The Gaze of Shame: A Conversation with Catherine Breillat

The French director talks about sexual hypocrisy, the academic distinction between erotica and pornography, and the #MeToo movement.
Sofie Cato Maas

The French director Catherine Breillat was this year’s head of the Concorso Internationale Jury at the 72nd edition of the Locarno Film Festival, the first edition under the new artistic director Lili Hinstin. The way in which Breillat portrays the female body and connects it to the notions of shame and fear in her cinema places her among radical feminist artists the likes of Carolee Schneeman and Yayoi Kusama. These are artists that radically challenged the prevailing conventions and taboos that have always existed throughout history with their performances, cinema, and art. Their work was often met with great hostility, as these women revealed and reclaimed that what is normally hidden and stigmatized: female desire, fear, and nudity.

I spoke to Catherine Breillat in Locarno about sexual hypocrisy, the academic distinction between erotica and pornography, and the #MeToo movement.

NOTEBOOK: Perhaps to start off, since you are the head of the Concorso Internazionale this year, what do you think is the importance of juries at film festivals?

CATHERINE BREILLAT: Well, it is the first time that I am the president of a jury, which is much more complicated. Juries can be absolutely fundamental, because they are a way to discover new directors. Sometimes certain films have difficulty finding their audience and sometimes even the critics don’t really get to know them. A festival opens cinema to the world and yes, I made films in France, but in order to be appreciated in my country, my films had to go abroad, through festivals. I think that festivals are absolutely essential to carry on with creativity. People can hate novelty, because it might not be the right time for a film, it might be too early. Festivals are there and encourage this creation, even when it is not easy to appreciate. Based on my experience, festivals are essential. I, for example, wouldn’t exist otherwise. If it wasn’t for film festivals, people wouldn’t know I made films right from the first film I made.

NOTEBOOK: In relation to that, looking back at your oeuvre, there is a much-needed militancy and urgency to your films, and they can be characterized as boldly defying the rules of the establishment. The reactions to your film were rather extreme, especially in France.

BREILLAT: I don’t think I would call that militancy. Militancy is political, that can perhaps be used to defend a group of people. I don’t defend a group; I defend what I think is truth. This is probably a result of when I was younger and wrote a book when I was sixteen that was immediately forbidden by the authorities. They erased me from the map, even at such a young age. I was scandalous; what I wrote I couldn’t write. This deeply formed my identity. I wrote L’homme facile [1968] when I was very young, very intellectual. Why was I the source of a scandal? This defined me, and it spurred me on to write about things that I was deeply unhappy about. Art can provoke lots of hatred and that’s very surprising. But it has always been like that.

NOTEBOOK: Your first film, A Real Young Girl, dates from 1976, basically the year zero of punk. Did your films come forth from a similar kind of disgust and abhorrence of the established elite—in France especially—and sexual hypocrisy?

BREILLAT: I think it’s more the denial of sexuality, and denial is not hypocrisy. It’s the ban, the negation of sexuality, but it’s something that exists for all of us [women]; this, for me, is staggering, so I wanted to talk about that. A woman must have the same rights as a man, and I believe that talking about sexuality and having a sexual life as a woman is not synonymous with the diminishing of her qualities. I’ve seen how difficult it is for women to speak about sexuality the same way as men do. People blamed me for being a woman, and not for something else, when I talked about sexuality. At a very young age, I read beautiful writers who spoke about sex and sexuality—such violence, violence against women, a crudeness, but they were great writers. I wanted to have the same freedom in terms of political incorrectness, and to be able to talk about sex like a man, not like a woman who’s always asked to be reserved and do pretty things. Pretty is what I detest. Beauty comes through power, and power is often ugly.

I consider myself a painter. I’m not Marie Laurencin, whom I love very much, who is a very pretty painter; I would rather be Bacon. I’d rather confront myself with the material, expose the bare flesh on the screen, which is obviously not seen as part of the feminine nature. But I am a woman anyway, I’m not a man.

NOTEBOOK: Well, desire is a huge theme that comes back in nearly all your films. What is interesting to me is that desire is a concept that, as Jean-Louis Baudry said, haunts the invention of cinema and the history of its invention and is very much inherent to humans. Yet female desire has always been met with fear and repression, because it is also a source of power.

BREILLAT: I think, to put it simply, sex is a tool of power. I realized that sex was a very powerful tool when my filmmaking that carried this idea was stopped because of the violence that my films aroused. I still finished 36 fillette [1988], a film that was received very violently in France, whereas it’s a poor little film about adolescence. We have all been teenagers, we have all known that. What is scandalous? Why is it that people don’t want that to be talked about? So yes, sex is a tool of power. It’s like the law of silence, the mafiosi, we women have to stay silent and we are continuously told to shut up. And since I am deeply proud, and I won’t be degraded, I was right to talk about sex, it was needed even more. Because I wanted to know why it triggered such violence. Even violence against myself, because you tell yourself you’re a depreciated woman, a woman who depreciates herself.

As a result of this, it suddenly became an essential and political topic, because I was forbidden to speak about it. Whereas I am deeply apolitical normally. In fact, I always said I wasn’t doing politics, until I suddenly realized that by covering those topics obstinately—talking about sex, about sexuality—I was doing politics. I was very surprised and it determined me even more. So, instead of doing only films—realistic stories and fiction—all of a sudden, I felt like doing romance, for example, which is a quest into sexual identity, something I would never have done before. These films are the embodiment of the opposition, the hatred and the scorn I have been faced with. Because I talked about nothing—in 36 fillette I talked about a girl who loses her virginity. I was told—by very nice men in fact, who were rather benevolent—“what will happen to her? It’s too sad,” but it’s normal for a girl to lose her virginity; she is not forced to lose it in good conditions, with the man she loves. She can lose it with anybody—what does it matter? What does it matter?

36 fillette

NOTEBOOK: In that respect, language is also of an incredible importance. You are of course both a writer and director and therefore your mastery of language plays a major role in your work. What is the importance of language in your cinema? Is there an important tension between words and images and in establishing power dynamics on screen?

BREILLAT: Yes, I read a lot. When I was young, I was locked up inside simply because I was a girl. When you are little, you are taught to be more and more autonomous; and as soon as you become adolescent—you’re locked up! But my parents couldn’t close off my mind, as suddenly I had not a single right anymore, but I had the right to read absolutely everything and anything. Of course, I would distinctively read violent books that fascinated me. I didn’t want to read romantic and fancy books, I needed dark and violent books. Those are my roots. Therefore, a very masculine vision founded me. I loved their vision, because I thought those authors were great, they dared to express that violence, which also included a fear of women, which was very surprising. 

NOTEBOOK: But what kind of role does language take on in your cinema, since you are a writer yourself?

BREILLAT: My theory is that the spectator doesn’t listen to anything, anyway. But, at the same time, words are powerful. A power that is closely connected to the images on screen, the sound and the emotion they carry. Something that I would perhaps call the meaning of meaning. The problem is that I create a language that very few people understand, which means that this meaning of the meaning, this musicality of the words, cannot be transmitted because it’s something that’s not only confined to the meaning of the words in the dictionary; it’s the meaning of poetry too. However, this meaning is very important. In Romance [1999], for example, a lot is explained about meaning. The female teacher tries to explain to young students the difference between “to be” and “to have.” One can have without being, and be without having. At the very beginning, she says that when one says that when a man honors a woman, he fucks her, which eventually means that a woman who’s being fucked is dishonored. So, why is it there a double standard? Where is the dignity to be found for a woman? If you are not fucked as a woman, you are not being honored; but if you are fucked, you are dishonored. Language is very significant in that sense.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of the significance of the use, meaning and connotation of certain words, there is often a distinction between “erotica” and “pornography” in the academic world. Erotica is usually described as a form of art (love), pornography as the antithesis of art, a cheap and vulgar form of sexual pleasure or lust: art versus the gross. Do you think this division is justified, and would you describe your films as either having an erotic or pornographic sensibility?

BREILLAT: For me, it is the absolute opposite. We didn’t have the contemporary porn industry yet when I started, which has now given a completely different meaning to the word. People would always say that one had to make erotica and not pornography. And then I would tell them that I wanted to make pornography and that I hated eroticism. What is eroticism? Women who are pretty because they are in garter belts, because they arouse desire—but what is it? It seemed shameful and repulsive to me. I don’t know what an erotic woman is. I don’t know what eroticism is. Desire is much more violent, much cruder and more beautiful. Me, I hate eroticism; as a woman, it would humiliate me. Pornography was a manifesto. I have the right to make pornography. And it’s not pornography; it’s art because it tells something and it removes preconceived ideas; and these preconceived ideas that have been repeatedly hammered into us need to be removed.

When I make love, I am not like in the movies. It’s perhaps worse, because it means I also like denigration, but there is a kind of beauty of suicide or of destruction, or beauty of the transcendence of love that goes precisely through pornography, through the triviality of the flesh and then transcends it. And why, as a filmmaker, couldn’t I do that? Why would you say, that in order for it to be art, it mustn’t be pornography? Does that mean that if I film someone drinking water or a coffee, that I am making art? But if this person is making love and when we see the sex, I’m making pornography? Well no, because there is feeling, there is thought. Sex and love are thought in progress, otherwise, one wouldn’t climax with an orgasm. For me, it’s a transcendental thought. Why do we call it the delight of the senses? When you look like at the delight of Sainte Thérèse du Bernin, you see this ecstatic side, that’s the face of women orgasming. It’s of such beauty on the face—yes of course it’s art, and that’s also the anxiety we have between Eros and Thanatos, and that’s obvious! But when I started to film this, I felt like scrutinizing it, to find this mystery, to expose it, and to show how astonishingly beautiful and full of emotion it is. That’s what I am looking for.

Anatomy of Hell

NOTEBOOK: Then what do you think is the difference between sex and fiction?

BREILLAT: You know, when I started doing cinema, the first pornographic films appeared. Well, it was cinema. There was Behind the Green Door [Artie and Jim Mitchell, 1972] and then The Devil in Miss Jones [Gerard Damiano, 1973]. I don’t know what I’d think of those films now, but at the time it was absolutely astonishing. I had never seen sex on the screen. They were fiction films and Marilyn Chambers looked like Grace Kelly, and it was surprising that she did that. I couldn’t have done it, because I am mutilated by an education and I would have been too ashamed, I think. But I wanted to film it, and confront myself with myself and to make it beautiful. And these films connected fiction and sex, and interrogated the pornographic industry. Because the porn industry separates sex from fiction, therefore from the soul. Which means there’s sex and there’s pornography, therefore there’s no soul, no person, no characters anymore; there’s only flesh.

NOTEBOOK: I think it is interesting that one of your main actors, Rocco Siffredi, whom most people only know as a porn actor, is still not taken seriously as a wonderful actor, simply because he is also associated with the porn industry. Is that something you also struggle with when it comes to your cinema?

BREILLAT: Yes, he is a fantastic actor! Actually, in the States, they list the best actors of the year in the newspapers, and he appeared as best actor of the year for his performance in Anatomy of Hell [2004]. That would have never happened in France, of course. Rocco is extremely intelligent. No one knew Rocco Siffredi was going to play the role he was going to play, I wanted absolutely no publicity about it. I picked him because I had the desire to pick him, because I wanted to pick him. I knew that it could be a very bad image for the film, which was not the message of the film. But the actors are the material from which we make films—and I needed this very material, and so I picked him. When my cinematographer of Romance, Giorgos Arvanitis, realized that there was a porn actor in the film, he didn’t want to shoot anymore, he wanted to leave the set. It was his wife who told him to stay on, because she had read the script as well. When we shot Anatomy of Hell, Giorgos told Rocco: “you know, I did many films with great actors—I did 80 movies: but you are the best.”

He is very precise with his body. Rocco knows how much I hate porn movies, and it’s true that we cannot see eye to eye on that; but he’s always looking for truth and I look for the same thing. When he heard that there would never be a real sexual act with Amira Casar, that the sex would be simulated, he was devastated. So he told me, “but there won’t be any truth then.” And I told him, “Rocco, you are going to learn one thing, you are going to have to experience real feelings and show yourself; the nudity of the soul.” Because you have to live it, you have to live the ecstasy. You have to experience pain. And he understood that. He was so intelligent. He was ever so accurate about the light and his position and the way he inhabited the space that was in front of the camera.

NOTEBOOK: How did the press react to the fact that he was in your film?

BREILLAT: When we were in Italy for Romance, the Italians and the press were all after Rocco. Caroline Ducey [who plays Marie in the film] and I were almost nothing; he was their star. But they kept saying “Rocco, since you’re a porn star, and now you have a great role in a mainstream film, you’re a porn actor and a star actor.” And he said: “No, I’m not a porn actor, I like pornography, I like to do it, but the difference in this film is that there is fiction. When there is fiction, I can be an actor. When I do porn, I do audio-visual dildos.” Fiction is the soul, he understood that very clearly. When sex has a soul, no matter how pornographic the image is, it is inhabited by humanity, and therefore it is no longer pornography. It is pornography when the images are detached from the soul. And that is what we do with women. We mustn’t see sex, we mustn’t know whether we are on our periods or not because it is seen as disgusting. One mustn’t shake hands with us women because we are disgusting, which is a political and religious factor. Women are being indoctrinated about this. When, in the academic world, you talk about eroticism, as it being beautiful, and about pornography, as it being undignified, I try to fight this. I don’t want to be ashamed of myself or let other people make me feel ashamed of myself. I want to show something else, precisely through forbidden images.

Nocturnal Uproar

NOTEBOOK: Is that why you started making cinema?

BREILLAT: I started making films for myself, for my own safeguarding, to have my own identity and to be proud of myself, as I used to be ashamed of myself. That was all, really. Then I refined it and understood that there was a more philosophical and political struggle as well, but it was simply a rebellion, as I didn’t want to be humiliated. Because I had to feel proud of myself. And when I made my first film, A Real Young Girl, I knew Roberto Rossellini and we had lunch in Paris. I was very arrogant, I told him I wanted to make films ever since I was twelve. And I was convinced that I was going become one of the greatest directors in the world. Rossellini really was one of the greatest filmmakers in the world; I was nothing yet. I must have annoyed him a bit, because he asked me, “but what do you think you’ll bring that’s new compared to all the great movies that have been done about young girls and so on?” And I told him: I’m going to bring the gaze of shame. You men are the ones who give us this shame, and we women are the ones who carry it. And that’s the gaze I want to present. That was the beginning of my career, and it tells it all.

There was a film school in France, a very good one. And I was a very good student, but the director of the school told my father that “I cannot take on Catherine; I’ll make her unemployed; I cannot take her in the film directors’ section.” Which meant that I couldn’t become a director, but I could become a scriptwriter or an editor. A nurse, but not doctor, if you will. But I was brilliant! Why can’t a girl, who is as intelligent as any man, do it? Simply because she can carry children—and that is not forgivable. Women are not allowed to think, and art is conceived of thought. There were critics who said that I would have been better off with making children at the time, rather than make films like Nocturnal Uproar [1979]. I am proud of this movie, even though it is so horrible. It is still wildly accepted that if you’re pretty, you have to be stupid. I saw this syndrome in France with the actress Roxane Mesquida [from A ma soeur] who is stunningly beautiful. But instead of judging her like an actress, among French critics, they judged her like an idiot: she’s stupid; she’s pretty and stupid.

NOTEBOOK: Within mainstream cinema, but also online for example, there is now something like a cinematic abstinence when it comes to sexuality. It’s shocking to me how prudish and small-minded everyone has become and afraid of nudity and sexuality. You’re not allowed anymore to show nipples on screen, for example on social media. Do you think this poses a threat to freedom of sexuality? 

BREILLAT: Of course! Well, let me tell you: it won’t be long before they’ll start covering all paintings with wine leaves, in the Louvre, the Uffizi. It’s horrible and all on behalf of women’s dignity—well, they make us undignified. What they want to hide, designates indecency. When you want to hide something, the whole society and you have to consider that as being monstrous. I don’t think this is true. But it doesn’t mean the opposite either; it doesn’t mean excessive and mundane exposure.

NOTEBOOK: It is striking how modern-day social media, such as Facebook, now operate in regards to nudity, which is seen as offensive. I once posted a picture of Yayai Kusama’s nude performances in New York during the sixties, and they removed it.

BREILLAT: And what about when it is Botticelli’s Venus? I know that if you’d post Courbet’s L’origine du monde, they would remove it.

NOTEBOOK: Isn’t that also the hypocrisy of the art world? Who decides what the distinction between art and obscenity is? Because that is a socially constructed distinction.

BREILLAT: At least, the art world doesn’t say that its only pornography, but that it’s art. As far as French censorship is concerned in connection to my cinema, I’ve never been censored, I’ve always discussed with them. Romance had all the scenes that would classify it as a X film. But I told them that what mattered was not what I filmed, but why I filmed it. The meaning matters, it is the process and the feelings it triggers. And then they agreed with me. Eventually we showed the film in Rotterdam at the festival. The English journalists liked it, but told me that it would never be screened in England. Therefore, this film became a weapon of war against censorship. I told them that I would go to England and I would defend it and defy censorship and that I needed their help. The role of journalists is also to make sure it’s not banned. The journalists helped me. The film wasn’t porn, but a philosophical quest for sexual identity.

When I was eleven, I had big breasts. it was horrible because fashion and dignity called for being flat-chested. That’s what being a dignified woman is: not displaying any visible sexual attributes. If you were unfortunate enough to have a ninety breast size, you were a whore, and you couldn’t be an intellectual. Have some decency, you were told—what is decency if you have breasts? Do you have to get them cut off by a surgeon? What should we have done? Were we walking sexual symbols at nine and eleven years old? That’s why I was locked up, because there was this lecherous gaze over me. I fought for my identity and my dignity with feminine sexual signs, erotic ones. I was erotic for men after all; I was a turn-on at twelve. But I was a little girl; I was a little girl, and that’s the whole contradiction. We would be better off educating small girls, not to be ashamed of their own body. They are not bits of meat.

NOTEBOOK: Do you think the #MeToo movement could be helpful in that respect?

BREILLAT: In that respect, the #MeToo movement could be good. People are suffering because they are objects of desire while they don’t want to be. We should work on this movement and what it says. Because now it is becoming like a puritan inhibition that is taking us in the opposite direction that we want to be in. That’s why I regret that Catherine Deneuve’s manifesto had been so poorly written, because she’s absolutely right. When she talks about men’s rights to harass women, we understand what she means, but we pretended not to understand it. In fact, she was afraid of the forthcoming puritanism, which she’s right about, but she didn’t choose the right words. When you touch on these topics of denial, of politics, of women’s submission and so on, one needs much more accuracy, and choose the precise words that nobody can undermine, that nobody can pretend to interpret in a different way than the way they were written. Deneuve is right and I support her totally, although I think there are loopholes in the text, for a topic that is so important. #MeToo could have been a wonderful movement, but it carries the germs and the genes of a repression against women, and repression of freedom, the repression of women’s dignity: could they be objects of desire? Would they have guilty pleasures—because we do have the right to have guilty desires, don’t we? Desire is a strange thing; we have a right, too. These are major topics because they are existential topics.

Thanks to Catherine Zanor and Laurine Chiarini for their translations.

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