Wednesday, September 12, 2012
"Love between men and women is not possible." So says Marie (Caroline Ducey) towards the end of Catherine Breillat's ironically titled Romance, and the film goes about methodically proving this thesis by examining Marie's feelings about sex and her relationships with various men. Marie is in a long-term relationship, a conventionally "romantic" relationship, with Paul (Sagamore Stévenin), a handsome but passionless model who no longer has sex with her, who doesn't even want her to touch him. His apartment, where they sleep together sexlessly every night, is pure white, and they both dress all in white, virginal, unstained, totally clean and tranquil. The walls are white, the bedsheets are white, the lights are bright fluorescent white, the furniture is white. Everything is clean, clinical, untouched, and it's no wonder that there's no sex within these spotless walls, no hint of passion or tenderness. Paul is reluctant to even take his (clean, white) shirt off in bed, and Marie says she feels like she's sleeping next to a ball of cotton.
This spartan cleanliness is contrasted against the dirtiness and messiness of the sex that the increasingly dissatisfied Marie seeks out with other men, first with the muscular, sexually voracious Paolo (Rocco Siffredi), his name so similar to Paul's that Marie starts forming an almost romantic attachment to him too, and then with her boss at her teaching job, Robert (François Berléand), with whom she engages in sadomasochistic games of bondage and restraint that wind up getting her more excited than actual intercourse. Notably, Robert's apartment is decorated in red, and when he first ties her up, his red shirt against her white dress seems like a stain, as though he's going to leave bloody smears all over her from the bright red of his home, with red curtains framing her like she's on stage as she's being bound and gagged. The second time she goes to see him, she's wearing a bright red dress with black underwear, the first time she's ever worn anything but shades of white and gray, and the effect is shocking — even more so when she returns in this red dress to Paul's white apartment, her presence there suddenly standing out from the surroundings rather than fading amiably into the walls.
Breillat is dealing with sex and desire, control and submission, but it's all so schematic, so deathly dull in its rote plodding towards foregone conclusions. Towards the end of the film, Marie imagines sex as a mechanistic whorehouse where her upper and lower body are separated from one another by a wall with a hole. On one side of the wall, Paul sits beside her, holding her hand and smiling lovingly at her, while on the other side of the wall "ape-like" naked men approach her spread legs with simian lust, waiting in line and taking turns to fuck her. The symbolism is so crushingly obvious as to barely qualify as symbolism: lust and love are separated from one another, the ideal of the monogamous romantic relationship clashing against the animalistic desires of men. It's a treatise delivered with all the finesse of the porn movies whose passionless imagery of sex Breillat is drawing on here. Men are either fey automatons like Paul — whose woman-chasing seems to emerge only from a sense of duty, a sense of what he's supposed to do as a man, and who's actually implied to be gay — or big dumb studs like Paolo or remorseless ladykillers like Robert, who boasts about having had 10,000 women, including Grace Kelly.
Breillat is depicting Marie as someone who's seeking pleasure for herself, trying to break free of the idea that women don't desire sex, that women don't have the same strong lusts as men — but at the same time so much of Marie's behavior dovetails with male desires, with male fantasies of female submission and degradation. Marie is trapped, but it's not always clear by what; in any event, she's always staring at the world through the prison bars of the few stray strands of hair that break free of her pulled back hair to lay across her face. Notably, in the scene where she goes to see Robert for a bondage session, dressed in red, she lets her hair down for the first time, but is she really free, being manipulated into position by this lothario who has such naked contempt for women?
Part of the problem is that Breillat depicts all the sex as equally unappetizing and passionless, whether Marie is supposedly getting off on it or not. Towards the end of the film, she goes for a gynecological exam and is felt up by a succession of medical students, each waiting a turn like the men in her pornish whorehouse fantasy, and this clinical examination is filmed with exactly the same slightly bored detachment as the scenes in which Marie is supposed to be enjoying herself. Maybe that too is part of Breillat's thesis, that all sex is unavoidably compromised and fucked up by these weird societal ideas about men, women, relationships, desire, and love. At one point, in a rare flash of humor from this mostly humorless film, Breillat cuts from a splash of semen spurting onto Marie's stomach to a shot of a doctor spreading gel on her stomach for an ultrasound examination. That about sums it up: all sex is clinical and emotionless, and one might as well visit a doctor as get into bondage.