This review of Catherine Breillat’s Romance is part of the New French Extremity Retrospective series.
“You don’t deserve my faithfulness”
The complicated sexuality of Romance is problematic. Not entirely so, as the film explores a side of sexuality that is often left unexplored. But the screenplay reduces sexual philosophy to a binary matter. Even when the shoe is on the opposite foot, entering the perspective of a woman seeking sexual liberation when mass media often takes the masculine perspective, keeping the exploration to a thematic monotony does not solve any problems.
See, Marie (Caroline Ducey) is a woman who appears to be self-loathing. She puts herself down. She keeps herself in the company of the man she “loves,” a self-absorbed ass of a man who wouldn’t give her the time of day in a watch store. She reviles sex and seeks it out at the same time, as if punishing herself for her own sexuality.
Yes, one could read Marie as an extended metaphor for the oppressed sexuality of the female gender. And that would be entirely acceptable. However, the film also treats her so individualistically that it becomes harder and harder to see her as this metaphor as the film progresses.
She is also a walking paradox, which makes it hard to view her as a symbol for one driving idea. She “clings” to her boyfriend, wanting him to please her but also loving him specifically because he won’t have sex with her. She also pushes herself away from him by engaging in a series of affairs with other men, all of whom appear to have nothing positive to say about their own gender.
The film, in this way, is woefully myopic. In one scene, a man who claims to have slept with 10,000 women engages Marie in sexual foreplay, telling her that she is surprised that a man would do such a thing. He then goes on to explain that it is because he is an ugly man, and that what people confuse as a disparity between man and woman is really a disparity between ugly and beautiful.
In truth, the disparity itself is a mythical construct. The film knows this, maybe, but it does not take any aims to inform the audience. It is understandable to make a film about sexual liberation in which the liberation feels impossible because of oppressing factors on the female protagonist. But when a film posits (during a scene that depicts a rape fantasy) that “pleasure to a girl” is being “taken [sexually] by anyone” it is entering a territory in which the generalization of its statements become sociopolitically problematic.
Romance has reasonable things to say about the need for a society that allows sexual freedom for women, a world where they do not need to repress their desires inside an internal monologue as Marie does.
But it is Marie’s internal monologue that causes the film’s narrative strife. Her decisions dictated by contradictory feelings and a seeming self-resentment, it is hard to parse the script’s thematic underpinnings. What results is a film about sex that wants to be about sexuality but fails to have a coherent grasp on its own take on such a topic.
Roger Ebert wrote that Romance may be a film about female sexual confusion. I think he is correct, although he seemed more confused by the film than certain of any of its thematic notions. And Ebert points out in the opening paragraph of his review the most poignant scene in the film, one in which Marie discusses the connection between sex and love, a connection that is visually represented by a woman’s body split between a brothel and a delivery room.
This scene seems to illustrate the final thematic thesis statement of the film: that love between man and woman is impossible. But this nihilistic statement does not really fall in line with Marie’s internal monologue, which never confuses sex and love anywhere else in the film but here. She is never really in love with anyone, even the boyfriend that she admits to loving because he does not have sex with her. She hates every person she sleeps with.
If the goal of Romance is some grand nihilist statement of humanity as a broken construct due to its own evolutionary impulses, then I guess it succeeds. But Marie’s constant monologue implies so much more. So much more that is never properly addressed, leaving dangling pieces of fruit like the story of Tantalus that the film itself alludes to.
This is what leads to the myopia of the film’s script. At best, the script is trying to grapple with too much and fails to juggle all of the thematic balls. At worst, it is presenting a view of sexuality that is far too narrow for a modern understanding and is merely dressed up to make itself appear more sophisticated.
Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars even though he claimed not to like it. And I understand this point of view. He says that it is “on to something interesting.” He is looking at it from the standpoint of conventional representations of sex on screen, and in that case the film does get on to something interesting. But in terms of a larger, more real-world representation of sexuality, the film is on to something interesting without ever getting to it.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)