Caroline Ducey in Romance (1999)


(director/writer: Catherine Breillat; cinematographer: Yorgos Arvanitis; editor: Agnes Guillemot; cast: Caroline Ducey (Marie), Sagamore Stevenin (Paul), Francois Berleand (Robert), Rocco Siffredi (Paolo); Runtime: 99; Trimark Pictures; 1999)

“The film wavers between being a philosophical treatise on women and one about a woman’s passions.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Catherine Breillat (36 Fillette/Perfect Love!) has made a sexually graphic French film showing what a woman needs in a relationship. Her seventh feature film has become her only European box office success, though it has not received the same response in America. It is told from the point of view of the slender, well-dressed, and attractive elementary-school teacher, Marie (Ducey). She is married to the handsome male model, Paul (Stevenin), in what has become a self-destructive relationship. She loves him very much and early on in their relationship there was much passion, but there is one major problem for Marie now: Paul hasn’t made love to her for months. We watch them in bed in their modern but sterile all-white apartment and see that he has lost interest even though she is dying to be made love to.

The film wavers between being a philosophical treatise on women and being one about a woman’s passions. You can pick up most contemporary women’s magazines and see that it handles the same material this film does. The effort here is to push the film along shock value lines, pushing it more into the lines of what a porno film does as routine. What the film does very well, is voice the private sexual fantasy thoughts of Marie and peeks into her head as she thinks to herself what she wants a guy to do to her sexually and what attracts her about a man. Some of her revelations might surprise the opposite sex, as this film becomes like a self-help book.

After a distasteful night of sexual frustration Marie leaves Paul in bed and heads for the nearest bar, where she meets an actual Italian porno star — Rocco Siffredi. He is Paolo in the movie, whose girlfriend died in an auto accident and is more than willing to f*ck Marie any way she wants to. Because of the enormous size of his penis, he pleases one part of her greatly. She makes no bones about it that she loves the carnal act. But she confides that kissing is intimate and means more to her than the sex act, since she doesn’t care who “stuffs her below.” She only ends this one night stand when she begins to feel that she is starting to like Paolo as a person.

At work Marie strikes up a relationship with an older, obese, ugly man, Robert (Berleand). He is the principal of her school and takes her to his bachelor pad which is designed to attract a wide-assortment of women, as it is fit with a Jacuzzi as well as bondage equipment and his apartment is also sensually painted in dark bordello hues of red. Robert tells her he is a great lover, having made love to over 10,000 women despite not being rich, handsome, well-built, young, or a celebrity. He tells her that what he has going for him, is that he knows how to please a woman sexually and how to listen. And, that even though women want to be respected they still want to be taken by a man who desires them and a stranger usually gets to her first. A friend is too polite to act on his impulses. Marie’s comment is, “Why do men who disgust us, understand us best.” A sadomasochistic relationship develops, with limits being established, as she gets off while he ties her up and gags her. She seems to enjoy this perverse relationship, of being degraded, better than all her others. We see her twice with Robert.

Marie has some more sexual fantasies: masturbating with her legs closed to prove that she doesn’t need a man to enjoy herself; imagining that a group of gynecologists “invade” her vagina; and, dreams of a guillotine-like contraption without blades dangling over some woman’s legs.

Marie considers it ironical that she makes love to her husband when she is cheating on him and that when she was faithful to him he ignored her.

The film ends on a reassuring note for those who take a more traditional view on what a woman’s love life should be, as Ducey says: “They say a woman isn’t a woman until she’s a mother: it’s true.”

Despite the film’s coldness, lack of humor, bleak conceptions about relationships, unappetizing sexual scenes, lack of dramatic tension, and pretentious philosophizing by Caroline Ducey, it still had something disturbing to say about relationships that was worth listening to. For the director, sex is shown to be what fantasies are made of: that it is all in one’s head. To show this, Breillat has her heroine in the nude throughout most of the film and then symbolically stripped her of all the illusions she has about sex. Though the film might not always be appealing, it is still not a work of trash; it does have something to say of what goes on in the marital bedroom that is of a serious nature. How much you like what it says might depend on what you thought it was digging at and if its romantic notions rang a bell.

Warning: spoiler to follow in next paragraph.

The film’s conclusion shows Ducey giving birth to a son and her womanhood supposedly being fulfilled. Robert is at her bedside as her drunken husband remains in the apartment, where she opened all the gas jets in the kitchen to cause an explosion killing him.

Breillat is trying to provoke the male viewer to think further about what a woman craves for in a relationship, while she is also calling out for a woman to seriously think about what she wants in a man and what she is capable of attaining in a relationship.