Masturbation, penetration, erections, fellatio, cunnilingus, ejaculation, and bondage using ropes and headgear. You don’t usually see such things in non-porn movies. Even given recent developments say, the visibility of Harvey Keitel’s penis or jokes about semen as hair gel or beer additive so-called explicit imagery remains rare enough to get people riled when it shows up in U.S. releases. So it might be expected that the new film by French feminist director Catherine (36 Fillette) Breillat, Romance, is generating more discussion about its shots of pricks and nipples than its narrative or themes or performances. This is a little ironic, because the movie really isn’t about erotic arousal or exploitation. In fact, it is, as its title suggests, about romance. Or more precisely, it’s about the expectations, disappointments, and power dynamics that shape and destroy romance.
The first scenes lay out an impeccably commercial fantasy of love. A young male model poses for the camera, costumed as a matador, so dashing, so masculine, so unapproachable. His pale, pretty girlfriend of three months looks on from the sidelines, as his flawless face is made up and his limbs are arranged to accommodate his red cape and a lithe female. The girlfriend, Marie (Caroline Ducey), appears wistful and proud at the same time, even a little awed, as she clutches a clipboard to her thin chest.
Immediately, the perfection of the scene is undone. Back home that evening, Marie tries to seduce her boyfriend Paul (Sagamore Stevenin). But he maintains his modellish aloofness, sighing with some drama and pushing her away, gently. He’s going through a phase, he says, and he can’t bear to be touched. Wanting to please him, she plays the good girl and attempts a blow job. But again Paul puts her off, this time using the standard reason for sexual disinterest: it’s him, not her. Vulnerable, self-doubting, and maybe in love, Marie is devastated.
The film takes her devastation seriously, in that it follows her efforts to find a suitable carnal and/or amorous replacement for her noncommunicative and apparently selfish beau. Marie finds temporary solace in the arms of the experienced and graceful but soon boring Paolo (played by international porn star Rocco Siffredi, star of the popular, low-budget “Buttman” video series). She then turns to the headmaster at the grade school where she teaches, Robert (Francois Berleand). Repeatedly referring to himself as “ugly” as if this earns him extra points Robert boasts about the many women he’s had. According to Robert, he knows how to please his lovers, to excite and move them, to open up new horizons and push them on into some version of ecstasy.
Though he may sound awfully self-involved to us, Marie thinks he might be her ticket to self-exploration, or at least a way to get back at Paul. Robert introduces her to bondage. He hooks her up to a gizmo in his apartment with ropes, then gags her and bends her arms into exceedingly uncomfortable positions. At first she looks vaguely scared and titillated by his attentions: her eyes go wide, her breathing goes shallow. Then she’s clearly in pain and begins to cry. Robert takes her down from the apparatus, soothes her with some light kisses and hair-smoothing, and invites her back for more. Marie does come back, dressed up in red. She also pursues more overt abuse, for instance, in an anonymous, violent sexual encounter on the back stairway in her apartment building.
Marie’s adventures look like calculated vengeance against Paul, at least as much as they resemble any investigation of her own sexuality. Put simply, romance becomes punishment. Or maybe there’s no transformation necessary. In this film’s view, the guys make definitions and decisions and women respond. Marie’s ostensible choices and desires are shaped by the world she knows, that is, the world most of us know, where all advertising and media imagery insist on her need to please. This might be termed the film’s feminist slant, but the irony is that most any other film about romance shows the same thing. The difference is that the mainstream, un-outraged version encourages this goal: not only should girls want to be this way, but such desire is portrayed as their own, like they have made willful and informed choices. In Romance, because Marie’s choices seem so doomed and the results are so obviously distressing, the desire looks perverse. But it’s only the desire rehearsed again and again in Meg Ryan movies and Ally McBeal.
In other words, Marie’s her tears and bruises make her look like a woman who doesn’t know what she wants, who is so hurt by her man that she can only destroy her self to get back at him. But the film is more complex and unsettling than this. While you could say that Marie is “developing” while her men are left by the film’s emotional wayside, her maturity comes at a considerable cost, probably more than you’d want to pay. Her insecure clumsiness gives way to a kind of boldness, seemingly discovered in her violation and grief. It might be that the movie is arguing that there is no way to imagine female desire (read: heterosexual female desire, as there’s not even a hint that Marie could explore lesbianism as one of her self-exploratory avenues) outside of “patriarchy.” And this might be a tragic and painful conclusion.
Then again, it’s possible that the film is one long joke on exactly that conclusion, an anti-Something About Mary, if you will. That is, the power of this woman comes not in her easily-consumed beauty, her conformity to some mass-marketed ideal (Ducey is stunning, but she’s a long way from Cameron Diaz’s sunny dazzle). Her potency comes instead in another stereotype and idealization, which has to do with her capacity to get pregnant. Suddenly she seems really scary. This gesture toward such a broad and multiple cultural fear is potentially deep but also difficult to read. The film’s finale is alarming because of its ambiguity: is Marie, in her “achievement,” a monster or a madonna? This could be the death of romance or its rebirth. Either interpretation seems harrowing.