Robert here, with another entry in my series about great contemporary directors.
Maestro: Catherine Breillat
Known For: movies about sex
Influences: Chantal Akerman, Bertolucci
Masterpieces: Fat Girl
Disasters: Yes there are some films of hers that are disasters, perhaps Anatomy of Hell most of all. But you can't make an omelet...
Better than you remember: Fat Girl, The Last Mistress and Bluebeard (which conveniently will be the subjects of this post) are the good ones
Box Office: 1999's Romance broke a million.
Favorite Actor: Has made three films with actress Roxane Mesquida
Sex is complicated. In general, as a society we've decided to react to this by compartmentalizing sexuality into concepts that are easier to understand. There's the obscene or pornographic, the safe and loving, the dangerous, the forbidden, the passionate and so on in ways that seem to attach each separate sexual experience to a single emotion. Movies reflect this and create narratives around it. Virginity is to be kept by girls, lost by boys, sex without love is ultimately unfulfilling, desires often doom us. I don't mean to suggest that we're still stuck in a world defined by Victorian morality. We've come a great ways since then. But still, a happy ending usually means a wedding, not an orgy, because quite frankly we're not comfortable rooting for characters for whom an orgy would be a happy ending (and you might already be considering me some kind of pervert for suggesting it could be a happy ending). Catherine Breillat wants to tear all that down with a wrecking ball. Her films constantly seek to redefine our comfort levels, and demand that we question our preconceived notions about what a character's sexuality says about them.
Many of Breillat's films are sexually explicit, or at least explicitly sexual. Films that attack such subjects with such explicitness traditionally yield mixed results. Sometimes the audience becomes distracted by their prurient or prude sensibilities, sometimes the film gets distracted by it's own desire to shock. In other words, sometimes it's our fault and sometimes it's theirs. Breillat may have been doomed to forever have been "That French woman who makes movies with porn in them. Whatever." had she not broke through with 2001's Fat Girl. Consider the challenges issued by the film's plot. (Fat) Anais and her (pretty) sister Elena both dream about the loss of their virginity (could an American film pull this off without painting them as "tramps" or "troubled"?). Elena wants her first lover to love her. Anais wants anything but. When the movie ends, only Anais has gotten what she wants in the most foul way possible. Yet we the viewers can't really accept that her wishes have been filled. It's not possible. Why couldn't she have wanted love? We'd have been comfortable with that!
Since then, Breillat has put out two more great films. 2007's The Last Mistress in which Breillat utilizes a period piece to ponder how our misguided instinct to paint the sexually adventurous woman (brilliantly cast, wonderfully portrayed, thank you Asia Argento) into a devilish caricature still persists, and 2009's Bluebeard, in which the classic fairy tale is updated to make the murderous title character into a pretty lonely guy and his innocent bride into a rather petulant child. Each time she demands the audience ask of themselves: Who is the sinner? Who is the saint? Who deserves love and who deserves the consequences of their actions? The questions, seemingly endless are difficult and if you like difficult questions (and sex) you're bound to like Breillat's films. If not, you may find yourself happily retreating back into a world of simple sexuality, where sex for love is the ultimate goal, sex for lust is a forbidden but understandable diversion and people's sex lives remain properly hidden between their sheets. But Catherine Breillat will not be in that world, not unless she's swinging a wrecking ball.