Romance director has tongues wagging

The new film from director Catherine Breillat has provided France with its greatest film-scandale of 1999. With its candid, uncensored, no-holds-barred approach to masturbation, S/M, bondage, oral sex, and rape, Romance broke box office records in Paris earlier this year. Further feeding the scandal were its alluring posters in the Paris Metro, featuring a close-up of a woman masturbating with a red X splashed in front.

See also...
... by Peter Braunstein
... in the Dirt section
... from September 16, 1999

The most-asked question regarding Romance -- is it art or porn? -- was amplified by Breillat's decision to cast Rocco Siffredi, an internationally famous Italian porn star who claims to have bedded more than 4,000 women. Breillat kept Rocco a secret until the last minute, fearing other actors would drop out.

For Breillat, Romance is simply the latest milestone in a lifelong career of scandal, inevitably set off by her frank expositions of sexuality. Her 1968 novel, L'Homme Facile (The Easy Man), was swiftly banned to readers under 18 because of its raw language. Her first film, the 1976 Une Vraie Jeune Fille (A True Young Girl), explored the erotic fantasies of an adolescent girl and was denied distribution in France.

In an interview conducted earlier this month, Breillat unfurled her highly sophisticated sexual ideologies in a discussion that touched on Romance, the 1970s, pornography, censorship, and Italian porn stars.

GETTINGIT: You had a small part in Last Tango in Paris [1972], a film that came out during a time when it looked like adult themes would find a permanent place in mainstream film. Now in the '90s it seems, at least in the U.S., that adult themes are once again marginalized. The fact that your own U.S. distributor, Trimark, had to release Romance unrated is a case-in-point. Do you feel that today's cinema landscape is less or more restrictive than it was in the '70s?

CATHERINE BREILLAT: Films in the 1970s began to scare governments. Sex is a question of power, and even the liberal or somewhat liberated regimes became scared by what was happening. At the very beginning, before the porn industry really became institutionalized, there were a lot of experimental films -- like Art and Jim Mitchell's Behind the Green Door. These films were both pornographic and artistic, and you sensed an interest in dealing with sexuality.

The governments became scared, and imposed laws and taxes to institutionalize the porn industry, making it functional ... genital. In doing so, governments restricted our sexuality as well. The pretext was the protection of children, but with the masses of porno videotapes and sexually explicit TV programs available, that's clearly not what's at issue.

The porn industry puts us in the role of shamed consumers of sex, and makes sex into something shameful. Sex can be something pure, something sacred, a moment of transfiguration. Sexual taboo in and of itself isn't obscenity, but rather a rite of initiation, a doorway, a manner of transcendence. But the governments don't want us to see sex as a transfiguration; they want us to remain prisoners of our sense of degradation.

Anything can be made obscene. The obscene is, in fact, an aesthetic order that's constantly fluctuating, like fashion. I agree completely with [director David] Cronenberg, who says that we have to completely change our notion of aesthetics. We have to stop our censors, who want to keep entire countries from becoming adult. If it were up to them, censors would keep us in a perpetual state of pre-adolescence. If they really believe that our sense of judgment is so imperiled, if they believe that they must protect us from emotions that we may find disturbing, then what is the purpose of allowing us to vote?

GI: How did you discover the Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi? Were you just watching porn videos, thinking, "Hey, I can use that guy"?

CB: You can't avoid porno films on [French] TV. They've protected us so well from them that we're drowning in them [Laughs]. When I saw Rocco the first time, he didn't look like the others. There was a charisma to him, an elegance that was different from other porn stars. He didn't make love like the typical porn star, either. There wasn't a sense of degradation or abasement.

It's hard enough to find actors for my films that I'll take them wherever I can find them. Rocco had a sense of movement and a way of moving that was wonderful. I've often said that it's much more difficult for actors to cross a room, to move well, than to say their lines crying or laughing. Most people are physically inhibited, especially in France. In France it's difficult to find actors who are comfortable with themselves physically.

GI: The scandals surrounding Romance -- as to whether it's art or pornography -- seem so similar to the reception received by soft-core films of the '70s like Emmanuelle or The Story of O. When you see the same reaction to this type of film 25 years later, do you think that nothing much has really changed?

CB: I don't see it as at all the same as Emmanuelle, which was clearly a soft-core film. My intention wasn't erotic. Romance isn't about pleasure, it's about sex -- which I think is much more disturbing for people.

If I'd decided to make a pornographic movie, a film about pleasure, and had chosen to cast an actress with splendid cleavage wearing suspenders, then I don't think it would have had the same reaction at all. If I'd made a soft-core opus like Emmanuelle, it would have been a film for consumption only. It would have broader appeal, but it would be just something to sell, an object, a commodity.

People always seek scandal where there isn't any, and they would have been very happy had I made an auteur film about desire that was soft core, because there'd be no sense of shame. And that was what people expected from me -- but unfortunately I didn't fulfill their desires [Laughs].

Romance opens September 17 in New York, and for wider release on October 1.

Peter Braunstein writes about film and pop culture for The Village Voice, and is currently co-editing an anthology on the 1960s counterculture.