IN CATHERINE Breillat's "Sex Is Comedy," Jeanne (Anne Parillaud of "La Femme Nikita"), a director, is making a movie on the French Atlantic coast about young lovers in the primal heat of summer love. The problems are many: The weather's freezing and wet, which makes nude scenes on the beach less than sexy or romantic for cast and crew. There's zero chemistry between the lovers. In fact, the unnamed performers (Gregoire Colin and Roxane Mesquida) seem to hate each other.
It's up to Jeanne to make magic out of bad-tempered reality. The situation is comically priceless, as Jeanne tries different tactics, ranging from bullying to seductive, to get her young actors in the mood. And then there's the artificial phallus the male actor has to wear.
"The Velcro's coming loose," he complains just before a shot.
Jeanne's not easily satisfied. The on-camera performances look artificial and contrived. And she's so wrapped up in her complex ideas about men and women and gender politics, and what she wants to show, she alienates and irritates the male actor and annoys the union crew with her mercurial changes of mind. Her only ally is her assistant Leo (Ashley Wanninger), with whom she airs her private frustrations. At one point, Jeanne even asks Leo to join her on the bed of a closed set to act out the moves of the lovers.
Will Jeanne get her movie made? Will these actors, the petulant female and the moody male, ever do the right thing? The finale is a suspense-heavy scene in which a crucial lovemaking scene has to be completed in one, uninterrupted take.
The movie's a self-referential memoir about Breillat's own 2001 film "Fat Girl," in which, one supposes, she must have weathered similar issues. Mesquida also appeared in that movie as a 15-year-old who becomes involved in a shockingly intense drama about a rivalry between two sisters, with themes of rape and murder.
"Sex Is Comedy" gets a lighter idea across: that sex, particularly the movie kind, can be anything but erotic. There are occasions when it's unclear, at least to me, whether or not Jeanne is meant to be an uncompromising, dedicated artist with whom we should empathize or an intellectually pretentious figure. Perhaps she's meant to be a little of both. What do you make of a director who utters such on-set platitudes as "Being afraid of being obscene makes one obscene"? Nonetheless, by Breillat's usually dire standards, this is practically a laff riot, and if you want to see her funniest, most accessible movie, this is the one to watch.
SEX IS COMEDY (R, 92 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and graphic nudity. In French with subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.