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.