Director: Catherine Breillat
Writer: Catherine Breillat
Starring: Caroline Ducey, Sagamore Stévenin, François Berléand
“Love is desolate. Romance is temporary. Sex is forever.” So reads the poster for Catherine Breillat’s nihilistic take on the incompatibility of love and sex. Released in 1999, Romance mirrors her later À Ma Soeur! in comprising a series of tableaux with some telling insights into human sexuality, weakened by a tenuous plotline and ended by an unlikely and thematically dissatisfying climax.
Romance tells the story of Marie, a twenty-something schoolteacher in love with her boyfriend Paul, a handsome male model disinterested in sex. Like other characters in Sexcatraz, Marie, played with sad-eyed grace by Caroline Ducey, is conflicted over whether she is entitled to physical love when blessed with humanity’s greatest gift, emotional love. Marie gets no help from the distant and detached Paul (Sagamore Stévenin), a typical Breillat male character who is little more than a cipher. Marie tries to arouse Paul by going down on him; like Intimacy the sex is real. Paul, whose physical interest in women doesn’t extend beyond a relationship’s honeymoon period, dissuades Marie; when she requests oral sex his response is that “If I did that, I’d despise you. I couldn’t love you anymore.” This is the fellatophobia noted in connection with Intimacy and the same disgust seen when Erica Kohut vomits after fellating Walter in The Piano Teacher.
Paul’s shame is particularly deep; his resulting inability to reconcile love with sex makes him see women in Madonna-or-whore terms. Just as Sally in When Harry Met Sally regards emotionally committed sex as everything and causal sex as nothing, Paul divides women into those who embody virtuous traits such as nurturing and mothering and those who desire sex. Paul wants Marie to be his Madonna. He can maintain a sexless relationship because, as will be seen, he expresses his sexual impulses in other ways. For Marie, more sensitive to her body’s urges, this is not an option and it is these urges—and the shame she feels at fulfilling them—that provides the film’s narrative drive.
Agreeing to be Paul’s Madonna, Marie ventures out to a bar where she meets Paolo (porn star Rocco Siffredi) who takes her back to his apartment for a good banging. Marie’s voice-over reveals that, much like Claire in Intimacy, she’s been having regular ‘stranger sex’ while Paul sleeps. It’s hard to fathom what Marie sees in Paul, given his detachment and petulance. Yet love him she does.
Marie watches miserably while Paul flirts with a woman on a nightclub dance floor. “He seduces because he wants to conquer. He wants to conquer because he’s a man,” intones the voice in her head. Paul’s way of coping with what feel like illicit sexual desires is to channel them into a socially acceptable outlet. He indulges his desires on the dance floor, knowing that when he has a woman where he wants her—craving sex with him—he will simply walk away, his ego satisfied while conveniently avoiding the sticky terrain of actual sex.
Marie reveals her own shame-based programming when she argues with Paul outside the nightclub. “You pull this shit because I dance with a girl?” Paul enquires. “Not some girl, a slut!” she retorts. Marie has the same, polarised Madonna-or-whore programming as Paul and brands a woman as sexually voracious simply for dancing with him, while she herself has a penchant for stranger sex. The hypocrisy is clearly lost on Marie, but this is an entirely accurate depiction of the way sexual shame clouds perceptions and causes Marie to see herself as the victim—the same twisted emotional logic that John Lotter and Tom Nissen employ to justify Brandon’s rape and murder.
All of this serves to drive Marie back into Paolo’s arms, where Breillat once again reveals society’s unwillingness to engage with the basic facts of human sexuality. With Breillat there isn’t the insult to the intelligence of Hollywood-staple fully clothed sex, nor any casually rumpled bed-sheets or carefully placed foreground objects strategically concealing socially inappropriate body parts. There are simply two naked bodies and something rarely seen even in art house films: a man touching his own penis. It is yet another of our shame-based covenants that a man touching himself sexually is regarded as a sign of failure. The male ego likes to think it can always find a woman to perform this demanding task, but the reality is often otherwise. It takes a porn star such as Siffredi, comfortable with his own body, to commit this image to celluloid.
Breillat’s laundry list of male sexual shortcomings doesn’t end there. After working her way through a litany of penile failings, concluding with “A thin cock’s ignoble,” Marie rolls onto her stomach and Paolo takes her from behind. Marie cannot bear to look in her seducer’s eyes; she would see only a reflection of her own shame. “How can you love a guy who doesn’t fuck you?” Paolo inquires as he pumps into Marie. “I don’t love the guys who screw me. I hate them,” she replies, passively projecting the loathing she feels at slaking her own desires onto her partners, like Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. This is her version of Paul’s inability to perform cunnilingus on Marie without despising her. But neither can Marie spare herself: “I want to be a hole, a pit,” she daydreams; like Stella Raphael in Asylum she glimpses satisfaction only in the void of total sexual abandonment. Marie has spent a lifetime unconsciously obeying the dictates of the ‘good’ side of her psyche; she longs for the emotional relief of expressing her rejected, ‘bad’ sexual side.
In a typically under-motivated transition, Paul then asks Marie for oral sex. Paul looks even more blasé than usual as she fails to entice him into an erection; Marie deflects attention from this unsatisfactory scene by waffling about his penis resembling a little bird. Continuing the disconnected events, Marie is then summoned to see Robert (François Berléand), unassuming and middle-aged, presumably her superior at the school where she teaches. Having exhausted the rhetorical possibilities of penile-avian comparisons in the previous scene, this time Marie prattles on about her lack of parallel parking skills.
Cut to Robert’s house. He, it transpires, has a talent for domination. The professional implications of an older male luring a younger female co-worker into a fetish encounter are ignored. Instead of script plausibility, Breillat focuses on set decoration and lighting, carrying both off with beautiful understatement. Foreshadowing themes Breillat would later explore in À Ma Soeur!, the scene is peppered with nihilistic one-liners like “The only way to be loved by women is through rape,” “Why do men who disgust us understand us better than the ones we love?” and “Beauty feeds on degradation.” Amid all this sexual metaphysics—entirely predicated on shame—Marie winds up tied to a post, with her mouth gagged, panties at half-mast and a deliciously silky rope pressing between her legs. It’s more than she can stand. Robert tenderly carries Marie to a bed where she breaks down and cries—not in misery but at the relief of having expressed some of her socially unwanted sexual feelings.
Marie goes home only to find the apartment empty. This leads her to masturbate; an act that paradoxically she performs with her legs closed and finds in equal parts satisfying and shameful. Like Dorothy Vallens, Frank Booth, Bud and Erica Kohut, Marie is caught in the push-pull cycle of seeking sexual release yet feeling ashamed when she finds it. This is both the treadmill of Sexcatraz and Marie’s yo-yo trajectory throughout Romance. She later sights Paul in a Japanese restaurant, enjoying his solitude. In the only truly loving moment between this alienated couple, Marie leaves him alone. On the way home she meets a stranger in her apartment stairwell. Marie surrenders to the same desire for sexual abandonment as Connie Sumner on the apartment landing in Unfaithful and receives what she craves.
The cumulative effect of Marie’s insatiability and Paul’s indifference is another visit to Robert. Here Marie—and Romance with her—achieves a state of grace. Resplendent in a scarlet dress, the traditional mark of the harlot, she submits wordlessly to being trussed, handcuffed and ankle-braced like a chicken ready for stuffing. A close-up shows Robert cutting a slit up the middle of Marie’s panties. He slides his fingers through the slit and the fuzz of pubic hair beneath. His fingers come out glistening. This is a porn moment, but it is rendered with such tenderness—even the word ‘love’ wants to interject itself into the sentence—that it transcends categorisation. Breillat mounts a full frontal attack on society’s narrow, conventional definitions of meaningful sex—married, monogamous, missionary—for which both she and actress Caroline Ducey should be applauded.
Marie returns home and—miracle of miracles—Paul wants sex. Marie climbs on board but makes the mistake of mocking his fragile libido by saying “You be the woman. I’ll be your guy, I’ll screw you.” Paul flings her aside, unable to handle the affront. His self-esteem is so fragile that anything other than the male-dominant missionary position leaves him feeling unpleasantly inferior. Yet somehow, in another of Breillat’s leaps of faith, Marie gets pregnant from this stunted coupling. “A Virgin Mary moment,” she calls it in the voice-over: Hail Mary, the patron saint of lame screenwriting. But the longer Romance goes on, the less attention the film pays to Marie and Paul’s emotional difficulties. Instead, the pregnancy provides Breillat with the opportunity to subject Marie to further indignity. The next scene has her flat on her back in hospital, vagina gaping directly at the camera as a succession of trainee gynaecologists poke about.
Later, Marie studies the aforementioned vagina in a mirror and laments that “You can’t love a face when a cunt tags along.” This is pretty much what the young Anaïs Pingot concludes in À Ma Soeur! It’s also Romance in a sound bite and a perfect delineation of the sexual-spiritual split—which Breillat then brings into crystal clarity as the film veers into a fantasy where Marie lies on a bed in a misty hospital, fully clothed, with a loving Paul in attendance. A guillotine-like wall cuts off all view of her body below the midriff.
Marie’s lower body has been banished to another world—a dun, drab milieu where the hole between her fishnet stocking-clad legs is conveniently accessible to anyone who wants to take the plunge. This is the same putrescent environment as the grey-green bungalow in À Ma Soeur! where Fernando duped Elena into conceding her virginity. What appear to be underemployed porn actors (or possibly executive producers) queue up to use the gaping orifices of the headless—and, by implication, soulless—female bodies. Breillat rams home the assertion that the chasm between love and sex cannot be bridged. It’s a brilliant portrayal of shame and the sexual-spiritual split, deep in the human psyche, that divides us into a pure, good, loving, moral and intellectual half (the upper body, including the mind) and an impure, bad, immoral and sexual half (the lower body, including the genitals).
Breillat rams home the assertion that the chasm between love and sex cannot be bridged. It’s a brilliant portrayal of shame and the sexual-spiritual split, deep in the human psyche, that divides us into a pure, good, loving, moral and intellectual half (the upper body, including the mind) and an impure, bad, immoral and sexual half (the lower body, including the genitals).
After this moment of clarity Romance goes into free-fall. Paul suddenly becomes the doting father-to-be, dragging Marie around like a leashed poodle—until the script has him back on the nightclub dance floor. Paul’s behaviour shifts from incomprehensible and dull to incomprehensible and annoying, which perversely makes sense of Marie’s next action. She turns on the gas cooker while he sleeps then goes to the hospital. Marie gives birth—shown in a head-on close-up—just as the apartment explodes, eliminating Paul from the script about an hour and a half too late. The film closes with Paul’s funeral, which—not surprisingly—is attended only by Marie and her baby.
Just as Eyes Wide Shut, Unfaithful, Indecent Proposal and When Harry Met Sally champion marriage, monogamy and emotionally committed love over sexual satisfaction without even trying to give the latter a fair hearing, Romance does the opposite. The character of Paul—vain, narcissistic and impotent, both sexually and emotionally—is fundamentally undesirable. Nothing he does that brings him pleasure involves Marie; it is therefore no surprise that she turns elsewhere to explore her sexuality. The result is a typically bleak Breillat movie that sees no solution to the eternal conundrum that human beings are impelled to express their sexual urges but in the process of doing so become inhuman. Breillat seems clearly of the opinion that there is no escape from Sexcatraz. Yet our study of the characteristics of Sexcatraz would not be complete without exploring social models where the sexual covenants are either significantly stronger or significantly weaker than those of contemporary Western society. Thanks to the magic of cinema, there are films that portray exactly these scenarios.