excerpt from “Senses of Cinema” on Catherine Breillat:
“But it was with the release of Romance in 1999 that Breillat would face censorship internationally, when the film was either banned altogether in some countries, or given an X rating. It was a situation Breillat spoke out about when she declared that, “censorship was a male preoccupation, and that the X certificate was linked to the X chromosome.” Breillat’s statement was echoed in the French poster for the film, which features a naked woman with her hand between her legs. A large red X is printed across the image, thus revealing the source of the trouble: a woman in touch with her own sense of sexual pleasure.
Romance, and the world-wide discourse about pornography that erupted in the wake of its release, best typifies the challenge and the interest of her work. Romance is about a woman, Marie, whose boyfriend refuses to have sex with her. Her frustration leads her to a series of affairs in an effort to not only find pleasure, but seemingly to arrive at some better understanding of her own desire. The film is sexually explicit, and features, as do many of Breillat’s films, acts of unsimulated sex, hence the many accusations leveled against Breillat that she is a pornographer. Indeed, Breillat willfully courted such accusations by casting Rocco Siffredi, a famous Italian porn star, as one of Marie’s lovers. Moreover, Marie’s sexual encounters are marked by a sense of sadomasochism. Indeed, after having her baby she winds up with a man who is also the principal of the school where she teaches, having blown up her apartment and her boyfriend (who is also, presumably, the father of her child) on the way to the hospital.
Romance was banned in Australia upon its release in January 2000. In his review of the Office of Film and Literature’s (OFLC) report on the film, Adrian Martin describes the reason for the ban. And in so doing, Martin arrives at precisely the thing that makes Breillat’s films so difficult, and so interesting. Martin surveys the censors’ objection to the scene where Marie is solicited by a man in the hallway of her building. In this scene, a man offers Marie twenty-dollars to perform cunnilingus on her, to which she assents without saying a word. Of course, more occurs, as Marie is turned over (or turns over) as her perpetrator then enters her from behind. As he continues, Marie seems to sob, and when he leaves, she shouts that she is not ashamed. Martin notes that in describing the scene, the writer of the OFLC report says that “he orders Marie to turn over,” and that she tries to “scuffle away.” Martin replies, “…I did not see Marie try to ‘scuffle away’ during the scene, or be forced to turn over.” Martin’s point is that this writer’s language reveals his own moral response to an image, as opposed to what is actually present in the image: “One of the most interesting things about Romance is the way in which it inscribes in its own material ambiguous designation of obscenity.” In other words, neither Breillat nor Caroline Ducey (Marie) give us any concrete signs of her own response to what is happening. We cannot walk away confident of Marie’s outrage, only our own, at best. Indeed, the whole scene begins with a voice-over where Marie proclaims that it is, in fact, her fantasy to be taken this way. Yet, the act itself is inscribed into the realist space of the plot, thus blurring the line between fantasy and reality that is signaled by Marie’s voice-over.
As such, when we watch this act on screen, and many others like it, we are left only with what we think of what we see. Moreover, we project our own values back on to the screen, as Martin further notes when he cites a review of the film that describes the scene between Marie and Rocco Siffredi as a “humiliating affair.” Of course, there is, to my eyes, no signs of humiliation in that scene. If anything, it is a frank and very physical depiction of a sexual encounter. Siffredi asks Marie if he can have anal sex with her, an act that stands as the possible source of said humiliation. However, this possibility is complicated by the fact that she very calmly consents, on the condition that he first continue to make love to her. Moreover, the scene begins with Marie telling Siffredi, while holding a soiled condom, how men like to keep things hidden – how easily they are disgusted. The only sign of shame in the sequence comes when she admits to Siffredi, in the middle of sex, that she only sleeps with men that she doesn’t like. If there is shame here, it is the viewer’s.