Thursday, September 02, 2010

Modern Maestros: Catherine Breillat

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.


Faith said...

I didn't care for "Fat Girl" (I thought the ending changed tone to such an insane degree that it completely took me out of the story), but I would be interested in looking at more of her work. It's nice to see a female perspective of sex.


i feel permanently scarred by having seen ROMANCE so i haven't really sought out her films and THE LAST MISTRESS felt unfinished to me. rough drafty. not sure why.

But Asia certainly is a vivid screen presence.

Unknown said...

I love difficult questions and I love sex and I love how Breillat combines them to make political statements that can also move and enlighten you.
"Bluebeard" was a sensational myth deconstruction Tim Burton would only dream of making and you're right about how in our continent most of her female characters would be labeled as tramps or have some nonsensical backstory about child abuse or some other facile excuse for their behavior.
I have seen all of Breillat's films and I think you should've included "Brief Crossing" among her masterpieces. 2001 was a truly banner year for her.

Glenn said...

I'm the opposite of Faith re Fat Girl in that I was hating the movie, but the end really got to me. It finally felt like Breillat was making a piece of cinema (that extended car drive sequence was so tense) instead of just miserable ugliness thrown at the screen.

Having said that, nothing could have prepared for how truly worst-of-all-time-contenderish Anatomy of Hell was going to be. Jesus! Terrible from first frame to last.

Burning Reels said...

I've told Jose before that I find Breillat a more interesting human being than I do director but one cannot deny the potency of A Ma Soeur and Brief Crossing was also fairly impressive with a strong lead performance.

As always, look forward to the next modern maestro post.

SoSueMe said...

My friend walked out of Fat Girl...he was so disgusted by the ending. Disturbing to say the least.

Javier said...

I'm really looking forward to Sleeping Beauty. It's my most anticipated film of this year. I liked Bluebeard a lot but still it was a let down. I highly disagree that Anatomy of Hell is a disaster. It's also weird that you rate her as a maestro with such cynicism.

Robert said...

Fat Girl is definitely an unexpected and disturbing film. I have a soft spot for movies that take unusual third act turns.

and also to Javier: I really do admire Breillat and had no intention of being cynical.

Burning Reels said...

Without spoiling, what other third act turns do you admire Robert?

Andrew R. said...
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Robert said...

@ Burning Reels - I regret that I can't really think of many examples right off (sadly there aren't enough such films to pull from)

Usually movies that have third acts like Fat Girl that really annoy some people like Magnolia, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, or No Country for Old Men, I really love those endings.

The Coen's actually do it a lot and I love it every single time. Someone like Terrence Malick often does it (think of how Days of Heaven veers off the tracks or how The New World completely redefines itself) and I like those too.

Robert said...

I should clarify so as not to seem like a jerk. I don't enjoy bizzare third act turns just because others dislike them and certainly I respect anyone who is turned off by them. I often find them to be a challenge to the viewer not only to dare to not be turned off but also to figure out the sense behind the shift. And that piques my interest.

Burning Reels said...

Nice choices Robert, i'm an unashamed admirer of those endings too - A.I. really is such a divisive one. I think the skilled auteurs can usually pull it off.

Speaking of which, if you have any ideas for your favorite directors' next projects, comment on my latest blog post haha

SoSueMe said...

(Spoiler) Just to friend watched the whole film...he walked out as soon as the girl was about to be "raped".

And what is up with French filmmakers like Gaspar Noe and Breillat? Why so dark, ugly, and cynical?