INTERVIEW: Catherine Breillat Opens Up About "Romance," Sex and Censorship
by Saul Anton
Catherine Breillat's new film "Romance" is the latest in the venerable French tradition of "philosophy in the boudoir." Debuting at last year's Rotterdam film fest, it became a minor succès de scandale for its explicit and graphic depiction of sex and Breillat's casting of a European porn star, Rocco Siffredi, in one of the main roles. Interestingly, the film is hardly licentious. "Romance" is part melodrama, part metaphysics, and follows the sexual journey of a young woman in a stark, unblinking visual style reminiscent of Oshima's classic "Empire of the Senses" and Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris."
Although this is Breillat's sixth film in 25 years, "Romance" is only the second to be distributed in the United States (by Trimark Pictures). The Most recent, "36 Fillette," appeared in 1989, and is a story about the sexual awakening of a precocious 14 year-old girl who tries to lose her virginity. Looking down her resume, in fact, you discover that her interest in the topic of sex has been lifelong. Her first novel, published at the age of 18, was restricted to people over 18 in France when it appeared in 1968. Breillat spoke to indieWIRE about sex, censorship, independent cinema and giving into your subconscious.
indieWIRE: Who do you consider to be your audience for "Romance"?
Catherine Breillat: I have no idea. I don't really think about my audience very much. You can't totally anticipate what the film will be until it's finished, so how do you know who your audience is? To me, what's important is, first of all, to just make the movie. Secondly, what I'm looking for is to go beyond myself. In other words, I try to uncover something in me or about myself that I didn't know before. That's exciting to me, that I know something I didn't know before making the movie. But I can't know that until after the film is finished.
In the beginning, it's just a project. When I sit down to write a script, I don't know what I'm going to write. I discover it as I go. That's even more true of making the film. When I'm shooting, I'm not content in just putting the script on the screen. In shooting the film I'm looking for things I hadn't seen before, and in capturing them in a way I couldn't in writing. In the end, it all comes down to finding out something about myself. Before you can offer something to an audience, you have to know who you are, otherwise, what is it that you're offering them? It doesn't know who it is anymore than you do--and that's why an audience comes to the movies.
iW: Why did you cast Rocco Siffredi?
Breillat: The first reason was that I simply wanted to. I'd seen Rocco before and I adored him. The second reason was that for some time now mainstream actors have refused to act in my films. They're very careful to protect the positions they've acquired, and they're very timid. They're afraid to take risks and they don't trust anyone. Very often, they read my scripts and suddenly they imagine their own execution of the film which, of course, is nothing like what I imagine the film will be. So I chose Rocco because he was interested and willing in playing the role. The other reason I chose him was because he had the physical qualities I needed for the role. He's very good-looking, and I don't know if you've noticed, but these days, most French actors aren't very good-looking. In the past, they were handsome, but not these days.
iW: Are you aware of the controversies over the Academy ratings in the
Breillat: Of course. It seems like it's a serious problem . It basically forces people to censor themselves. It's kind of a self-flagellation. By having the rating, people are no longer able to judge for themselves what is a movie for adults and what is really a pornographic movie that should be rated with the "X." This is very infantilizing, especially since what they call "adult" cinema should be the most noble and serious, but it seems like no one here grasps the meaning of this term. The moment something is an adult film--which my film seems to be in their eyes--it's considered to be the most degrading and off-limits. In France, the situation is not that different, since the "X" rating limited the film to people over the age of 18.
iW: What has been the reception in France?
Breillat: We were really nervous, but it was, in fact, really great. And not just financially. Also critically. People seem to understand that this is not just a sex movie but a movie about sex, and they're taking it seriously and actually talking about the movie. They have been very open to discussing the sexual content of the film. I couldn't have expected a better response than that, since, in fact, sex is something that concerns everyone and that everyone is implicated in--which is why it's so troubling. And that's not even mentioning the fact that I cast Rocco Siffredi in the movie. What I learned when the film came out, in fact, was that this porn actor was something of a cult star of the porn film industry, but who knew since people don't like to talk about their favorite porn actors.
iW: Were there any difficult moments in shooting your film, especially for actress Caroline Ducey?
Breillat: Actually, no. There was only one scene that was difficult for Caroline Ducey. It was the scene with Rocco. Otherwise, Caroline was very strong throughout the shoot. The filming, however, was very hard on me. I carried a strong moral obligation, especially toward Caroline, who had to work very hard to believe in what I was asking her to do. She not only had to overcome the sense of limitation that came from the social stigma attached to the subject of the movie, but also her own self-censorship. She needed to get to a place where she could be free from what in my view is a mental and emotional cage that poisons our sexuality. Once there, she knew that there wouldn't and there couldn't be anything obscene in the role and character she played, no matter what she did. She understood that to make it work, she had to get beyond her own censorship, and do something altogether different from what one normally expects in the movies. On the one hand, she had to be the consummate actress; on the other hand, she needed to feel confident in giving in to the sexuality that I was trying to capture.
iW: What do you think of the way sex is treated in American film? Is it something you pay attention to?
Breillat: Yes, I do. I'm someone who thinks American movies are generally much better than French movies. First of all, they're always changing the actors. In France, we've had the same actors for thirty years. You have 50-year-old actresses playing 30-year-old roles. In the U.S., when they decide to create a star, they invest a lot of money in promotion and publicity and that person becomes a star. They know how to do it.
iW: What do you think of American independent cinema?
Breillat: This is an old cliche, but movies are both an industry and an art. Sometimes, the industry moves closer to the art, sometimes the art moves closer to the industry. You can't work in film without butting up against this reality. The only thing I'm against is the idea that a film is simply a replica of what's on the page. The actual shooting of the film seems like a formality, as if creation doesn't take place on the set. Instead, it happens everywhere else--on paper, in the writer's den, in the producer's office, over lunch, whatever, but not on the set. In this view, the filmmaker is something of a pitiful employee who's simply there to obey orders. It's a horrible way of thinking about filmmaking. I try not to believe in the dominance of the screenplay. It makes for very boring cinema. This is especially true of remakes. It's another film that's being made, not the same one. If a film is really very good, I don't think it can be remade. For example, "Romance" was inspired by Oshima's "In the Realm of the Senses." But I didn't want to remake Oshima's film. It's a masterpiece. How could you remake it? My sense is that you have to find another subject that hasn't yet had a masterpiece.
iW: What's the hardest part of filmmaking for you?
Breillat: The hardest part of making a movie, especially one that's unknown, is looking at the script and wondering, well, what in the world am I going to do with this? What have I written? Where am I going with this? What is this going to become? The hardest part of all this is to contain your fear enough so that you can bring it to the next level and make it sing. You don't know anything about what's going to happen, but it's like a child inside you waiting to be born. That's a moment in which panic can easily settle in. The temptation is to totally pre-imagine the film in order to quell the anxiety. But that's what you have to resist, otherwise, when you begin shooting, you have to blind yourself to everything that happens on the set. Personally, I can't do that, because I've always thought that my subconscious is far smarter than my active consciousness, so I have to find ways to let it do its will.
[Saul Anton has written about art and culture for Salon, FEED and Artforum, and other magazines. He's also currently Art Editor of Citysearch.]