The Edge Of The Razor

Film still for The Edge Of The Razor

Catherine Breillat's Romance confronts sexual taboos through its young female adventurer, explains Leslie Felperin, while Linda Ruth Williams interviews the director

Nearly every scene in Catherine Breillat's disturbing, beautiful and enigmatic new film Romance has a voiceover by its central character Marie (Caroline Ducey). For all its striking imagery the movie has a literary quality, emphasising the word over the image, reminding one that the French words for 'romance' and 'novel' ('roman') share the same linguistic root. Although written by Breillat, the story when described sounds like it could have been written by an anonymous author from an earlier time (such as Pauline Réage, author of The Story of O), or like something published by the Olympia Press (the Paris-based outfit who specialised in pornography and were the first publishers of Nabokov's Lolita).

Marie is a schoolteacher in her twenties who lives in Paris. Frustrated because her boyfriend Paul (Sagamore Stévenin), a model, will not have sex with her anymore, she embarks on a series of sexual encounters: first with Paolo, a handsome widower she picks up in a bar (played by Rocco Siffredi, a well-known porn-film actor in real life); then with her school's headmaster (François Berléand), who introduces her to bondage, and eventually with a man on the street who anally rapes her. She is impregnated by Paul and gives birth to her child at almost exactly the same moment that Paul is blown up in her flat.

Throughout it all we are privy to Marie's inner voice - and hers alone. Occasionally the thought occurs that maybe this is all taking place inside her head, like the fantasy brothel scene near the film's end where a host of women lie with their bodies halfway through a series of tight-fitting portholes, their lower halves available to anonymous men while their upper bodies are caressed tenderly by male attendants. This would fit with the strain of nihilism that Marie is working through in the film itself, an abject project that's both scarring and liberating. On the one hand she feels "dishonoured" by Paul because he won't have sex with her. On the other her sexual exertions seem to be a way of negating herself. While we see her being fucked from behind by Paolo, she explains that she prefers not to see the men who have sex with her: "It's metaphysical. I disappear in proportion to the cock taking me. I hollow myself out. It's my purity."

As if trying to find a visual correlative of this purity, the film's mise en scène is as pale as a desert-bleached bone. Paul and Marie's chic apartment is a whited sepulchre; her equally chic wardrobe (designers Christian Lacroix, Agnès B and Dries Van Noten are thanked in the credits) is made up of crisp, neutral pieces, demure yet elegant, like Catherine Deneuve's housewife-turned-whore trousseau in Buñuel's Belle de Jour (1967).

Inevitably Romance will invite comparisons with Buñuel's fetishistic masterpiece, but these would be slightly misleading. For all their superficial similarities, Breillat's film is both simpler (it only flirts with the suggestion of several layers of reality) and more ambitious in its attempt to explore female sexuality, as Breillat explains below in an interview with Linda Ruth Williams. Sexually explicit content is currently very fashionable in arthouse cinema, but in Breillat's case it has been a career-long preoccupation, one that has often provoked venomous reactions from feminist critics in the past. Her early adventures in screenwriting involved penning the Jane Birkin sexploitation vehicle Catherine et Cie (1975) and David Hamilton's notorious soft-porn film Bilitis (1976). Her first film as a director, Tapage nocturne (1979), centred on a woman film-maker involved in a sado-masochistic relationship, while her best-known movie, 36 fillette/Virgin (1988), followed a girl struggling to rid herself of her virginity. As Breillat told Ginette Vincendeau in the MFB (February 1989), in the novel she made out of 36 fillette (to raise money to make the film) the story is told from the heroine's point of view, although the film is not. In the context of Breillat's oeuvre, Romance restores the primacy of the voice. While so many films revolve around what, as Freud once famously asked, women want, only Breillat and a few other woman film-makers (such as Carine Adler and Jane Campion) are willing to acknowledge how contradictory and complex that answer might be.

It is that teasing complexity which sets Romance apart from the more tawdry explorations of female sexuality in mainstream cinema. (In the interview below, Breillat unjudgementally mentions Looking for Mr Goodbar, 1977, in which Diane Keaton is 'punished' for her promiscuous 70s lifestyle.) And in this distance lies a tale, because Romance's reception so far is an index of how much times have changed. Today, art films have almost lost their ability to shock. The tide has turned back so far that censors are barely worried about the potentially corrupting influence of anything with subtitles because they expect only a small percentage of the audience will be watching. Romance has been passed uncut by the British Board of Film Classification as an '18' in the UK despite the fact that it includes footage of Marie being penetrated by penises (shot side on, but seemingly unfaked) and by hands (seen more directly) - her own, her doctors' and her lover's.

The press release signed by BBFC president Andreas Whittam Smith and director Robin Duval explaining this decision states that "Romance is a serious work... With its overly philosophical commentary, it is a particularly French piece. It is also very French in the frank way it addresses sexual issues." However, Gaspar Noé's Seul Contre Tous, also released this year, was more "problematic"; the board "required [it] to be made less explicit", so its close-up framing of penetration was distorted digitally. Meanwhile, a medium-framed penetration shot in Lars von Trier's The Idiots was passed uncut. Context, it would seem, is all.

Linda Ruth Williams: The film foregrounds sexuality to explore the relationship between men and women. How did you hope or imagine the film would play to male and female audiences?

Catherine Breillat: From what I read about the film and what I experienced by going to screenings, looking at it and talking to the audience, most of the women were very happy about the film because they thought it was the first time a movie talked about something they wanted discussed. Men thought it was very interesting as a tool to explore something they maybe didn't know enough about or needed to know more about.

How did you relate to the character of Marie, and what was your relationship to the developing sexual philosophy that she narrates through the film? Is there any ironic distance?

I have no distance from the film. When I set about shooting Romance, I thought I would film what is not said, and when it was finished it was a revelation for me - to look at it and see the meaning of it once it was done. I had no distance. I made it as I was doing it; the film happened as I was shooting it.

So your two different roles - as writer and director - both came together in the process of making it?

There was a complete dissociation between the screenwriter and the film-maker. I wrote the screenplay on a daily basis, and [as a screenwriter] my first interest was the sentimental, romance story, then the sexual exploration. On a day-to-day basis, it was like going down to hell, seeing how far I could go. It's a bit like Looking for Mr Goodbar, where you see how far you can go and how down you can go. Because it was done on a daily basis I could hold down the self-censorship that comes from preconceived ideas. So when the film-maker in me made the film, it totally turned around the sense and meaning of what was written in the script. As a scriptwriter the good quality was the sentimental story and what was negative was the sexual exploration. As a film-maker what became apparent when I saw the film was that the relationship between Marie and Paul - this passion - is in fact degradation, and the sexual journey is in fact a revelation, a transcendence.

The text that the film most reminded me of was 'The Story of 0' in its exploration of self-annihilation and masochism, although it has a happier ending. '0' is politically problematic for women, so how do you anticipate responses to the open exploration of masochism in 'Romance'?

I don't explore masochism. On the contrary, the relationship that Marie has with her boyfriend is based on masochism and self-depreciation. On her journey she goes through scenes of masochism and learns to free herself - exactly the opposite of The Story of O, which posits the norm is pleasure through masochism and through being dominated. The headmaster in Romance doesn't initiate her through masochism: on the contrary, he uses her masochism to take her to the other side and free her from masochism. He uses the fact that she is used to masochism, through her relationship with Paul, to take her somewhere else. It's what we call fighting fire with fire. The film is an initiate's journey. It is like in the myth of King Arthur, when Lancelot is on the dangerous path and on the edge of the razor.

But the way you articulate that, it sounds like the men teach her this rather than her learning it from her experiences. Is it a self-realisation?

Yes - she is the one who chooses them.

I want to ask about the explicit sexuality of the film. I was interested in the fact that in many ways it's the male body which is most explicitly exposed in this film.

I don't think the male body is exposed in this film. The actor who was going to play Paul (Sagamore Stévenin) didn't know he was going to play Paul, because to start with he was going to play Paolo - the other part - and then I hired a real porn actor to play Paolo; in the end [Stévenin] moved on to play Paul, so he didn't realise that he would be a little bit exposed. Obviously a female film-maker sees more of men than men themselves. Male film-makers are shy and far more prudish about this.

Are you interested in male spectacle because you are a female film-maker?

Naked males on screen are very interesting and I don't see why it should always be women on display up there for men.

But it could cause censorship problems. Have you encountered any in the countries where 'Romance' has already played, France, Belgium and Italy?

To my surprise there have been no problems with censorship in any country so far. The censorship issue was more raised by distributors, who were wondering how they could release the film, and journalists, who were constantly asking about censorship. Audiences in all three territories weren't even bothered - it wasn't an issue for them at all. Censorship was a risk, but it wasn't raised by them.

Would you ever consent to your film being cut?

In France the thing which could have created a problem is the fantasy brothel scene. If they had wanted it censored there I wanted to keep the sound running over a black screen, and outside the cinema, as people leave, give them a VHS of the thing which had been cut. If there is censorship, people should know there is censorship and why. Censorship should be seen as a scar, which is why I wanted to keep the sound running over a black screen. If the film is deemed to be obscene then the scene has to be identified and [its obscenity] explained.

That's all bound up with the way that pornography has been classified in this country. So how do you define the relationship between this film and pornography?

Pornography doesn't exist. What exists is censorship which defines pornography and separates it from the rest of film. Unless, that is, people think that as a race we are pornographic - in which case we need an operation! Pornography is the sexual act taken totally out of context, and made into a product for consumption, by using the most debased feelings or emotions of people, when in fact in daily life sexual acts are surrounded by emotions, consideration for the partner, pleasure and so on, which do not come within the pornographic depiction. So pornography as an industry is a prostitution of the common and valuable human emotions and acts which everybody does in their day-to-day life. Pornographic cinema doesn't exist - there's no cinema in pornographic films. There are no actors, because they don't carry any emotions, they don't carry character. They are just flesh. Rocco Siffredi, the porn actor who plays Paolo, says the same thing.

So what distinguishes this film from pornography?

In Romance the images portray an idea and the characters experience emotion. The viewer intuits the emotion through the images he is watching. That is the difference between it and pornography.

At the screening I went to the most shocked audience response came in the childbirth scene. How do you see the relationship between sex and gynaecology which is set up at the end of the film?

There's an attitude that the female genitalia do not exist and should not be seen, even by a woman: for the sake of her dignity, she should not know about it. The moment it becomes something medical, it doesn't exist for what it is, it's just something that can be looked at and touched - but I think that it still carries on being something sexual. Women are told to be prudish, but at the same time when you are confronted by a gynaecologist, you have to abandon that because your genitals are going to be touched, manipulated, opened.

But in that sense showing that there is a relationship between your sexual anatomy and your childbearing anatomy is quite transgressive - that's probably one of the most shocking things the film is doing.

It is shocking for women, because they could never admit it or say it - but at the same time by doing it and showing it, it's like an exorcism.

The film explicitly transgresses the boundary between acted sex and real sex, so how did you deal with that on set - from the actors' and the crew's point of view?

There's a lot of hypocrisy in putting a moral value on the question "Are they really doing it or not?" If you look at what most mainstream actors are doing now, more and more the love scenes are very intimate and very frank, so it's hypocrisy to ask: "Do they really penetrate or not?" Actors do not simulate: they don't simulate emotions, so at the same time they cannot simulate pleasure - they have to act it. So as they are not going to be able to simulate pleasure, they are going to have to act pleasure. After that it's just really a physical detail. The difficulty is not in the performance from the actor while they are on set; the difficulty comes afterwards. Are they going to be seen performing the act on the screen by society, by their close family, by the people they're in relationships with - this was the real difficulty.

So did the actors find that difficult? Were they happy to enter into this?

The only problem I had was between Rocco Siffredi and Caroline Ducey, because they were coming from two worlds totally apart. For Caroline it was almost like a sacrificial ritual and she was exalted every time she went from one experience to the other; she pushed herself every time, and was happy to achieve that emotional range, so it was no problem. I did explain before to Caroline that there should be no censorship, there should be nowhere that we would have to stop, because censorship defines obscenity, and I didn't want to do anything obscene. It was more a trip of self-discovery, and for Caroline to go as far as she wanted, it was an exaltation to reach that stage.

So in a sense the actor's relationship to the role mirrored the movement of the role itself in that self-exploration?

Yes, but not totally mirroring, because Caroline in her personal life is not as repressed or prudish as Marie is in the film - she didn't have the same baggage.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012