It's around this point in the film, if I remember correctly, that Marie declares she wants to be nothing but a hole that gets stuffed. As if to test this desire, she drives to a late-night bar, picks up a muscular, woolly-haired fellow named Paolo and eventually repairs with him to a dark, musty, old-fashioned hotel--a setting as different as possible from Paul's apartment. The hole-stuffing begins. "It's like in porn films," Marie says, none too enthusiastically, to the very methodical Paolo--an indexical comment, since Paolo is played by European porn star Rocco Siffredi. He mimes the appropriate expressions and writhes upon her peristaltically, while Marie continues an embittered monologue that has now run on for some three reels. Why, she wonders, do women in porn movies give so many blow jobs? It must be because they're not really wanted.
So Romance establishes a dialectic of female dissatisfaction: frustrated love for a pretty-boy image, frustrating sex along porn-movie lines. It's a dialectic that culminates in Marie's dream of a brothel built in concentric circles. The core would be a clean, well-lit room, where she would lie from the waist up while Paul stroked her hair and gazed tenderly into her eyes. From the waist down, she would lie in the outer ring: a dark, dirty, noisy corridor where guys named Aziz would encourage one another to pump away on her.
Have I mentioned that Marie is a grammar school teacher? Catherine Breillat withholds this information too, until she's ready to deploy the film's third principal male figure, the one who lifts the dialectic to a higher plane. He's the grammar-school principal, Robert (played by the wonderfully crafty character actor François Berléand). Plump, graying, droopy-lidded and unable to disguise a receding chin behind his beard, Robert nevertheless dares to invite Marie back to his apartment. "For a small place, it has everything," he points out: a red sofa, folding screens, Orientalia and all the other props of a theater of seduction. "Women want what they've seen on TV," Robert declares, with the full authority of a principal. He knows; he has had 10,000 women, even though he is "not particularly handsome."
For a change, Marie is speechless. Does she actually believe Robert's boasts and pomposities? Not likely. But she nevertheless allows him to gag her and tie her up--procedures that take an amazingly long time and involve much fumbling and clanking and middle-aged huffing and puffing. These exertions also involve many solicitous questions from Robert, many shy and covert glances to see if Marie approves of him. He's the most puppyish dominator imaginable--and after Marie has "submitted" to him, he wants to chat with her all night in a restaurant, treating her to vodka and caviar.
Given its diagrammatic structure, Romance might seem to have reached the limit of outrageousness in these scenes, with their medium-shot, real-time presentations of bondage and their abrupt close-ups of the most sensitive of the bound parts. And yet there's more. Breillat has not forgotten that Marie's hole, apart from its function as a site of pleasure, also has a biological function.
Now the poking and prodding begin in earnest. I will spare you my descriptions. It's enough to say that in the final act, Romance pushes Marie all the way into burlesque.
In downtown Chicago, during the Bardot era, "burlesque" was a term applied to striptease shows. In more venerable usage, the word implies the deflation of ideals by a brusque application of anatomical fact. The striptease, of course, is a performance addressed to the adolescent male (of whatever age). But a true burlesque, one that's funny because it hurts--that's something for mature minds, of either gender.
Good luck to Catherine Breillat. Good luck to Romance in its search for an adult audience in America.