Romance - rated - SIMMERING

Cerebral Sex

Catherine Breillat's film Romance is anything but romantic. She uses the title with heavy irony, because all of the sex she shows in this film is divorced from romance. It is analytical, physical, metaphysical, fantastical, mechanical, painful - anything but romantic. In fact the closest the film gets to romantic relationships are those between Paul (Sagamore Stéverin, playing a male model) and himself, and perhaps between Marie (Caroline Ducey) and her baby.

This is the film that Australian censors didn't want us to see, allegedly because it contains scenes of actual sex, instead of simulated sex. How ironic that is, since the film is a serious (but often funny) exploration of a woman's relationship with her sexuality. With almost icy detachment, it poses questions such as:

- How different is romance from love and love from sex?
- Is female sexuality something that is part of us or can we exist separately from our sexuality?
- Is sex - or are our sexual organs - "dirty"?
- Is rape sex? Is it something to be ashamed of?
- What happens to a woman's sexuality when she's pregnant? Is gynaecology erotic?
- What happens when a sexual organ becomes a birth canal?

During the film, I was thinking so hard about all all of these issues that I didn't have time to find any of the graphic images of sexual acts and organs either "sexy,""erotic,""provocative" or "offensive." There was so much to pay attention to in the sex scenes: how Marie was reacting, what she was saying, what her various partners were saying and doing and how Breillat was moving the camera over the bodies, emphasising this or that (often THAT!). Breillat uses the camera with an unflinching eye: keeping it firmly on Marie, showing her body and telling her story. This makes us realise how much self-censorship goes in in current cinema - how many times the camera cuts away in scenes of intimacy. How much the same sex scenes in movies can be.

Style plays an important part in this film too. The characters' clothing is all fabulous, modern, hard-edged, with impeccable design pedigrees like Dries Von Noten (the Belgian designer, whose clothes I love - in fact I wore some to the screening in his honour!). All the settings were gorgeous - either modern minimalist apartments, chic restaurants (one called, in a cinematic joke, Tampopo!) and discos or bars, or opulent oriental dens. Apart from Paul the male model, none of the characters could possibly have afforded this kind of lifestyle. But it was important to show that these people were living in a style-oriented world - constricted, wearing what they should wear, driving what they should drive (Paul drives a classic Mercedes sports car). In one scene, Marie and her boss Robert (François Berléand) go off to a restaurant after a sexual encounter and "celebrate" by "overeating and drinking too much". The celebration is most lugubrious - they sit in luxurious surroundings, scoffing caviar and throwing back vodkas, declaring that they're having fun but looking miserable. There's no fun, no romance, no sensuality, only the superficial appearance of it. In another scene, couples dance and singles drink in an extremely cool disco and bar. Everyone looks fabulous, but but no one's having fun.

Some critics seem to have thought the film took itself too seriously. However, as I've said, the film is funny. How could a film which opens like this one does be said to take itself too seriously? In the first scene, a Paul's face is being made up for a modelling shoot. He looks at his made-up face in the mirror - approvingly, but professionally-detached as well. Paul is dressed as a matador. The director urges him to "look edgy" and tells him to pull himself up to look tall and straight. He draws himself up to his full height: tall, rigid, alert, prepared for action. He's like a penis! Then the director orders the female model next to him to "look submissive". She slumps onto Paul's shoulder. The director says: "Not that much." Another question: how much submission is necessary?

The other thing to note about this film is that it is about a very dysfunctional couple. She loves him, but is not loving to him. He says he loves her but loves only himself. They don't have sex. She thinks she should go out and have sex with lots of men "to fill herself up". She has crazy ideas. So does he. Some critics have thought it very "artificial" that Paul refuses to have sex with Marie after the first stage of their relationship. But isn't this often the way of things - after the first infatuation is over, sex can cease to be the most important thing in a relationship? With Paul, Breillat has only stretched that point to an extreme.

Marie tends to shy away from anyone who shows her tenderness. Ironically, the only characters in the film who show any tenderness are the characters played by the porn star Rocco Siffredi - who gives a lovely performance by the way - and the character of Robert, who is into bondage & discipline. Marie may be confused, but her attitude to sex gives the director all the opportunities she needs to explore the questions she is interested in.

Including the nature of rape: there is another tremendous moment which follows what, for me, was the most disturbing scene in the film. Marie is raped by a man who mistakes her (impecably dressed as she is) for a street prostitute. When the rapist leaves, Marie shouts after him "I'm not ashamed!" It's a great moment of dignity and power. Later, Marie is examined gynaecologically by one intern after another, and they all take turns to use their instruments on her. Who is the rapist now? Marie says that during her pregnancy, her gynaecological examinations were her only sexual contacts. A most disturbing thought.

The final scenes involve the birth of Marie's baby at the same moment as a death (real or imagined?). It's marvellous footage shot from dead-on at delivery-level. It shows all, as clinically as any of the sex is shown. This, of all scenes, is when the audience winced. But is this not the very essence of humanity, raw and uncensored? Romance is dead honest and true. It doesn't turn its head away at the last minute. It only makes you think: we've come a long way in the cinema, but even in the year 2000, this sort of honesty is all too rare.