Skip to Content

Catherine Breillat Retrospective: Honing Her Craft

Catherine Breillat Retrospective: Honing Her Craft

The twentieth year of Catherine Breillat’s directorial career marked a shift. While her thematic focus and bold vision remained true, her skills as a filmmaker and storyteller began showing strong signs of improvement beginning with 1996’s Perfect Love. It opens with a man explaining to the police how and why he killed his lover as well as her daughter’s account. Building toward such an extreme end, the actual story of the romance that the film flashes back to is surprisingly subtle. Too often this kind of disintegrating relationship story fails to build up the relationship and make you invest in it before tearing it down but on this note Perfect Love excels. Bonus points for excellent use of phallic symbolism.

Four of Breillat’s next five films share bonds that demand a break from a chronological structure. 1999’s Romance and 2004’s Anatomy of Hell share the presence of Italian porn actor Rocco Siffredi and an episodic and rather removed exploration of sexuality. In Romance, Caroline Ducey plays Marie, a character that seems to represent the Madonna-Whore complex. On one hand, her husband refuses to be intimate with her, promoting a certain purity, on the other hand she seeks out sexual fulfillment from others in a symbolic quest to discover her orgasm. A line is drawn between sexual fulfillment and emotional connection. There’s also an interesting conflict within Marie whether to find male objectification of her loathsome or thrilling. As a whole it is still a bit messy but the thematic concepts are certainly intriguing.

Much more successful is Anatomy of Hell. It takes aim at all those messy things about women’s bodies from body hair to periods, that society tries to keep quiet or battle against, lest men be discomforted from their ideas of the virginal (adolescent) purity and ownership of women. In this way it makes a rather interesting adult sex education video, operating at a level of frankness that is usually avoided. The film has been accused of homophobia with its vague implication that homosexuality is the result of male revulsion with the female body but having the male character be gay plays an important role in removing sexual desire from the interaction between the two characters. On a purely intellectual level, this may be Breillat’s greatest success.

Breillat’s most acclaimed film is probably 2001’s Fat Girl. Fat Girl follows two sisters as they hit different points in their sexual awakening. Elena is nearly 16 and is beautiful while Anais, 12, as the title indicates, is fat. The contrast between their approaches toward relationships is captivating. Elena, by virtue of her beauty, takes an idealistic view of waiting for someone special to have sex with while Anais is eager to just get it over with. Yet Anais is idealistic in her own way, arguing that sexual experience should be seen as a virtue in a woman and not a vice. The film also captures some interesting aspects of women as rivals. The way the sisters interact and the way a male character plays on female rivalry to get what he wants is incredibly incisive. Anais Reboux and Roxane Mesquida deliver excellent performances as the sisters but the film is burdened by a terribly out of tone ending that derails an otherwise splendid film.

2002’s Sex Is Comedy calls back to Fat Girl by having Roxane Mesquida play an actress in a film with a few scenes that are drawn almost directly from Fat Girl. Vaguely autobiographical, the actress cast as the director within the film, Anne Parillaud, actually has some basic resemblance to Breillat. The film explores how the director interacts with the lead actors as well as the crew in order to get the film done. As an insight into the filmmaking process it is engaging, but being a Breillat film, there’s a strong gender component. You see how she has to interact very differently with the actor and the actress. You see the various issues that come up in trying to get these two individuals who don’t particularly like each other to create intimate moments on camera. Most dramatically, you see how the type of raw sex scene that Breillat’s films often include comes together. A great film for anyone who is interested in how films are made, Sex Is Comedy is probably Breillat’s most complete film.

Erik Bondurant