IT'S NOT EVERY day that a filmmaker looks up from his or her cappuccino and says, "My next movie will be about sexual degradation, emotional suffering and a sort of creeping self-hatred."
This is probably a good thing. And should there be any doubt, let me refer you to Catherine Breillat's "Romance," an anti-erotic tract that details the self-inflicted, downward spiral of a woman who'll do anything to attract the man she loves. Yes, anything.
According to Breillat, this movie -- a critical and box-office success in France -- is a "depiction of the amorous and feminine imagination." I can see that, sure. But the story seems like nothing more than mindless emotional damage for everyone -- characters and audience.
"Romance" introduces us to morose Marie (Caroline Ducey), an elementary school teacher whose narcissistic boyfriend, Paul (Sagamore Stevenin) is not physically attracted to her. After only three months with her, he has lost all interest. Actually, three months is a real long time for Paul, he informs her. Usually, he gets sick of a woman after days or weeks. She should be flattered.
Marie, who loves Paul for reasons known only to writer-director Breillat, tries to jumpstart his lust through sexual jealousy. She proceeds to seduce men, the more disgusting and lewd the candidates, the better. Marie's reasoning: Since her heart's not in it, since she submits to their whims with robotic obedience, and since she doesn't kiss them, she maintains her spiritual purity. There is no joy to what Marie does, either for herself or the willing men (all strangers) who eagerly take advantage.
And here's where the movie, uh, decided to go unrated, rather than incur an NC-17 rating.
There's not much more I can tell you. Her efforts are successful in one sense -- but not in terms of changing Paul. He remains an egotistic moron. And Marie plunges deeper into her bizarre quest, moving from one man to another, including a sadomasochist with a sweet bedside manner called Robert (Francois Berleand).
The plot thickens when Marie gets pregnant. But does that stop the humiliation? Not on your nelly. Now, instead of hideous, lusty men lining up to abuse Marie, we get pimply medical students in a queue to examine her. The moral difference between both types of men, we are supposed to infer, is negligible.
"Your turn," says one future doctor to another.
Despite being the initiator of these dehumanizing transactions, Marie is clearly a victim in Breillat's eyes. It is the men who hammer those metaphorical nails into Marie's wrists and ankles, then hoist her into the air for the other clamoring narcissists ready to take part. It is their obsession with sex that stigmatizes her misery over Paul. So what is the point to this theater-of-cruelty sanctification? I'll have to get back to you on that. But it may be that the only thing I've learned from this movie are some excellent bondage wrist knots.
Romance (Unrated, 103 minutes) -- In French with subtitles. Contains explicit sexual scenes, nudity and language. At the Cineplex Odeon Janus.