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Memphis Flyer Exposed

"Romance" is porn and commentary.

By Chris Herrington

FEBRUARY 7, 2000: 

Romance directed by Catherine Breillat (Trimark Home Video)

Romance isn't just the sensation you've never seen: Unless you've gone out of your way for film coverage outside the publicity-machine-driven mainstream, it's probably a sensation you haven't even heard of.

This controversial 1999 feature from French director Catherine Breillat has been hailed as the most sexually explicit "mainstream" film ever made, and on one level, Romance is indeed porn with production values and artistic aspirations. But don't rush to the video store expecting too much titillation. Despite its depiction of hardcore sex, Romance has an intentionally awkward, psychologically intense, "dream state" atmosphere that is quite similar to Eyes Wide Shut, another "sexy" movie that isn't as erotic as its reputation suggests — though Romance isn't as well-made or interesting as Stanley Kubrick's unjustly maligned final work.

The film's plot is bare-bones simple: A young French woman named Marie (Caroline Ducey, in a remarkably brave performance) is in love with her boyfriend, Paul, who, for reasons that are never spelled out, refuses to have sex with her. Frustrated, she embarks on a series of sexual liasons with other men, the nature of which (degrading? liberating?) are left to the viewer to decide.

The film makes no bones about lingering on banal details of daily life that would cause a storm of outrage if screened at most American multiplexes: a man putting on a condom, a man ejaculating. In fact, one of the most progressive things about Romance may be its unabashed openness in showing the male body — acting as a corrective to the usual double standard of conventional film nudity. This female-directed film is that rare "erotic" feature in which women are not merely, or exclusively, objects of the gaze.

An enterprising critic at The Nashville Scene reviewed the film a couple of months ago, even though it hadn't been booked there and wasn't expected to be ("Playing in town when hell freezes over" read the listing atop the review). He used the film as an excuse to explore attitudes toward sex in American cinema and to dress down local film exhibitors for their conservatism. But, lo and behold, Vanderbilt's Sarratt Cinema has come to the rescue, announcing screenings of the film (as part of a wonderfully bold and well-planned booking schedule) on February 24th to 27th, even though the video release is set for February 8th.

So, if you want to see this film on the big screen — the way it was meant to be seen — you should probably trek to Nashville, because the same thing isn't about to happen here. Memphis is a city that has no independent or public alternative to the twin chain monopolies Malco and AJAY. Will Malco's forthcoming Studio on the Square make a substantial difference in the quality of local bookings? I sure hope so, but we'll have to wait and see.

That this accomplished, provocative, and artistically worthy, if problematic, film hasn't received significant American distribution isn't merely a rebuke to the xenophobia and isolation of contemporary American film culture — all worthwhile foreign films that are ignored here these days are that. But the de facto ban on Romance stands to expose and rebuke the infantilism with which American cinema treats sexuality. Romance can't be screened in commercial theaters, and Eyes Wide Shut has to be maimed by a bit of MPAA-driven, post-production butchering, but American Pie and Deuce Bigelow, Male Gigolo? No problem. Sex is an open subject for American art — sorry, entertainment — as long as it isn't treated seriously.

Eyes Wide Shut was, in one way, an extended Hitchcockian cruel joke about a man who pursues sex and never finds it (think of Nicole Kidman's final shot punchline), while Romance follows the journey of a woman who pursues sex and finds it at every turn. The key difference of these similar films is that Kubrick's Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) emerges a broken man, while Breillat's Marie emerges triumphant. But I'll confess that Romance's "triumphant" ending left me cold. The film's denouement is disappointing in that it reinforces a tired notion of a "battle" of the "sexes," and the film's reliance on this conservative paradigm may mark a culture that, while more open than our own, is still, by most accounts, more pre- than post-feminist.

As a work of art, I'm not really a fan of Romance. It's hard to perceive of it as more than a stunt, but I think the stunt makes a point that is worth defending: That the incorporation of graphic sexuality into a responsible adult cinema is valid and worthy of open distribution and exhibition. Besides, the buttons being pushed here aren't exclusively sexual: The hard-ons, cum shots, fellatio, and actual (at least it seems that way) on-screen intercourse that Romance flaunts may push the envelope, but the film climaxes with a real-life event even more natural, and more taboo. You'll have to see it for yourself, but, suffice it to say, in the history of cinematic money shots, Romance's is enough to make Boogie Nights' Dirk Diggler put his "one special thing" back in his pants and go home.

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