L’abus de faiblesse. An abuse of weakness? The French filmmaker and novelist, Catherine Breillat, has frequently appeared in the media as a controversial figure due to the explicit and realistic nature of her cinematic treatment of female sexuality, sibling rivalry and violence. A hostile media dubbed her the “auteur of porn” due to her insistence on un-simulated sex in her films. Her first film, Une Vraie Jeune Fille (A Real Young Lady), based on her fourth novel, Le Soupirail, was produced in I976, but not released into theatres in most countries until 2000. The film’s blatant treatment of the hormonal driven actions and, at times, surreal fantasies of an adolescent schoolgirl ensured its absence from commercial cinema screens. In the last couple of years, however, the 62 year-old filmmaker has featured in the media for an entirely different reason—as a victim of the “star hustler”, Christophe Thierry Rocancourt.
In an interview on France 2 on August 3rd 2010, Breillat, who suffered a stroke in 2004 and has cerebral vascular disease, claimed that Rocancourt took advantage of her fragility and vulnerability to steal her money. The filmmaker had been planning to direct a film starring Rocancourt, based on his life, with Naomi Campbell playing his companion. Breillat has written a book entitled Abus de faiblesse (2009) that gives her version of the events, in which she says that Rocancourt borrowed 650,000 Euros. Due to her illness, she claims she has no recollection of signing a cheque, no memory of the transaction at all:
It is impossible for you to know you are a victim of abuse, but it is only when you are completely ruined that you realise it has happened. Of course, he was adorable with me. (1)
While the filmmaker has lodged a formal complaint of l’abus de faiblesse, the charge is notoriously difficult to prove. The abuse must involve an individual who is ignorant, vulnerable or has a physical or psychological handicap or deficiency whereby the accused aims to drive the person to an act that is gravely detrimental to them. In France, many cases are lodged but few are proven. Under the circumstances, it is surprising that Breillat, suffering financial ruin and dealing with the effects of her illness, continues to work—quite prolifically, in fact. Barbe bleue (Blue Beard) was released in 2009 and La belle endormie (The Sleeping Beauty) in 2010. Both films are based on fairytales written in the 17th Century by Charles Perrault; both were shot as fantastic costumes pieces. At the beginning of this interview, which took place in Paris in June 2010, Breillat appeared frail and withdrawn; when talking about her work, however, she is passionate and animated and her discussion is infused with much humour. In what are, for her, troubled days, the cinema is her salvation.
I want to ask you initially about how you began as an actor, and then you moved on to writing and directing.
No, I began writing a novel. In English it was called A Man for the Asking. In France it was called L’homme facile. I wrote it at sixteen years of age, but it was forbidden in France for anyone under eighteen. So it was illegal for me to read the book I had written.
An absurd situation, so you began writing and then you took up acting?
A little, very little acting, it was when I was very young, twelve, about that time. I wanted to become a moviemaker, director, a writer, singer, actress, but, in fact, my two real passions are literature and cinema. I wanted to be behind the camera, not in front of the camera. My sister became an actress, yes, because of me, and she was successful as an actress in France.
I have read quite a few interviews with actors who have worked with you. They have enormous admiration for you and loyalty. I am interested that you say you work behind the camera, and you prefer that, so how do you work with your actors; what is you role?
It’s like a …a translation of me…
Yes, but I don’t know how I do it. Suddenly I feel this urgency and I have to make something. And, I have success but I don’t know how. I think I am very tactile so I create very precise choreography. I talk with the actors a lot, but when I directed this sort of big spoof, which is Sex is Comedy, I asked Anne Parillaud, who I worked with on this film and who is a big star (because I think that I was too demanding with her), so I asked her if I was, am, too méchante (nasty), aggressive.
Never, she said to me. You never tell me what I have to do, just what I have to be. Always I ask my actors to propose something and when they have finished I say to them, that is exactly what all the other actors would do in this text so it’s not interesting. They have to propose to me something else, something that surprises me. It is very boring for me if they do exactly what I have written. If they do that, I have just published a scenario, like a novel. So, if I shoot the scenario it will be because there is something else in the script and they have to convince me of what this something else is.
That they find within themselves?
That they find in their passions.
Do you rehearse your actors a lot or do you work more spontaneously on the set?
I never rehearse. If the first time is good, I always keep the first take, even if it is contrary to what I want. If it is not good, I cannot shoot it again, because what I want is grace. I don’t like work—it’s a joke of course, but work is ugly, work always appears, your have to have grace. For me a good “shoot” is what I call a magic shoot. Everything is perfect, completely. The way we shoot, the way the actress plays, how it is framed, the time, and the musical time—that is a magic shoot. For me, I always want to have this and it’s completely marvellous. There is some kind of magic. Magic happens.
You shoot very fast too?
Yes. And I think more and more quickly, especially the last two films I made, Barbe bleue and La belle endormie. La belle endormie was shot in costume and in nineteen days.
That is surprisingly fast for costume dramas.
Yes, like that, you are never bored. How can I say? You are always under pressure to do a scene because you are directly exposing others. It is best when you are in danger—a mise en danger—and you have to respond.
It sounds as if your shoots are very intense, but everybody is there in the moment creating something.
Yes, and then you cannot have one hesitation, to get what you want, so that it’s like une fleche, an arrow?
Yes, exactly. I want this more and more now because I am, in fact, very sick. When I’ve finished shooting a scene, I always have a little bed that follows me around and while they set up the lighting for the next scene, l sleep.
Now my health is so bad that it is very, very boring to be awake because it’s so difficult for me. It is difficult for me because I am hémiplégique (paralysed on one side). If I don’t do a movie, I am not passionate and then I am just an infirme, a handicapped woman. But when I make a movie I can do many things I cannot normally do. When I shoot actors I always make the choreography with my body and now, even when my body is completely handicapped, I can, because of the passion, the passion drives you, I can do what I should not be able to do.
Writing novels is quite a solitary process.
For me, cinema, in fact, is my first passion. In the beginning it was the novel and poetry and cinema, but I am not sure I am a great novelist. (laughs)
But you write the scripts for your films?
Yes, that’s true. In English, the script is very, very important, but for me it’s just the fantome of the movie. It’s just something very efficient to work with for the movie, but it is not the movie. It is the ghost of the movie.
I finished La belle endormie and my assistant saw it two days ago to see if the mix was good and everything was right for Arte. My assistant was very, very surprised. Even when you have a script and even when your assistant is there during the shoot, when you bring everything together in the mix, what you end up with is something else. I think the frame is very important, the direction of actors too, of course, but also the story—the script? It’s better if you have a good script but, in fact, I always change my script. Sometimes, even while I’m shooting I ask the actor or even a little child that I had for Barbe bleue to do something during shooting, a completely new scene. That’s cinema; it’s always alive.
Going back to your upbringing, I’ve heard you mention that you had quite a strict, catholic upbringing, and I wonder about your artistic life as a kind of rejection of that orthodoxy. For example, critics often talk about Anatomie de l’enfer (Anatomy of Hell, 2004) as being a film that re-addresses issues around religious symbolism.
Anatomie de l’enfer for me is not against religion. For me it is a theorem to explain and prove what is “obscenity” because every time censorship prosecutes obscenity, they can never say what it is. So I make a théorème, like a philosophical théorème, or half philosophic, half mathematic, and, of course, I fall on the evidence that obscenity is… a dream ideal. And, of course, not a catholic one. In fact, at the time I was making this film my assistant, who is Jewish, said to me, you are very courageous to make a film that is against the Torah.
The interdiction on images?
Yes, but I said no. It’s my ‘scene’ as I had never read the Torah. So when I was editing Anatomie de l’enfer I would go to the metro and I would read the Torah in the metropolitan, the subway, and yes, it was the same world because this world is…even if you are not Jewish, not Catholic, not Protestant, it’s an orthodox society.
So I made Anatomie de l’enfer because in Romance (1999) I didn’t go to the extreme limit because courage failed me—to really see sex in a movie that is not a pornographic one. In fact, I failed, Oshima did it, but with Romance, j’ai échoue, I failed. With Anatomie de l’enfer, there was only one subject. You cannot escape.
I find Anatomie de l’enfer a very powerful and surprising film, but my students, particularly my female students, much prefer Romance. As twenty-year-olds, this is the film they want to talk about. For me, Anatomie de l’enfer goes places that Romance fails to, and I also feel some anxiety about the depiction of female masochism. Can you talk about why you think you failed with Romance?
My obsession, I think, is that it should not be forbidden to see the sex of a woman because it is not an obscenity. I very much like the Courbet picture, L’Origine du monde. It is an art picture. It is not pornographic photography and everyone understands the difference, but they cannot say why and censorship boards are also unable to say why.
With Romance when Marie [played by Caroline Ducey] has the mirror between her legs, in fact, in the script at the time I make her look at her sex and then she brings up the mirror and looks at herself. This sex cannot have this face. This face cannot have this sex and yet, I didn’t shoot the female sex. I just shot the triangle so I was very prudish. I did not go to the final demonstration, the expression of which, as an artist, I should have. When I saw Romance for the first time, I wanted to make another one immediately, a remake. But the business of the cinema is not artistic, so it is not possible, as you do not have the money to say I want to make that scene again, but not the same. This scene is one for heaven, now I want to make one in water, in the ground, in mud.
Because Romance is uneven and, in fact, although I wanted to make Anatomie de l’enfer of the ground [earth], it is also uneven and I don’t know why because I went exactly where I wanted to go with this movie. It is a very ecstatic movie for me.
I want to ask you about the two things that always come up in relation to your work, sex and violence. You’ve already talked about issues around sexuality, women’s sexuality, and so I want to ask you about not just what you are trying to do in your films in relation to sexuality, but also in relation to society. I ask this partly because last weekend I met two women who were documentary filmmakers. They were making a documentary about 40 years of feminism in France, the MLF (le mouvement de libération des femmes). They said they felt a need to make this documentary because of the lack of interest—and urgency—on young women’s behalf and their sort of denial and rejection of feminism. They said they needed to make this film because things have improved but they haven’t improved greatly.
The times go backwards. It is horrible. We go backwards. In France, we are currently speaking about the liberty to wear the hijab, the thing is that some women in Islamic countries have no rights. Why? It [The hijab] is a symbol of something horrible. When you look at Benazir Bhutto, she was one of the guides of the Islamic republic, but she didn’t wear it like that; she wore something more normal like a scarf, something coloured. But it is not about death, it’s about life. This sort of religion is now about death, the death of women.
The Algerian women are completely dressed in white, but it is not a light white cloth, it is like the material for a catafalque. And now they say in France, the country of liberty, that I can wear the hijab, but I cannot walk in the streets with the croix gammée (nazi cross). It’s symbolic, the same symbol. Now in Afghanistan the women have no right to study, no right to work and so they are treated like beasts without a doctor, without a veterinaire. They even face lapidation.
You cannot wear a symbol as it is forbidden. It is not a question of religion, no it’s forbidden to have croix gammée and the hijab should be forbidden. Yes, a scarf like Benazir Bhutto, but not covered. It is ostensibly a symbol of the enslavement of women.
What do young French women who are not religious think of their own situation?
They think that when their mothers, a mother like me, was a feminist, it was against men and that we were wrong because we were furious about men. They do not understand that all they have now is because of what we did and it was not “against” men.
Younger men now I think are nicer, less macho, not all of them, but many of them. Feminine and masculine are a part of all of us and they are now composed in a new man with all the characteristics—with the strength and the beauty of weakness.
In an article in Télérama (2) that invited directors like yourself to discuss violence in the cinema, you talked about how, when you use violence, you want it to be like an axe, something very quick and sudden, like it can be in life. I think this is how the violence works at the end of A ma sœur (Fat Girl, 2001). There is also enormous animosity towards violence in the cinema, a fear that it might be contagious.
No, because when I was young and I could never go outside with friends. I only had permission to go to the bibliothèque. And I read many, many books. There I found a book, an Iranian anthology. It was called a book of pleasure and as a twelve year old, I made a very close study of each of its chapters. All the passages I liked the most at this age and up to twenty years old where all written by men and were so violent against women. But it was my culture, my artistique culture. I liked this in an artistic way and they were very great artists. It was marvellous in literature but it may not be marvellous in life.
Me? I was also a very great fan of Dostoevsky—all is dark, but when it’s like that you can project yourself into the darkness and you never have to act. Everybody has some attraction for violence. If you read about it, if you see it, it’s not violence. It can better help you understand yourself because you have a sort of shame, everybody knows that you/we have an attraction for violence, but it’s just a thought. It is not reality and I think that fiction is made to put in front of you what you are. But it is fiction; it’s not fact, so I think this creates great confusion for censorship.
In Romance I make a rape scene, even in A ma soeur. Many journalists said to me, a rape, a violent rape, is a crime. Therefore it is of course normal that the scenes would be censored, either cut from the film or the film forbidden. I say, no, it’s fiction; everybody says that women have a fantasme of rape. You can have the fantasy, you can want to be raped in your fantasies, but the reality is a crime. The crime is not a fiction, it’s a reality, not a thought—fiction and reality is not the same thing.
This is a bit of an aside, but as you brought it up in relation to censorship, I would like to continue in this vein. There is enormous anxiety about images, the power of pictures and how they can affect us. I think we agree that images can be very powerful, but in our society, images are used as a site of blame, and also as something that we need to be shielded from. That’s partly where censorship comes in.
Images should not be censored. I am always working on denial, psychoanalytic denial. You don’t want to know what you know, and, of course, I think I am socratique. I think, know yourself. If you don’t work towards the end of denial, you will never know yourself. And so you never meet yourself, and at the end of your life you can never know yourself. I think it is very important to put the hurdle in front of you. I think it is very important in art because in art you are always making immediate a fantasy, a fantasme and, yet, at the same time, it’s very strong. It’s not simply an image but an artistic interpretation.
I never think about the violence of what I do, whether or not it is bad for society. I think what is bad is what you do as an artist that is not true—that is bad.
What about images, say images on the news or images of people who’ve been killed in war or even say the Abu Grab photos that came out of the prison in Iraq?
I don’t really know about that so I cannot comment. I’ve seen the images on the television, but it is not the reality. It is even perhaps a distortion or deformation of reality. I am really not a politique artist, but I think that art is always political. This is why it is considered subversive, but it is political because you make art with integrity. I think I have always said that you answer to a question nobody asks. It is for this reason the artist is political, because you are in the territory of silence, of what nobody wants to truly know about exactly. All societies have their own denial and this is why art can be political.
Me? I make few public appearances. I don’t make blockbusters. Yet, my movies are considered subversive, why? And dangerous, why?
Speaking of subversive and danger, in the last decade some contemporary French cinema has been labelled as the New French Extremity or New French Extremism. (3) You are generally in this group with Gaspard Noe and Bruno Dumont; sometimes when they talk about it in a European context Lars von Trier is also included. They say there is more violence, more rape, torture, sodomy and cannibalism than there has ever been in films before. On one hand, the critics frown on this phenomenon and claim it is something terrible, something nihilistic, and on the other hand, some critics are trying to talk about it as a response to changes occurring in French society.
I think these are the sorts of cinéastes I like and they like me. It’s like a club, a family of art and we recognise each other, we recognise each other very well through our films. Yes, I like Gaspard Noe’s films a lot and he adores my films, Dumont too, of course. There is a family, even when we don’t know each other; we know each other because of the cinema and because of film festivals. There we meet and we talk to each other about our work and there is no rivalry, we have only esteem for each other. It’s very pleasant! I prefer to be part of the Gaspard Noe and Dumont’s family than the family of Camping 1 and 2 (Fabien Onteniente, 2006) it is fortunate they exist!
I want to ask you about the films you’ve been working on in the last year or two. When we previously met, you had just finished Barbe bleue and it was released in Australia at the Melbourne International Film Festival (2009) where I saw it …
Yes? They didn’t tell me it was screening in Australia, maybe because they think it is too long a flight for me.
It was very popular and it was sold out.
I wanted to go for the release of Romance and it was the same. They didn’t want me to go to Melbourne as it’s too far to travel and I would have had to go for just one day because after that I had the opening of Romance in Finland. Finland is a country where they like me very, very much and they give me money before the movie, which is very rare. So I had to go to Finland, but in Australia Romance at that point had not been sold. I said to my producer, I can go to Melbourne. It’s not too far to travel. We just have to organise something like you and me are having here now, an interview. Even now I say that when I travel, I have just to change the hour of my watch. Everybody say, oh jet lag, jet lag, but it’s stupid. It is all in the head.
Now I have jet lag because I have a precise time when I need to take my pills. So I have to disturb my sleep so I can keep the regular pattern of my medication. But back then when I got off the flight, the person meeting me from the Melbourne festival said, “Oh, you must be very, very tired. I will take you to your hotel room”. And I said, no! I have just one day. I want to have dinner with the distributor and critics and I don’t want to go to bed now. I can sleep when I get back.
So, in one day I sold Romance in Australia, because the distributor came to the screening. If I weren’t there, they wouldn’t have come. It was also the festival opening of Stanley Kubrick’s film with Nicole Kidman, Eyes Wide Shut (1999). All the newspapers were full of Eyes Wide Shut. I went to the screening and I saw that there were so many people waiting for the film to open and then suddenly I noticed that there were also many people waiting to see Romance. And I just said, because sometimes I can speak English very well, I could speak to the audience before and after the screening of my film. There was an ovation. Nobody thought that the film was pornographic, nobody. So the distributors bought it. Initially they were afraid because they thought that the violence would cause a problem with the censorship board, but once they saw that the public, the audience, were very favourable toward Romance, they bought it. So, this is how I sold Romance to Australia. But now this is very abnormal and I haven’t come to Australia for sometime.
Australia had a very open film culture but now it’s become more and more conservative so there’s more censorship and also more American films and less independent cinema being shown.
So I have to go more and expose the contrary.
If you are someone who loves cinema, you have to go to the film festivals as so few films are distributed with the exception of American films. Distributors are unwilling to invest in anything that might be considered controversial. There is a sense that audiences have little tolerance for foreign films with subtitles. Whereas France is more renowned for supporting film culture
But it is like that in France as well. After I made Romance, everybody said now everything is open but, in fact, we are going backwards and things are becoming worse and censorship is partly to blame for the state of the cinema.
To finish up, would you talk about your current projects, what you’ve been working on since Barbe bleue?
It’s another fairytale of Perrault.
I only finally read Barbe bleue after seeing your film and I was deeply surprised that something so bloodthirsty was written for children – a fairytale for little girls. But the girl is very brave and very clever and I thought that was very interesting considering the period in which it was written and that it is still read and read and read.
Yes, yes, Barbe bleue was my favourite fairytale. As you see in the film, the two little girls are my sister and me. Sleeping Beauty, la belle au bois dormant—in France it is called “the beauty sleeping in the woods”. It is not one of my favourite fairytales. At the same time, I didn’t want to make something too much like Barbe bleue. So I approached the fairytales in completely different ways. I also asked myself what is the real sense of this fairytale, because fairytales are always real secrets, in a psychoanalytical sense. And then I began to think it was about the sleeping beauty, it is the beauty that sleeps in the very young girl. So I wrote a great adventure, like a child’s dream with adventure after adventure happening in a fantastic realm. But when the girl wakes up, she is a complete virgin in real life. Because when you are a child, you escape real life.
When I was young I read many fairytales but Anderson is my favourite, with Barbe bleue as the exception. So I mixed the Perrault fairytales at the beginning and at the end and between the two, it’s Andersen and the finish is me.
Because the fairytales have been produced for TV, I have no time and no money, but all the liberty I want with Arte (French/German TV channel). They like me very much and I can do exactly what I want and so I want to make abus de faiblesse (abuse of weakness).
It’s not a long story about this escroc (swindler/crook). It’s a fiction of exactly that because what is really important and fascinating in this story is how, like in Barbe bleue, you have a couple between the victim and the criminal. It’s very interesting and much more difficult to explain in a book than in a movie because in a movie you can see. In the book, nobody understood really what was this sort of fascination with mixing strength and faiblesse (weakness), of mixing intelligence and stupidity. I was stupid…while also being very intelligent. That is very interesting.
Just before we finish, I was stunned in Barbe bleue that even when you have this tiny, frail young girl and you have this huge giant of a man and you know it’s a Jack and the Beanstalk or Alice in Wonderland sort of extremes that there’s such harmony at times in the relationship between the two of them that it feels equal, even though they’re so different.
Parce que (because) she is in fact the leader she has the authority over him very quickly. He is like King Kong in front of her, completely fascinated. It’s not because she is strong but she is strong because she has no strength. It is the superiority of faiblesse devant la force (weakness faced with strength)
- While the interview was mostly conducted in English, for elements of clarity and help with the translation of news reports and articles in French, I would like to thank Robert Beullens.
- “Comment montrer la violence au cinéma”, Télérama 3123 (21-27 November 2009) http://www.telerama.fr/ Retrieved 14 January 2010
- Quandt, James. “Flesh and blood: sex and violence in recent French cinema”, Artforum (February 2004) http://artforum.com/ Retrieved 14 January 2010.