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ROMANCE : NOTES ON THE FILM THAT DOESN'T HAVE ANY

March 2000: Considering the amount of heat and debate caused by the prospect of the film's banning, now that's it has a commercial release, Romance deserves to be discussed - even at the risk of adding to an already massive list of opinions, articles and examinations about this film. ANDREW L. URBAN has his say:

Many writers are convinced that Romance is Catherine Breillat's feminism-inspired statement about female sexuality and its power. That by choosing to engage in sexual acts that are usually seen as degrading, the film central character, Marie, somehow liberates herself from patriarchal sex, even though she continually asserts her need for her boyfriend to "f**k" her. I don't see it.

"overstates her case rather seriously"

I've put "f**k" in quotes because to me one of the underlying disappointments in this film is Marie's narration, written like a diary, that is, to herself, not us. In this diary and also in the film's actual dialogue, Marie uses the crudest words to describe genitals and intercourse. It's not the use of the words that disappoint me (I use them myself sometimes) but the fact that by reducing everything sexual to the mechanical, Breillat overstates her case rather seriously. I realise her title is ironic; I realise she is questioning the illusion of romance and searching for a feminist, deeply thought statement. But she has misjudged here; it is not "f***ing" that Marie is talking about. It is not Paul's "cock" she wants. Those words are out of context in her own emotional language and turn the film into a posture.

This is one reason why in my review I've singled out the lack of context as being a serious flaw in the film. Marie's everyday life as a teacher (with surprisingly expensive wardrobe, but we're in France, after all) is a shallow background; Paul's clinically modern flat is an equally shallow background for him. If they are both meant to be mere symbols, as some commentators have thought possible, they don't symbolise much to me. This is especially critical since it is Paul's refusal to "f**k" Marie some weeks into their relationship which triggers Marie's so called journey. In other words, Breillat does not differentiate between "f***ing" and the sort of love making Marie is longing for. She writes lines for Marie like "It is said that a man honours a woman when he f***s her…Paul dishonours me."

"Confused"

If we had some inkling why she chooses to stay with this pompous, stone hearted and arrogant idiot we may start to understand Breillat's direction.

I am not the only one a bit confused by the film. Writing in 'nitrate', Cynthia Fuchs (I can't help her name) says, among other things: "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. 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."

"visually radical"

The point is, for a film which is, as Breillat puts it, "visually radical" in that it films sexual acts without either the illusion of love (romance) present, or without any attempt to portray sex as erotic, the director's intent must be much clearer if it is to avoid being labelled pretensious and self indulgent. (Or self-important porn made by a woman.)

Louise Keller makes a valid point in her review that this film is one to see so we can talk about it; Breillat shows us how confusing human sexuality can be - even though it is not how she intended. Our understanding of the female sexual condition is not much enlarged or enhanced by it, nor does it make an effective argument for a cinema that depicts "f***ing" as a serious new form. But it does raise the issue of censorship, of sexually liberal filmmaking and perhaps adds to the discussion about sexual relationships. It also has a witty bondage scene that informs and entertains, so it's not all earnest and grim.

"mull over"

That, and the brothel scene where Marie imagines women displayed in two halves, for different emotional and physical functions (nurturing above the waist v raw sex below) are the best things in the film, and both say something we can mull over.

See you at the expresso machine.

Footnote:

The R classification advisory note on this film is 'High level sex scenes' which seems rather tame when compared to other films with high level sex scenes, and as a reference to scenes of fallacio and cunnilingus, masturbation, intercourse (various positions) and bondage, all on camera. This is worth mentioning in the wake of the fuss about the OFLC initially refusing to classify the film at all, which would have effectively prevented it from commercial release.

The guidelines for the OFCL (Office of Film and Literature Classification - not 'Censorship Board') should be amended to take away the option of refusing classification. But the whole point of having classification as a means of advising consumers of what they may expect by way of potentially offending or confronting material is somewhat dented if the advisory note is meaningless. High level sex scenes can be applied to any number of films with an M rating, never mind R. 'Explicit and actual sexual acts' may have been a more useful and accurate note.

That way, there is less chance of certain consumers wondering into a film such as this and then complaining about what they see. Using complaints as a political tool it is not too hard to imagine certain folk going to see Romance just so they can complain that its content offended them, putting false pressure on the process.

Censorship, No; proper advisory warnings, Yes.
Andrew L. Urban

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