The central preoccupation of Catherine Breillat’s work is the sexuality of women. That is, in and of itself, no major accomplishment. How many male directors, by contrast, are not in some way preoccupied with women? Of course, the preoccupation with female sexuality in most forms of cinematic production is marked by exhibitionism rather than introspection; it reassures where it could tear apart. Even in a film like Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale (2002), any effort to revise the image of the figure of the femme fatale along feminist lines is undercut by extensive displays of the female body. In this case, the femme fatale may no longer be the cause of the noir hero’s downfall, but she is still the source of visual pleasure. Although, Breillat’s films also tread a very fine line between exhibitionism and introspection—she admits that they are, after all, always about sex—they do so under the guidance of a fundamental difference in conception. In Breillat’s own words: “I take sexuality as a subject, not as an object.” (1)
But, of course, this formulation is only half right. Her films are, as I have said, uniquely concerned with a woman’s understanding of her own sexuality. The representation of this sexual reckoning encompasses a wide range of issues including the adolescent obsession with the loss of virginity, in films like Une vraie jeune fille (1975) and 36 Fillette (1988); a woman’s (possibly) masochistic relation to sex in Romance (1999); and the seemingly unbridgeable sexual and emotional gulf between an older woman and a younger man, in Parfait amour! (1996) and Brève traversée (2001). However, the films are also sexually explicit; contrary to Breillat’s assertion, sex is an object as well as a subject in her films. Moreover, the sexual acts on display in Breillat’s films are not only explicit, they are often unsimulated, a characteristic of her films that has contributed to her unflattering (in my view) international reputation as the auteur of porn. For Breillat, the visual display of sex is inseparable from the representation of the consciousness of her female characters. The representation of sex is also central to the development of her visual style—a level of innovation that has been grossly overlooked in contemporary film culture. And herein lies both the challenge and the controversy of her work.
Catherine Breillat’s preoccupation with the representation of female sexuality began very early in her artistic career. Breillat began as a writer, publishing her first novel, L’homme facile, when she was just 17. Ironically, the book was banned for readers under the age of 18 in France for its explicit and transgressive sexual content, thus initiating Breillat into a lifetime of controversy. Breillat would quickly gain a reputation as the female De Sade, the new Bataille—a purveyor of transgressive sexuality. Breillat went on to publish seven novels and one play, many of which she would herself adapt to the screen.
Breillat transitioned to filmmaking in 1975 with an adaptation of her fourth novel, Le Soupirail, retitled Une vraie jeune fille. Standing in between this transition from novelist to director was a brief, but no doubt highly influential, acting stint. In 1972, Breillat appeared in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, playing a character named Mouchette. Bertolucci could not have chosen this name more wisely, drawn, as it is, from the eponymous protagonist of Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1966). Bresson’s Mouchette, a very young, utterly disenfranchised girl who is both sexually precocious, sexually abused, and suicidal, was likely a template for many of Breillat’s own tortured adolescents. But Bertolucci’s film, which centers on the emotional anguish of an American man in Paris who begins an anonymous and transgressive affair in a empty, dilapidated Paris flat, was no doubt a major influence on Breillat’s representation of sexuality. Indeed, in 36 Fillette, Breillat cast Jean-Pierre Léaud, who also had a brief role in Last Tango in Paris. And, of course, the censorship problems that Bertolucci faced with Last Tango in Paris, for its representation of sodomy, amongst other things, were ones with which Breillat would become increasingly familiar.
Breillat’s first film did not see the light of day until twenty-five years later, when it was released in France in 2000. Une vraie jeune fille was shelved by its backers for, once again, its transgressive look at the sexual awakening of an adolescent girl. And it is not so hard to see why. Une vraie jeune fille is an awkward film. It represents Breillat at her most Bataillesque, freely mingling abstract images of female genitalia, mud, and rodents into this otherwise realist account of a young girl’s sexual awakening. In her summary of Susan Sontag’s defense of a literary strain of pornography, Linda Williams offers what stands as an apt description of Breillat’s approach in Une vraie jeune fille, where an “elitist, avant-garde, intellectual, and philosophical pornography of imagination [is pitted against] the mundane, crass materialism of a dominant mass culture.” (2) There is no way, in other words, to integrate this film into a commodity driven system of distribution. It does not offer visual pleasure, at least not one that comes without intellectual engagement, and, more importantly, rigorous self-examination—hence Breillat’s assertion that sex is the subject, not the object, of her work.
The difficulty of Breillat’s work—that is, her steadfast refusal to make conventionally erotic images, or films, for that matter, which don’t deal with sex at all—has lead to a myriad of censorship problems. Her second film, Tapage Nocturne (1979), which also details the sexual longing of a young woman, and was adapted from her novel of the same name, also met with censorship. Although the film was released, access to it was forbidden to anyone under 18. But it was with the release of Romance in 1999 that Breillat would face censorship internationally, when the film was either banned altogether in some countries, or given an X rating. It was a situation Breillat spoke out about when she declared that, “censorship was a male preoccupation, and that the X certificate was linked to the X chromosome.” (3) Breillat’s statement was echoed in the French poster for the film, which features a naked woman with her hand between her legs. A large red X is printed across the image, thus revealing the source of the trouble: a woman in touch with her own sense of sexual pleasure.
Romance, and the world-wide discourse about pornography that erupted in the wake of its release, best typifies the challenge and the interest of her work. Romance is about a woman, Marie, whose boyfriend refuses to have sex with her. Her frustration leads her to a series of affairs in an effort to not only find pleasure, but seemingly to arrive at some better understanding of her own desire. The film is sexually explicit, and features, as do many of Breillat’s films, acts of unsimulated sex, hence the many accusations leveled against Breillat that she is a pornographer. Indeed, Breillat willfully courted such accusations by casting Rocco Siffredi, a famous Italian porn star, as one of Marie’s lovers. Moreover, Marie’s sexual encounters are marked by a sense of sadomasochism. Indeed, after having her baby she winds up with a man who is also the principal of the school where she teaches, having blown up her apartment and her boyfriend (who is also, presumably, the father of her child) on the way to the hospital.
Romance was banned in Australia upon its release in January 2000. In his review of the Office of Film and Literature’s (OFLC) report on the film, Adrian Martin describes the reason for the ban. And in so doing, Martin arrives at precisely the thing that makes Breillat’s films so difficult, and so interesting. Martin surveys the censors’ objection to the scene where Marie is solicited by a man in the hallway of her building. In this scene, a man offers Marie twenty-dollars to perform cunnilingus on her, to which she assents without saying a word. Of course, more occurs, as Marie is turned over (or turns over) as her perpetrator then enters her from behind. As he continues, Marie seems to sob, and when he leaves, she shouts that she is not ashamed. Martin notes that in describing the scene, the writer of the OFLC report says that “he orders Marie to turn over,” and that she tries to “scuffle away.” (4) Martin replies, “…I did not see Marie try to ‘scuffle away’ during the scene, or be forced to turn over.” (5) Martin’s point is that this writer’s language reveals his own moral response to an image, as opposed to what is actually present in the image: “One of the most interesting things about Romance is the way in which it inscribes in its own material ambiguous designation of obscenity.” (6) In other words, neither Breillat nor Caroline Ducey (Marie) give us any concrete signs of her own response to what is happening. We cannot walk away confident of Marie’s outrage, only our own, at best. Indeed, the whole scene begins with a voice-over where Marie proclaims that it is, in fact, her fantasy to be taken this way. Yet, the act itself is inscribed into the realist space of the plot, thus blurring the line between fantasy and reality that is signaled by Marie’s voice-over.
As such, when we watch this act on screen, and many others like it, we are left only with what we think of what we see. Moreover, we project our own values back on to the screen, as Martin further notes when he cites a review of the film that describes the scene between Marie and Rocco Siffredi as a “humiliating affair.” (7) Of course, there is, to my eyes, no signs of humiliation in that scene. If anything, it is a frank and very physical depiction of a sexual encounter. Siffredi asks Marie if he can have anal sex with her, an act that stands as the possible source of said humiliation. However, this possibility is complicated by the fact that she very calmly consents, on the condition that he first continue to make love to her. Moreover, the scene begins with Marie telling Siffredi, while holding a soiled condom, how men like to keep things hidden—how easily they are disgusted. The only sign of shame in the sequence comes when she admits to Siffredi, in the middle of sex, that she only sleeps with men that she doesn’t like. If there is shame here, it is the viewer’s.
And that’s just the point. Breillat exposes us to sexual encounters, often very volatile ones, but does not tell us what to think about them. She does not, I believe, judge her characters, or their desires. But that does not mean, however, that Breillat’s images and characters are necessarily removed from moral consideration. Rather, the opacity of her characters, the material designations of obscenity, to borrow Martin’s phrase, only make the films more meaningful. For example, in À ma soeur! (2001), Breillat tells the story of the rivalry and sexual awakening of two teenage sisters. One sister, Elena, is fifteen, thin and attractive; the younger sister, Anaïs, is twelve, overweight, and subject to Elena’s hostility. À ma soeur! ends with a scene in which Elena, Anaïs, and their mother are driving on the highway. Out of nowhere a man jumps through the windshield, killing both Elena and her mother. It is a brutal and surprising conclusion to a film that has otherwise moved along very slowly, in a pace closer to De Sica’s Umberto D than the horror genre that it ends up resembling. After murdering Elena and her mother, the killer takes Anaïs into the woods and rapes her. The scene is horrifying, and is made more so (for this viewer at least) by the apparent lack of signs of resistance or even possibly distress on the part of Anaïs. Breillat and her brilliant young performer, Anaïs Reboux, resist the signs of terror that typically accompany such scenes. As Anaïs is escorted out of the woods by the police, we hear them say that Anaïs claims that no rape took place. And it is important, I believe, that we do not hear Anaïs say this. For one, by refusing coded signs of distress, Breillat, it seems to me at least, asks us to try to see this rape from Anaïs’ perspective. That is, Anaïs does not want to view it as rape, but as a sexual experience, especially as her age, body, and attractive older sister have previously stood in the way of her sexual desires. But this is not to excuse the rape. At all. Rather, by courting ambiguity, Breillat presents us with a complicated, if very controversial, portrait of the psychology of a young girl. We can judge this scene any way that we choose. We will likely be outraged and saddened. We can even condemn Breillat as the creator; however, our condemnation would, I believe, miss the point. For there is no question that what we see is rape; the question is why would this young girl want to see it otherwise. And our answer to that will not be found in easy, moralizing statements.
This resistance to simple, and therefore limiting, character comprehension, is the key to Breillat’s films, all of which stands as efforts to represent the consciousness of her female characters in extremely complex terms. She does not afford us the easy access to the mind of women that one finds in mainstream film where a woman’s consciousness is always externalized. Breillat is very clear about this, as she has said:
There is no masculine psychology in my cinema. There is only the resentments and desires of women. A man should not attempt to recognize himself in my male characters. On the other hand, he can find [in the films] a better understanding of women. And knowledge of the other is the highest goal. (8)
Therein lies one of the chief virtues of Breillat’s work, and the very trait that makes it just as important for men as it is for women. In refusing to represent male psychology in any significant way, Breillat not only refuses to reinforce conventional patterns of identification, but asks that men learn something about women; or at the very least, the male spectator is refused easy signs of character psychology. However, Breillat’s innovations are by no means limited to questions of identification and character psychology—though these questions do stand at the center.
One of the unfortunate consequences of Breillat’s reputation as the auteur of porn is that it has obscured the much more interesting fact of her engagement with the history of modernist filmmaking. Breillat is a central figure in European film culture. In addition to her stint in the Bertolucci film, Breillat has written screenplays for directors such as Maurice Pialat (Police, 1985), Federico Fellini (And the Ship Sails On, 1983), Liliana Cavani (The Skin, 1981) and many others. Likewise, her own films have shown an interest in the expansion of genre, a major characteristic of European modernist filmmaking, as in her renovation of the policier in Sale comme un ange (1991). Moreover, Breillat is vocal about the filmmakers who have shaped her conception of cinema, consistently praising the work of figures such as Warhol, Pasolini, Oshima, Dreyer, and Bresson—all of whom can be felt in Breillat’s films in very interesting ways. (9)
Perhaps the largest influence on Breillat’s work is to be found in Italian neorealism, or at least in the idea of neorealism. Breillat’s films often move quite slowly. She prefers long takes with few camera set-ups. She is very interested in documenting the quotidian, more fond of watching a young girl walking down the street than she is in setting that same character before an easily resolved conflict in an effort to keep the narrative moving. In this sense, Breillat gets much closer to Zavattini’s famous idea about neorealism and what it would replace:
…the most important innovation, of what is called neorealism, it seems to me, is to have realized that the necessity of the ‘story’ was only an unconscious way of disguising human defeat, and that the kind of imagination it involved was simply a technique of superimposing dead formulas over living social facts. (10)
In the case of Breillat, this realist tendency is always put in the service of living social facts. Indeed, the sexuality on display in her films is well described by the idea of “living social facts.” For example, in À ma soeur!, there is a scene where Elena invites her newly acquired Italian boyfriend to sneak into her bedroom at night. Elena, of course, shares this room with Anaïs. The scene involves Fernando begging and often coercing Elena to sleep with him. And their sexual foreplay is performed, most awkwardly, in front of Anaïs, who only pretends to be sleeping. The scene lasts well over ten minutes and is filmed largely in medium shots done in long takes. Moreover, this scene of sexual initiation is, of course, a major interest of contemporary Hollywood film (think American Pie [Weitz & Weitz, 1999]). However, the sexual exchange documented here is slow, clumsy, and very confused. Gone is the mainstream film’s attempt to represent sex, even teenage sex, as something unnaturally fluid, graceful, or amusing. Breillat replaces that conception of sex with a very realist representation of an unknowing, confused adolescent sexual experience. Zavattini’s ‘dead formula’ is absent. As such, Breillat manages a level of realism largely absent from actual neorealist film.
Breillat’s films are also characterized by a high degree of reflexivity, thus further signaling her indebtedness to European modernism. This reflexive tendency of her work often confronts the realist dimension of her filmmaking in interesting ways. For example, Parfait amour! begins with documentary-like footage featuring the male protagonist of the film, who will ultimately kill his older girlfriend, re-enacting his crime for the police. The film then proceeds to tell the story of that relationship in a realist fashion. Likewise, when the murderer appears at the end of À ma soeur!, the neorealist-like treatment is run off-course by the intrusion of the actions and ethos of the horror film, in which teen sex is always met with murder. And in her most recent film, Sex is Comedy (2002), Breillat offers up a reflexive meditation on the making of pornography. Breillat’s reflexivity can be very frustrating. I prefer, for example, 36 Fillette, where the reflexivity is largely absent, and we are treated, without interruption, to an important story about a young girl’s attempt to come to terms with her own sexuality. Indeed, the film, as someone like Zavattini would have hoped, makes important connections between class consciousness and sexuality while never leaving behind the substance of the world where these concerns are in fact lived out. However, Breillat’s tendency to disrupt her own realist narratives is, I would argue, part of a larger concern to analyze not only the conventions of filmmaking that she is interested in negating, but also the ones that she is employing. In other words, she distrusts realism as a strategy even though it is her preferred mode of representation.
Along the same lines, Breillat is also one of the most important colorists working in film today. That is, she often uses color not only naturalistically, but as an important form of signification. For example, in 36 Fillette, the young girl finally agrees to go to the hotel room of her older, rich male suitor. This character, of course, bears a striking resemblance to Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris. What takes place in this hotel room, however, is a reversal of that sexual anguish. Instead of watching a man tortured by what he takes to be his own perversity, we witness in Breillat’s film a long scene of a young girl trying to figure out—and often changing her mind about—what she wants from this man. Breillat uses color marvelously here. The hotel sits on a beach front. Breillat films the room with blue light and a tannish, orange décor. These are, of course, the colors of the beach: the outside world of the beach itself—blue water, tan sand—is replicated on the inside. And thus a level of tension and analysis is added to the image, as we are reminded that this potential coupling, and deflowering, is taking place in the context of a summer vacation. Whimsy and high seriousness are inextricably linked; sex once again is treated as a subject even while it remains an object. And in coloring this scene so markedly, Breillat can make further reference to Last Tango in Paris, which is famous for cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s use of color, a scheme he borrowed from the paintings of Francis Bacon.
Breillat’s work is obviously the product of a major auteur. Her dismissal as the auteur of porn, then, speaks volumes. For one, it excludes her from the accolades with which her male counterparts have long been lavished, and to whom she bears a resemblance. But also, to deny the importance of Breillat’s work, to relegate her to a realm outside of art, would be to demand that art merely confirm our ways of thinking instead of challenging them. And this is, I would imagine, what Breillat had in mind when she told an interviewer, “I don’t really think about my audience very much.” (11) The point, in other words, is not to satisfy expectations, but to confound them. And thus new ideas, new ways of seeing, can emerge.
Une vraie jeune fille (1975)
Tapage Nocturne (1979)
36 Fillette (1988)
Sale comme un ange (1991)
A propos de Nice, las suite (1995: segment of Aux Nicois qui mal y pensant)
Parfait amour! (1996)
À ma soeur! (2001)
Brève traversée (2001) for television
Sex is Comedy (2002)
Anatomy of Hell (2004)
Une vieille maîtresse (The Last Mistress, 2007)
Barbe bleue (Bluebeard, 2009)
La belle endormie (The Sleeping Beauty, TV Movie, 2010)
Venice 70: Future Reloaded (2013)
Abus de faiblesse (Abuse of Weakness, 2013)
Kathleen Murphy, “A Matter of Skin: Catherine Breillat’s Metaphysics of Film and Flesh”, Film Comment 35, no. 5, September/October 1999, pp. 16-22
Ginette Vincendeau, “Sisters, Sex and Sitcom”, Sight & Sound 11, no. 12, December 2001, pp. 18-20
Linda Williams, “Cinema and the Sex Act”, Cineaste 27, no. 1, Winter 2001, pp. 20-26
Linda Williams, Hardcore: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1999
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Emphasis on Climax: Catherine Breillat’s A Ma Soeur! by José Sarmiento-Hinojosa
A Real Young Girl: Catherine Breillat’s Adolescent Wonderland by Maria San Filippo
Anatomy of Hell: A Feminist Fairy Tale by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster
Une Veille Maitresse (The Last Mistress) by Lee Hill
Compiled by author and Albert Fung
ABC Radio National
Interview on Romance.
A Quick Chat with Catherine Breillat
A German site on Breillat.
French interview on Romance.
The European Graduate School
Breillat is a professor of auteur cinema. This page has a list of resources on Breillat.
French article on Sex is Comedy.
Guardian Unlimited – “The Joy of Sex”
Interview on Romance.
Catherine Breillat films on DVD.
French article on Breillat.
French article on Une vraie jeune fille.
Interview on À ma soeur!
Interview on Romance.
The Village Voice – “Catherine Breillat Pulls the Strings”
Article on À ma soeur!
- In Chris Wiegan, “A Quick Chat with Catherine Breillat”, Kamera.co.uk, 1999, www.kamera.co.uk/interviews/catherinebreillat.html
- Linda Williams, Hardcore: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1999, p. 10
- Breillat is quoted in Libby Brooks, “The Joy of Sex,” Guardian Unlimited, Friday November 23, 2001, www.film.guardian.co.uk/censorship/news/0,11729,660428,00.html
- Adrian Martin, “’X’ Marks the Spot: Classifying Romance,” Senses of Cinema, www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/4/romance.html
- Breillat is quoted in Mona Chollet, “Une vraie jeune fille: Catherine Breillat cherche les problèmes”, Périphéries, Juin 2000, www.peripheries.net/f-breillat.htm. The translation is mine.
- Indeed, her recent top ten list in Sight & Sound makes clear what these influences are: Ai no corrida (Oshima); Sawdust and Tinsel (Bergman); Baby Doll (Kazan); Lost Highway (Lynch); Vertigo (Hitchcock); Salò (Pasolini); L’avventura (Antonioni); Ordet (Dreyer); Lancelot du Lac (Bresson); and Ten (Kiarostami). See Catherine Breillat, “Top Ten,” Sight & Sound, www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/topten/poll/voter.php?forename=Catherine&surname=breillat
- Cesare Zavattini, “Some Ideas on the Cinema”, Film: A Montage of Theories, edited by Richard Dyer MacCann, New York, E.P. Dutton, 1966, p. 216
- Breillat is quoted in Saul Anton, “Catherine Breillat Opens Up About Romance, Sex, and Censorship”, indieWIRE, www.indiewire.com/film/interviews/int/Breillat/Catherine/990923.html