. Your reaction will probably determine whether you swallow or cough up the finish, wherein Breillat grants Marie love and self-determination via the second-oldest trick in the book.

Breillat acted in Last Tango in Paris, that butter-slicked tempest-in-a-teapot starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. And there is a way in which Romance parallels that film, reworking its trials so that the heroine is left sexually and emotionally reborn, not shattered and retreating as if she couldn't stand the storm. Certainly, Romance unfolds with a studied coolness within which all Paul's stereotypical guy lines and Marie's ghastly confessions could be seen as jokes (I guffawed, more than once). The movie's first scene is a photo shoot in which the director tells a male model to stand tall, and a female model to "look down, be a bit submissive...to the man." In other words, these stances are artificial--"for the camera."

Still, whatever PJ Harvey-like possession and exorcism of gender straitjackets exists here absolutely collapses in the final scene. Completely without irony (you can tell because the usual trip hop has been replaced with a wild guitar solo), Breillat's would-be triumphant last vision is instead eerily conventional--savagely upholding the "battle" between the "sexes." I laughed, in disbelief.

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