In the extras of Romance’s Blu-ray, director Catherine Breillat is quick to claim that she isn’t political, and yet in watching her confrontational “anti-porn” movie, it’s difficult not to see this as anything but a seething, aggressive feature of female desire. The type of which, one couldn’t possibly see being made now. That previous statement is echoed by the film’s producer, Jean-Francois Lepetit, and it certainly rings true as we watch the film industry squeeze and constrict. The mid-budget adult-aimed movies of Hollywood aren’t the only style of movie feeling the pinch. It also feels harder to find a film like this: opaque and unwilling to go down easy. The need for cinematic comfort food – even within themes which are now considered prickly – is high. Romance (also known as Romance X) is more of a bitter pill than a full-fat burger.
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Released on home video for the first time since its a theatrical release in 1999, Romance opened alongside a glut of explicit movies of the early 2000s which had cast members perform unsimulated sex acts on screen. With this as its USP, a review blurb showed up on the early posters of the film at the time hailing it as “Possibly the sexiest movie ever!” A hyperbolic statement if there ever was one. Romance’s tale of a woman’s plight for desire while stuck in a sexless relationship is full of carnal sequences – sometimes explicit dreams, sometimes static shots of characters having sex in full length. The film gives you a lot of fornication within its very short running time. However, nothing that is seen could really be described as “sexy”. As Caroline Ducey’s Marie explores her sexual psyche, moving from partner to partner, her exploits become more dangerous. The tension often felt between characters feels less sensual and more treacherous. She propositions strangers, takes part in sessions of bondage and BDSM (which ironically displays more aftercare than Fifty Shades ever does) and ultimately – in one of the film’s pivotal sequences – ends up being raped. It’s a sequence that doesn’t end how we’d expect despite the clear threat the character is placed under.
“I don’t care who fills my c**t” – Marie explains in poetic yet bleak narration which often highlights the complicated, yet alluring ideals which lie within the film. Breillat’s framing of the action is often distancing and cold. The sex we see is often rough and ugly. But it’s within Ducey’s performance we find a unique and emotional honesty, which could quite possibly be at odds with a few of the ideals being seen within fourth wave feminism. However, the beauty in Breillat’s movie lies in the autonomy of the lead characters. Purposely selfish and hungry to find where she stands when it comes to sexual desire, the film, while often schizophrenic in tone, has this as the character’s main driver that keeps a viewer engaged, even when the plotting falls by the wayside.
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A review by The Film Vault states: “The main problem is that Breillat never explains Marie’s boyfriend’s sudden disinterest in sex, which makes what follows all the harder to understand.” But do we really need detail of the male’s disinterest to spark this female odyssey? We often throw dubious reasonings in a more mainstream affair which seem to only soothe the male ego and remove female agency. Consider this now that we’ve moved 20 years on from this film and the plastic fantastic faux feelings and sexual appetites of Christian Grey is what is being fed through as the dominant aspect of female desire. Films keep suggesting that these handsome little boys with tragic pasts simply end up
being great in bed or something. What Romance does well is peer through crevices and not only moves between the lines of what a female may find sexually appealing but shows that sexual satisfaction may be found within the unexpected. The most sexually experienced man in the film repeatedly reminds us of his ugliness despite his ability to sleep with women. It’s through these channels that the film garners more complex pathways. There’s a rawness that inhabits many of the film’s frames that can touch in such a way that it’s hard to shake off.
In its extra features the Blu-ray gives us a trio of animated interviews from director Breillat, lead actress Caroline Ducey, and producer Jean-Francois Lepetit, which give insight into why the film sometimes feels that it’s being tugged in various directions. Breillat claims to be apolitical and yet the choice of Ducey (mostly based on her being an unconventional beauty) is a solid push against the status quo. As is the film’s frank look at sex which is being depicted by a director who is a self-proclaimed conservative who dislikes porn yet rehires a porn actor for unsimulated sex scenes. Ducey informs us of the difficulty of the shoot itself and the strained relationship between herself and Breillat as well as the echoes of her life which seemed to have enforced some of her choices within the narrative. Jean-Francois Lepetit regales viewers with a small tale of making sure that every film writer and social critic knows of the film’s release behind the back of a nervous and unknowing publicist. The main thrust of the interviews, however, seems to point at the film holding an element of therapy for its creator, who informs us at the end of her piece in spite of everything she’s said: “Art is apolitical because of it is a troublemaker”. Much like the filmmaker herself.
Romance is available now on Blu-ray.