Sex Is Comedy
Throughout her career, Catherine Breillat has provided viewers with a long-form meta-cinema experience. While metacinema is as old as the medium itself, since her debut feature A Real Young Girl in 1976, Breillat has developed a distinct form of it: one that collapses ‘autobiographical’ material, various artistic sensibilities, and the process of filmmaking itself.
Like dozens of other English words—such as ‘aesthetic’ or ‘abject’—the word ‘meta’ has been largely misused or misapplied with regard to the film and literary criticism. Regarding the consumption of fiction, the appropriate use of the term 'metafiction,' 'metafilm,' et cetera, has its basis in the Greek meta, which does not translate directly into English but can be understood as a preposition similar to the English word ‘about’ (‘having to do with,’ or ‘on the subject of’). Metafiction is therefore, in a sense, fiction about fiction, or more specifically fiction that is about itself. An example of an instance of meta in fiction would be the ending of Noel Coward’s 1941 play Blithe Spirit wherein the entire stage collapses, drawing the audience’s attention to the fact they have been watching a play comprised of actors, costumes, props, and so on. An example of metafiction would be It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which often featured Shandling breaking the fourth wall and referring to the show itself, crew members bringing props onto the show’s soundstage, and a theme song with lyrics by Bill Lynch that merely recall how Shandling asked Lynch to write the theme song (“…we’re almost halfway finished, how do you like it so far?”). Here, the term is appropriate in considering Breillat’s films as a whole, in that the films are in large part self-referential: They are about herself, and to an extent about filmmaking and about her as a filmmaker.
In consuming Breillat’s oeuvre specifically, one inevitably notices a desiccated visual style—one that serves to provoke the viewer—together with content that has its origins largely in literary works often by Breillat herself: novels, which by design parse the world textually rather than visually. The viewer is best served by seeing Breillat’s metacinema in light of Antonin Artaud’s concept of the ‘theatre of cruelty’ in The Theatre and its Double (1938) and Nathalie Sarraute’s ‘nouveau roman’ as she described it in her essay The Age of Suspicion (1956). For Artaud, ‘theatre’ was not limited to an artificial performance of fiction but extended to life experience or a kind of life practice. This has some bearing on how one might interpret Breillat’s films insofar as they portray her life experience. Artaud’s definition of ‘cruelty’ suggested a provocation of ‘perpetual conflict’ in the viewer, for which Breillat’s films—very much so in the case of provocations such as Anatomy of Hell—have a propensity. One of several ideas put forth by Sarraute’s notion of the ‘new novel’ (which emerged from Sartre’s description of her 1947 novel Portrait of an Unknown Man as an ‘anti-novel’) was that of eschewing the conventional notion of characters and plot, specifically supplanting ‘character’ with a kind of ‘magma,’ wherein fragments of reality, fiction, past, and present mesh together. Breillat’s films—particularly Sex Is Comedy (2002) and The Last Mistress (2007)—are not unlike Sarraute’s writings: inherently self-conscious and routinely reevaluating themselves.
The critical and commercial reception of Breillat’s films has emphasized their ‘controversial’ content, touting how her Romance (1999) is the first major feature film to feature an onscreen erection, or the scene in Anatomy of Hell (2004) where a character drinks menstrual blood. The same reception often describes Breillat’s style as ‘clinical,’ ‘cold,’ and the like, viewing subjects as phenomena, and this is due to her most common choice of subjects: namely, sexuality and gender relations from a female point of view. Breillat’s earliest film credit was contributing writing to Catherine and Co. (1975), a sex comedy about a prostitute directed by Michel Boisrond, who throughout the 1950s directed several vehicles for Brigitte Bardot. In many ways, Breillat’s subjects have functioned collectively as a Sarrautean ‘anti-cinema’ of sorts to the European genres of erotica, sexploitation, and sex comedy by decontextualizing popular images of female sexuality put forth by those genres. While this is a reasonable reading of a typical Breillat film, at the same time it overlooks several other aspects of her filmography as a whole—thematic, technical, or otherwise—that are in plain sight onscreen and yet largely ignored. The use of tinted light in Nocturnal Uproar (1979) and Brief Crossing (2001), for instance. A Real Young Girl, Sex Is Comedy and Abuse of Weakness (2013) are woven through with Breillat’s absurdist sense of humor. Much of the iconography and dialogue in Anatomy of Hell and The Last Mistress contain vestigial traces of Breillat’s Catholic upbringing. Certain shots in Romance and Anatomy of Hell suggest the origins of modernist painting in France, specifically Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) and Gustave Courbet’s L’origine du monde (1866).
Top: L’origine du monde. Above: Anatomy of Hell.
We use adjectives like ‘clinical’ or ‘cold’ to describe Breillat’s style, though a better word would be ‘artificial,’ since much of her imagery and dialogue are abstracted to a point where they do not necessarily register as ‘realistic.’ The same adjectives also do not necessarily allow for the viewer to notice the authorial and meta threads that exist in her films. By ‘authorial’ one does not mean to ask the figurative, auteurist question, “How much of the film is autobiographical?” or “How much of herself is ‘in’ the film?” but rather asks “To what extent does the physical appearance of the film draw the viewer’s attention to the filmmaker’s direct experience?” That is, how does Breillat’s use of the mechanics of filmmaking convey experience? By ‘meta’ one asks, “To what extent does the physical appearance of the film draw the viewer’s attention to the artifice of filmmaking?”
Breillat’s oeuvre combines the two questions. The viewer benefits from looking at Breillat’s films in this way because the integral component of her films is herself. This makes a strong case for meta by virtue of how much of her experience the viewer will see in the films—be it by way of abstracted shot composition and art direction, literary sources by Breillat’s hand, physical stand-ins for the director, and intertextuality between the films themselves. On the last point, it is beneficial to view her films as a corpus of closely related works. This is evident in her recurring iconography: characters are often on vacation, the action often takes place at a beach or resort town, streets are unnaturally empty, there is little or no non-diegetic music. Recurring images include the ocean, a female figure lying supine as if asleep or unconscious, sparsely decorated rooms that contain large color fields (blue in A Real Young Girl, white in Romance, green in Fat Girl, grey in Anatomy of Hell), a final shot in freeze frame, and blood (what Breillat describes as her ‘coral necklace’ alludes to throats being cut—Amira Casar's in Anatomy of Hell, those of chickens in A Real Young Girl and The Last Mistress). However, these are not simply motifs that an artist returns to, but also a means of drawing the viewer’s attention to the artifice onscreen.
Authorial elements form much of the dramatic basis of Breillat’s films, referring back to themselves in that Breillat doubles as their literary sources. Breillat’s choice of subject matter is rooted in genre fiction as varied as the erotic novel, sexploitation and sex comedy, fairy tales, and horror. In 1965, Breillat, then 17, published a erotic novella, L’homme facile (‘A Man for the Asking’). Both the content and style of this novella inform those of the majority of Breillat’s films: Narration and dialogue are often written and/or delivered in a staccato, the identity of characters is often arbitrary (characters use either initials or invented names), and color is used in numerous ways—be it to signify abstract ideas or reduce ubiquitous objects to elemental forms: a blue car, a green carpet, and so on. These three elements are evident in nearly all of Breillat’s films and suggest a tendency toward abstraction and self-reference from the beginning. Breillat based A Real Young Girl on her novel La soupirail (1974) and wrote the lyrics to the film’s songs. Her sister, actress Marie-Helene Breillat, provided the voiceover for the film’s protagonist, Alice. The sisters appeared together in Molinaro’s Dracula and Son (1976), a horror comedy with Christopher Lee. Anatomy of Hell is based on Breillat’s novel Pornocratie (2001) and she herself provides narration for that film’s protagonist. Bluebeard (2009) opens with two sisters—named Catherine and Marie-Anne (a variation of her sister’s name)—reading Perrault’s fairytale.
A Man for the Asking
The authorial and the meta are present from the start of Breillat’s film career. A Real Young Girl is a film largely about sexual fantasy and frustration with domestic life both seen from the point of view of an adolescent, Alice (Charlotte Alexandra). Breillat uses visual abstractions in the form of kitsch and surrealist dream sequences in order to establish Alice’s point of view. In doing so, Breillat reminds the viewer that while onscreen events have a basis in life experience, they are expressed largely through artifice. Consider the use of color in the set design and makeup: The film is set in 1963, and Breillat extrapolates green, orange, and yellow in the furniture and housewares to accentuate the period. Two brief scenes featuring Alice’s supervisor at her school and her father’s mistress portray them both in gaudy make-up. It quickly becomes clear to the viewer that these images are deliberate abstractions, and not simply onscreen to establish a ‘mid-century’ modern setting. Breillat’s is largely an ‘imagined’ image world.
A sequence late in the film features a nude Alice bound with barbed wire while a young man to whom she is attracted sexually, Jim (Hiram Keller), attempts to insert an earthworm into her vagina and then laughs at her. The appearance of barbed wire, earthworms, and Jim’s exaggerated laughing all reaffirm the scene’s artificiality to the viewer. At its center, what Breillat portrays in this sequence is an instance of erotic humiliation, which can involve a subject being soiled in some tactile way—with dirt, human waste, or other non-hygienic substance on the skin. The scene itself recalls a similar one from Buñuel’s Belle de jour (1967), wherein the protagonist’s arms are bound while an unseen man throws mud at her.
Top: Belle de jour. Above: A Real Young Girl.
Fat Girl (2001) emerges in part from two motifs that have appeared in Breillat’s films since Junior Size 36 (1988): Resort towns and deserted streets. Narratively, Breillat's recurring images of characters on vacation and of perpetually empty streets create a temporary environment that allows her protagonists to engage in a clandestine sexual fling with someone she is not likely to see again. One's experience of a resort town is relatively brief, while a deserted street implies a private or 'unseen' activity. Lili in Junior Size 36 (Delphine Zentout) and Elena in Fat Girl (Roxane Mesquida) respond to the circumstances with which they are presented: Entering the throes of sexual attraction to boys, such circumstances provide them with opportunities for sexual experimentation seemingly without social repercussions.
At the same time, however, one can interpret these motifs as Breillat consciously 'removing' her characters from a familiar environment and placing them into an abstracted one where latent thoughts and feelings are put on display in a decontextualized setting. A scene early in the film features a boy Elena has met on vacation, Fernando (Libero de Rienzo), cajoling Elena into having anal sex after she has refused to have vaginal sex. Elena’s sister Anais (Anais Reboux) indirectly doubles for the viewer in that she witnesses the two of them having sex. Breillat shoots the scene against a backdrop of unadorned walls of green, a color to which Breillat has referred in A Man for the Asking and Anatomy of Hell as one signifying rot and decay. While the color’s signification to Breillat may or may not be relevant, her deliberate abstraction creates an emotional theater, figuratively, for the sisters.
Intertextuality begins to emerge with Breillat’s Sex Is Comedy, which forms a symbiosis with Fat Girl to that end. The latter is ostensibly a film about filmmaking in the same vein as Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963) or Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973) in that much of its content blurs the line between the reality of film actors on a soundstage, the film being made on the soundstage, and the film itself. For instance, one scene begins with a character known only as The Actress (Roxane Mesquida again) applying eyeshadow in a mirror. It’s filmed in such a way that what happens onscreen could be The Actress preparing for a scene or sitting in an apartment, but it is later revealed that what the viewer sees is an actual scene in the film the crew is shooting when it cuts to a shot with a boom mic and a dailies monitor.
Films about this subject have manipulated audiences in this way for decades, yet Sex Is Comedy distinguishes itself. One can watch Breillat’s film on its own in the same manner as 8 1/2 or Day for Night, however having watched Fat Girl, Sex Is Comedy takes on a new dimension, since it is essentially about the filming of Fat Girl, specifically the filming of the anal sex scene and the various anxieties the performers have. Breillat distinguishes the scene in both films by casting the same actress in the same role. In Sex Is Comedy, Mesquida plays at once this actress and herself when she played the role in Fat Girl.
Top: Fat Girl. Above: Sex Is Comedy.
Breillat has designed the wardrobe for most of her films, and the portrayal of wardrobe—specifically a sudden change of clothing that does not necessarily follow a change of scene—will often draw the viewer’s attention to the arbitrariness of clothing as an onscreen object. A scene early in Sex Is Comedy features a film crew shooting on location at a beach. During the shoot, The Actress wears a white swimsuit and swaddles herself in a blanket between takes. The film abruptly cuts to a series of shots of The Actress lying alone and disheveled on the same beach where she slowly sits up and puts her head in her hands. Narratively, The Actress’s arc has to do with her being uncomfortable with filming scenes involving kissing and fondling The Actor (Gregoire Colin), and her figure lying disheveled on the beach alone with her chest partially exposed suggests a sexual assault. Yet in this scene she wears a red slip that appears in scenes later in the film. This scene resurrects a recurring motif in Breillat’s films: public nudity and visible underwear in public. The scene recalls Alice’s slow shuffle through the countryside with her underwear around her ankles in A Real Young Girl, though in Sex Is Comedy the abrupt change in wardrobe seems to be a deliberate continuity error signifying The Actress’s anxiety about shooting an intimate scene later in the film.
Top: A Real Young Girl. Above: Sex Is Comedy.
Through metacinema, Breillat extrapolates the arbitrary nature of several dramatic conventions of filmmaking—writing, casting, directing, and so on. The film that the characters are shooting in Sex Is Comedy arguably has no proper title: When the clapper enters a shot, the title for the fictional film is merely the phrase scenes intimes (‘intimate scenes’), which was a working title for the actual film.
Fat Girl and Sex Is Comedy together mark the onset of intertextuality in Breillat’s career. Whereas Anne Parillaud’s character in the latter film, Jeanne, is a clear and obvious stand-in for Breillat herself, Amira Casar signifies Breillat in Anatomy of Hell’s narrative, albeit in a more Artaudian mode: it is based on a novel by Breillat herself and portrays the protagonist as a kind of palimpsest or impression of Breillat’s life experience. Anatomy of Hell’s narrative has to do with The Woman (Casar), who pays a character referred to as The Man (Rocco Siffredi) to come to her house and watch her “when she is unwatchable.” Because the man is a homosexual, she believes that his viewing will be impartial. One might interpret this viewing experience as a meta form of audiences’ viewing experience of Breillat's films at large, if one accepts the ‘clinical’ mode of reception to onscreen events.
Breillat has stated that Anatomy of Hell is a de facto ‘sequel’ to Romance, believing the previous film to be unsuccessful artistically. Yet the two films practically exist in the same artificial world: City streets are monochrome, empty, and quiet, and the actresses Caroline Ducey from Romance and Amira Casar bear a strong resemblance to each other. Dialogues are delivered flatly with little affect in the characters’ faces or voices. Breillat extends the semiotic reductivism that began in her films with Sex Is Comedy (The Actress and The Actor) to a desiccated conclusion of sorts in Anatomy of Hell (The Woman and The Man).
Anatomy of Hell
The viewer sees imagery that has appeared in her previous films extrapolated to their visual and dramatic ends. These extrapolations are of Breillat’s own abstractions, indicating a shift from adolescent sexuality to adult sexuality. The sunny remote locations and empty streets of Fat Girl are supplanted by an isolated villa on the cliffs by a beach—seen only at night—in Anatomy of Hell. Whereas Alice in A Real Young Girl rubs red ink on her vagina in a gesture implying the onset of menstruation, The Woman in Anatomy of Hell has red lipstick applied to her vagina and anus, collapsing Freudian notions of oral and anal and the binary of eating and defecating. Whereas Anais lies unconscious by the ocean in Fat Girl, The Woman in Anatomy of Hell is pushed off a cliff and into the ocean.
While a synopsis of The Last Mistress—about libertine Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou), who is about to marry into an aristocratic family but has maintained a decade-long affair with Vellini (Asia Argento)—suggests a routine costume drama, the viewer will notice a distinctly meta approach to the costume drama and the further intertextual use of actors. The film’s opening titles state that it is set “…in the century of Choderlos de Laclos.” Pierre Choderlos de Laclos is best known as the author of Dangerous Liaisons, an epistolary novel written in 1782 about the sexual exploits of the French aristocracy. Breillat’s film is based on A Former Mistress by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, which was published in 1851, though set in the 1830s. Because the two novels were published nearly seven decades apart from each other, and thus because Barbey d’Aurevilly did not write in the same period as Choderlos de Laclos and vice versa, from the opening titles, Breillat presents an image world that, like Sarraute, blurs the past and present.
To that end, the film contains several signifiers of the nouveau roman. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Breillat cast the journalist Claude Sarraute—the daughter of Nathalie Sarraute—in the role of the Marquise de Fleurs, and Michel Lonsdale—who had appeared in films by Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet, both staples of the nouveau roman—in the role of the Vicomte de Prony. A dialogue by the Marquise de Fleurs indirectly connects the century in which Barbey d’Aurevilly wrote to the previous century in which Choderlos de Laclos wrote, forming a temporal ‘magma,’ to use Nathalie Sarraute’s word: “…we weren’t as narrow-minded in the 18th century as in this one. And believe me, I’ve remained ferociously in the 18th century.”
The Last Mistress
With The Last Mistress, Breillat draws the viewer’s attention to what is arguably her most noticeable motif: an attractive woman, usually brunette like herself. The actresses Lio, Isabelle Renauld, Caroline Ducey, Sarah Pratt, Anne Parillaud, and Amira Casar all make brief cameo appearances (some in a single shot) in The Last Mistress. These roles are practically bit parts that could have been played by anyone, yet here Breillat calls attention to her own casting process by referencing the female leading roles in six of her previous films: Lio was the stand-in for Breillat in Dirty Like an Angel, Renauld in Perfect Love (1996), Ducey in Romance, Pratt in Brief Crossing, Parillaud in Sex Is Comedy, and Casar in Anatomy of Hell. Whereas these women have previously served as either ciphers or doubles for Breillat, here they form part of a self-reflexive landscape that is only possible at the end of a long filmography.
Though metacinema functions largely as a Möbius strip of sorts wherein a film is ultimately about itself, it also allows the filmmaker to reevaluate and deconstruct her subject matter. Despite the reductive reception of Breillat as a provocateur, it is through her abstractions and intertextuality that the viewer sees a self-portrait. However, self-portraiture in her case would be of a non-representational variety. Though the viewer sees in a Breillat film identifiable subjects and life experiences—adolescence, sexual attraction, anxiety, and so on—the presentation is largely akin to the Transatlantic expressionist art of the 1940s and 1950s: images and dialogue that border on a non-narrative display of thoughts and feelings. For Breillat, these are often her thoughts regarding the subjects of romantic love and sexual relations, though those originate primarily in her narrative writing, which seems to be under her own constant reevaluation.
It is this reevaluation that necessitates seeing Brelliat’s filmography as a whole. An adequate reception of Breillat is largely incomplete when viewing a single film of hers removed from others. In this sense, Breillat’s metacinema has more in common with a miegakure garden than with a Möbius strip: Her films are at once about themselves insofar as the viewer sees one portion of a larger landscape in one film while other portions are hidden and can only be seen in the next film. In doing so, the viewer notices that she routinely portrays a reevaluated ‘self.’ Much of what the viewer sees in one Breillat film is in fact a variation of some kind on what appears in another. While Sex Is Comedy cannot exist without a precedent in Fat Girl, Elena’s story arc in Fat Girl is in some ways a variation on Lili’s conflict in Junior Size 36, which in turn reworks Alice’s sexual curiosities in A Real Young Girl. Metacinema in this sense facilitates, to use Artaud’s term, a ‘perpetual conflict’ that extends not just between Breillat and her films but also between her films and the viewer. Breillat’s oeuvre thus forms a corpus, the connective tissue between the works being, incontrovertibly, her.