Conventional wisdom has it that Americans stopped attending foreign films as soon as the domestic ones started featuring bare breasts. Convention, as usual, is too simple. In support of the standard theory, I will testify that in the fifties and sixties, the most prominent foreign-language movie house in downtown Chicago, the Fine Arts, bore beside its portal the slogan "For Mature-Minded Audiences." I will never forget the day I witnessed a stern Midwestern couple--figures, you would have thought, emerged from the Art Institute up the block, where they'd escaped from a Grant Wood painting--as they paused to scowl at the Fine Arts placard. "Nature-minded," the woman read out through taut lips--as if the public were invited not only to behold Bardot's flesh but to see it bent beneath a donkey.
Testifying against the standard theory, I will draw your attention to the success, both before and after the demise of the Production Code, of foreign-language films with little or no sexual kick. Jacques Tati did not need boobs to attract audiences; and neither (to compare small things with great) did Giuseppe Tornatore, whose Cinema Paradiso seemed never to emerge from the latency period.
For fun, I might even turn conventional wisdom on its head and say that Americans stopped attending foreign films as soon as the sex got too rough. Our audiences can enjoy sex that's redemptive and passionate, picturesque and doomed--even when the accents are slightly foreign, as in Last Tango in Paris. But we won't tolerate what Godard flung at us in Le Week-end, in Mireille Darc's ear-scorching monologue of fornication. (An endless, stupefying pileup of details, her speech is the auditory equivalent of the same film's excursion past a mile-long traffic disaster.) If I wanted to specify the moment when mature-minded American audiences decided they could live without subtitles, I'd choose the day after Le Week-end was released. Critics declared (as they've done so often since) that limits had been shattered and the cinema remade. The public (as it's done so often since) stayed home.
All this I offer as introduction to Romance, the new film by Catherine Breillat. The picture was a success in France with critics and public alike upon its release last spring. Its fortunes in the United States, where it's being released this fall, will tell us a lot about the mindset of our audiences--including whether we're prepared, so to speak, to look a vagina square in the eye.
With its very first shots, Romance notifies us that its doings, though in-your-face, will require interpretation. We begin with the close-up of a pretty young man named Paul, who is being made up with white face powder and red lipstick, then given instructions by someone behind a camera. The occasion is a fashion shoot. As we quickly learn, Paul is a model who is being dressed as a bullfighter for his latest assignment. And Paul is a photographic image, much like the matador he impersonates. The actor Sagamore Stévenin has been made up and given direction (as we've just seen) in order to represent this character, who therefore must be read, like all the other figures in Romance, as if he were wrapped in quotation marks.
The scene shifts quickly to a garden cafe, where Marie (Caroline Ducey) is weeping. She is young, slender and somewhat disheveled, with two strands of her dark-brown hair perpetually veiling her face. She loves Paul, it seems; but even though he claims to love her too, he won't engage in sex.
The conversation continues, in settings that change without transition from the cafe to a beach with sand dunes to a chic Japanese restaurant. (The locations in Romance, like the characters, are highly notional.) At last we find ourselves in the apartment that Marie shares with Paul--his apartment, where everything is pure white, except for the images he watches on the TV at the foot of the bed. In a very long scene, shot in only two camera setups, Marie tries to distract Paul from the TV, complains about his coldness, fails to get him to remove his clothes, attempts to perform fellatio on him and bewails her inability to share his indifference. As if an image in a fashion magazine could be anything but indifferent. As if a pretty picture could initiate sex, or even perk up when sex is offered.
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.