Catherine Breillat’s 1999 film “Romance” is a wilful exercise in obscurantism, a film where nobody acts like real people, characters endlessly pontificate on various subjects, repetitively and with little interest, and gratuitous sex abounds. I kinda liked it. It follows a woman called Marie (Caroline Ducey), who is sick of the lack of intimacy afforded by her cold male model husband Paul (Sagamore Stevenin), and who goes out in search of her own intimacy and interest.
The film is not interested in the practical questions that you or I might ask, like, “why is she with this person, and why doesn’t she leave him?”, or “why doesn’t she seek a therapist?”, or even “why doesn’t she/he try and understand her/his point of view?”. Marie is stuck on absolutes, like “why do I only love him or hate him?”, and can’t stop thinking about her “hole”.
Marie is nothing more than a cipher. She seems enormously disconnected from what is going on around her, even when she’s wrapping her mouth around the flaccid cock of her boyfriend to arouse him, or being subjected to what can only be described as rape at the top of her apartment stairs.
If this film were directed by a man, it would be described as a film that doesn’t understand women, and hence branded as offensive, because it would be irresponsible to portray women as this skittishly subservient to what’s going on around them. As it is, it’s directed by Catherine Breillat, a woman, a feminist, and someone who is deeply interested in gender roles and the dichotomies inherent in society that tell women what they can and can’t do. I think with this film she is highlighting the various myths surrounding womenhood to highlight their ridiculousness (even the myths that empower women, evident in the ending). It asks the question; if a woman is treated badly, but she is treated badly because she wills it and consents to it, is that an act of empowerment or subjugation? Internalised misogyny, or choice feminism?
This film does not have the answers and seems frankly unconcerned with them. As I said, I did kinda like it. It doggedly follows its own vision to its logical end, and I was never bored for a moment. The sex, largely unsimulated, lacks eroticism but has a certain ingrained interest in the way it plays like mental chess matches between the characters. A lot of it plays off in long shot, giving us a sense of the back-and-forth between Marie and whichever man she’s sleeping with in that given scene.
I have described this film in cold, chilly terms, that might make it sound like navel-gazing. It is navel gazing, but it is compelling also. It also has a shred of warmth, especially in Marie’s dealings with her superior at her work (she’s a schoolteacher), Robert (Francois Berleand). He comes across as a distinctly unlikeable lothario, boasting that he’s slept with over 10,000 women, and how he gets them to “eat out of my hand”. But something interesting happens in their long scene together; he ties her up, and she bursts into tears, and he actually seems to care for her. He is the only recognisable human in this film (or maybe the only recognisably human character in this film), and any heart the film may have can be traced here.
By the end, we’re no closer to knowing what it all means; throughout, we hear Marie’s thoughts, but they only serve to confuse us more, perhaps because they so effectively convey her own confusion. And the ending, despite its logic, is so abrupt it almost seems like a further statement on Breillat’s part. But this is still a suitably steamy, at times surreal odyssey into the heart of woman’s desire. It belongs to that cadre of films that you only really got in the 90’s, of the kind that Bigas Luna, von Trier, Cedric Kahn, and so on, used to make, that rise to the challenge of the intricacies of desire and copulation, and don’t back down. They don’t make them like this anymore, and this film is just enough to make you think that that’s something of a shame.