Why this might not seem so easy
Catherine Breillat’s erotic arthouse dramas offer no easy titillation or consolatory escapism. Their take on sexual politics is philosophical and coldly analytical. Their casual brutalities mire us in a universe of random danger. Oozing with blood and fluids, they draw as much on gross-out horror as romance. What they bring to the table – or indeed, to the bed – is a radical challenge to the taboos around the female body.
Breillat exhibits that which has been deemed obscene, and to be hidden, by the patriarchy amid an almost unbreachable communication divide between the sexes. The contempt with which men often react to their fears is centre stage. The rapes depicted in several of her films have made them controversial, as has her sometime inclusion of explicit, unsimulated sex, though hers is a cinema of reflection rather than consumption.
The French auteur started out appalling the bourgeoisie first as a writer, penning a racy novel called Easy Man at the age of 17 that was banned from being sold to anyone under 18 in France. After studying acting, she entered cinema with a supporting role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972).
She made her directing debut with A Real Young Girl (1976), a film about adolescent sexual awakening – a theme she would often return to. She came to be associated with the New French Extremity, together with a breed of filmmakers whose taste for sexual decadence and violent provocation harked back to Georges Bataille and the Marquis de Sade.
But unlike some of her male counterparts – like Gaspar Noé, whose Irreversible (2002) rests on a watertight nihilism – Breillat tends to offer the transgression from prim artificiality into brave experience as a potential route to real intimacy and independence.
The best place to start – Romance
Breillat’s rebellion against conventional erotic images has meant a career dogged by censorship. So it was with Romance (1999), her sixth and best-known feature, which was X-rated in some territories. Its pared-down plot of episodic encounters reconfigures porn conventions, establishing a stylised lab of desire in which fantasy codes are interrogated with radical frankness.
School teacher Marie (Caroline Ducey) lives with a boyfriend who has lost interest in sleeping with her. His disdain fuels her sense of shame – a dynamic at the heart of the fraught gender conflict in Breillat’s work, in which men, inclined to see obscenity everywhere, come off the weaker, or at least more squeamish sex.
Marie looks elsewhere to meet her needs, hooking up with a guy in a bar (played by porn star Rocco Siffredi) before embarking on an S&M relationship with her boss (François Berléand). A close-up of childbirth nods a debt of inspiration to Gustave Courbet’s once-scandalous 19th-century painting The Origin of the World, which gazes upon a naked woman’s vagina.
Menstruation and “this blood that flows, without need of a wound” is part of a demonised realm also made watchable in Anatomy of Hell (2004), a loose sequel of sorts adapted from Breillat’s own 2001 novel Pornocracy. Its nameless protagonist (Amira Casar) hires the man who interrupts her suicide in a gay nightclub (Siffredi again) to visit her over four nights, where beyond her internalisation of bodily loathing a new intimacy based on extreme exhibition grows.
What to watch next
It’s not a stretch from the use of distilled, fable-like episodes that pierce archetypal fantasies in Romance and Anatomy of Hell to the reimagining of actual fairytales. Breillat adapted her own sly and wildly irreverent versions of two 17th-century stories by Charles Perrault for Bluebeard (2009) and The Sleeping Beauty (2010).
In its preoccupation with the dire risks of transgressive female curiosity and thirst for radical knowledge, and the liberation that can be reached beyond the revelation of horrors, the grisly Bluebeard feels like it could have been written for Breillat. In her retelling, Lola Créton plays the quick-witted young bride of a monstrous-looking but rich lord, who is rumoured to have killed his previous wives. Leaving on business, he entrusts her with keys to an underground chamber, but forbids her to enter.
In keeping with Breillat’s interest in sibling rivalry and the shattering of decorum as an initiation into freedom, a framing device shows two girls in an attic reading the book, trying to outdo each other with how much fear they can stomach.
Breillat again brought intelligence, carnal extravagance and feral insolence to the period drama with The Last Mistress (2007), based on the 19th-century novel by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly. Asia Argento stars as La Vellini, the Spanish mistress of a wayward dandy who is about to marry but finds himself unable to leave his former lover behind.
Where not to start
Two sisters undergo an unnerving introduction into a world of sexual power manoeuvring in A ma soeur! (2001) when, vacationing in a dreary seaside town, they meet an Italian student. Sharing close quarters, the heavyset Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) observes her sister Elena (Roxane Mesquida) being pressured to prove her love. Its emotional complexity makes it a major Breillat film, though a shock ending makes its violence so egregiously arbitrary it’s tough to assimilate it as anything but nihilistic.
2002’s Sex Is Comedy proffers a glimpse behind the scenes of Breillat’s work, and the at times arduous pains of making it. It’s a dramatisation of the shooting of A ma soeur!, in particular a sex scene between two actors who despise each other, with Roxane Mesquida essentially reprising her role. It’s a candid inquiry into power struggles within the production process itself, and director as potential exploiter.
Abuse of Weakness (2013) draws more uncomfortably on Breillat’s own biography. Years earlier, she’d been duped by a notorious con man while recovering from a stroke, loaning him a fortune after enlisting him to write a script. She wrote a book about how he allegedly took advantage of her. Isabelle Huppert stars in the screen adaptation, bringing a compelling ferocity to an outlandish and chilly tale of cat and mouse. It’s a dance of need, vulnerability and control, the credibility of which teeters on the fact that truth is often stranger than fiction.