Catherine Breillat doesn’t make porn. Anyone familiar with the 73-year-old French auteur knows her frank portraits of female sexuality are complex, often transcendent explorations of desire through a metaphysical lens. That impulse extends back to Brelliat’s first film in 1976, “A Real Young Girl,” in which she adapted her own controversial novel about a 14-year-old’s sexual awakening. It has stayed with her through the decades in everything from “Fat Girl” to “Sex Is Comedy,” which fictionalizes the discomfort of shooting a sex scene.
Many of those movies are included in a new 11-film Breillat retrospective at New York’s IFC Center, but none epitomize Breillat’s daring aesthetic more than 1999’s “Romance,” the absorbing story of a young woman named Marie who finds catharsis from her sexless relationship with her boyfriend in a series of ambitious trysts. One of these leads to her rape; another inspires her revenge. Kafka by way of Marquis de Sade, with direct inspiration from Nagisa Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses,” the movie positions nascent actress Caroline Ducey — who was 23 at the time — as a remarkable enigma of sensuality and simmering feminine rage.
But the radicalism of Breillat’s technique is also the reason why “Romance,” which has been newly restored by Strand Releasing for the U.S., created an insurmountable rift between the actress and her director that lingers to this day.
“What happened with Caroline was quite upsetting,” Breillat told me over Zoom in a recent interview. “She’s an incredible actress, but she was absolutely devastated with the film and unable to come to grips to it. She was destabilized, too fragile, and she wasn’t able to live with it.”
In interviews at the time of its release, Ducey said that she was surprised to find that the actor who plays a man her character picks up at a bar was a porn star — Rocco Sifredi, known back then as “The Italian Stallion” — and found it paradoxical. “She pulled this stunt with a commercial porn star, when ‘Romance’ was supposed to be fighting against that kind of thing,” she told The Independent at the time. “It wasn’t the love story I thought it was.”
Years later, Ducey cites a much more troubling moment in the production that still haunts her: When they shot the rape scene that arrives late in the movie, Ducey alleges that Breillat told the male actor — a non-professional man cast shortly beforehand — to actually try to penetrate the actress on camera. “Catherine asked me to take my pants off like five minutes before we were rolling,” Ducey said in a phone interview this week. “I was getting ready to act. I didn’t think it could happen for real. This guy, I was about to kill him.”
Ducey said she pushed him off and Breillat stopped rolling; they completed the scene, with no penetration, in the second take. That’s the one in the movie. “I was really angry at Catherine, because she didn’t need to organize the scene like that at all,” Ducey said. “It was not a snuff movie. But I still respect it, because I know what I put into it, so I don’t want to throw it all in the trash. I think the movie is important, and Catherine is a real director.”
Asked about Ducey’s allegations, Breillat pushed back, sharing an original shooting script of the production that she said laid out the specifics of the scene in detail. “Caroline’s accusation is extremely serious, but I deny it completely,” she said in an emailed statement after our interview. “From the beginning, ‘Romance’ was announced as the first European film with non-simulated sex scenes. The script itself was very explicit, with abundant details that left no doubt as to the nature of the scenes that were going to be shot. I wrote the script long before I cast Caroline, and it clearly described all the scenes — including the rape scene — so there could have been no surprises or traps for her.”
Over Zoom, Breillat addressed the situation in broader terms. “Actors are always asked about their opinions and perhaps they are not best placed to do so,” she said. “She was the last actress I auditioned, and for me, she was like Joan of Arc. She has this purity that was essential. I didn’t want anything in the film to stain her.”
But Ducey said that Breillat never engaged with her about the specific demands of any scenes. “Before the shoot, I asked Catherine, ‘Shall we talk about the scenes that have a sexual character to them?’ And she said no, she didn’t want to talk about these scenes because she said they didn’t concern me.”
Breillat disputed this by email. “If Caroline had not accepted the explicit sexual nature of the film, I wouldn’t have cast her,” she wrote. “It was clear what the project was from the beginning, and Caroline accepted knowing that. Caroline has the right to regret her decision, but I had the right to make this film.”
However Ducey said she felt that Breillat betrayed her trust. “For me, it was like she stole a piece of my job,” Ducey said. “For me, the creation of art is giving truth to fiction. If it’s only truth, you don’t get anything, and that’s not what’s magical about the job. You put your own intimacy into the story and the challenge for any actor is to manage those feelings. … I think I was courageous to do this movie, and it was a waste not to trust me more.”
Over Zoom, Breillat explained her approach in different terms with her usual blunt, provocative style. “Actors are prostitutes because they’re asked to play other feelings,” she said. “This prostitution is not profane; it’s a sacred act that we give them.”
Ducey said that Breillat, who later cast the actress in a bit part for the 2007 period piece “The Last Mistress,” expressed regret to her about the scene 10 years ago. “She apologized, but she also said that she forgave me,” Ducey said. “I have nothing to be forgiven for. I was a good soldier. Cinema is a kind of therapy, but you can’t use your actors to do what you don’t dare to do yourself.”
Breillat acknowledged the exchange. “I did apologize to Caroline for not having understood that she was vulnerable,” she wrote by email. “I think it did her good to hear that from me, that she needed someone who believed and understood her.”
Breillat referred to an interview the pair did together for the release, in which Ducey said actors never simulate the emotions they portray. “I think that’s perhaps at the root of her later traumatic reaction to the rape scene,” Breillat said. “I’ve said many times that if actors are paid much more than the director or the screenwriter, for working on a film for perhaps only a tenth the amount of time, it’s because they have to give the work their own flesh and their own emotions… which is not necessarily without psychological consequences.”
Ducey continued to act, most recently co-starring in the French romance “Simple Passion,” but said that the experience on “Romance” made it difficult for her to resume her career.
“At a certain point, I didn’t want to be directed by anyone anymore,” she said, recalling frustrations when nude stills of her performance began circulating online. “I think maybe some of [the directors] could feel that I was not someone you could direct, and that’s part of my job. So maybe I was tough to work with. I didn’t trust anyone, and you need trust to play these roles. I was really lonely.”
Ducey is now married to writer-director David Lanzmann and starred in his 2004 debut, “Doo Wop.” “I’ve been living with a director for 20 years and I know how hard it is, the energy you have to put into it,” she said. “I think Catherine is really good director, and she tries to be true to herself. But she went too far with ‘Romance.’”
Ducey insisted that she still loved the movie and wanted to encourage people to see it. “Fortunately, I’m OK with the movie, if not the method,” she said. “I think Catherine opened a door by showing that women are as complex as men. It may be painful, but we don’t have to be afraid of explaining to each other how desire works. I would like people to look at this movie as an exploration of freedom and people trying to discover themselves. Artists are supposed to task some risk to help the audience better understand their own lives. If the film managed to do this, I think that’s good.”
And “Romance” certainly is an unnerving immersion into those themes. Marie’s sexual adventures take some alarming turns, none more shocking than when she decides to sleep with Robert (François Berléand), the promiscuous principal of the high school where she teaches, but it also charts her path toward taking control. “Beauty is nourished by disgracefulness,” Robert tells her, shortly before their first attempt at S&M. “Sexuality is the clash between triviality and divinity.”
Marie inhabits that dichotomy for much of the movie, right down the riveting final third, which careens from a Sade-like dream sequence in a brothel to the closeup of a human birth and an explosive act of vengeance set to rock ’n’ roll as she finally arrives at a world of her own design. Adorned in white for the duration of the story, Marie inhabits an ethereal plane.
“You never see a shadow cross her face,” Breillat said, citing Baroque painters Georges de La Tour and Artemisia Gentileschi as sources of inspiration, with the latter’s 17th century “Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy” as a key reference point. The painting shows a woman pulling her knee towards her chest as she pitches her head back, eyes closed in euphoric bliss. “There is nothing profane about that,” Breillat said. “It’s all about luminosity.”
Breillat initially wanted to call the movie “Romance on Ice,” an apt summation of the eerie remove through which it interrogates its subject. “I realized that wasn’t commercial,” she said, and instead chose to pierce the title card of the movie with an X. “The X is the unknown,” she said. “Yes, it designates pornographic films, but sex is at the center of every relationship, every romance.”
Breillat said she struggled to gain financing for the film, but managed to break through after she accepted an offer to speak at a conference in Tehran in 1997. Although she had been asked to deliver a speech about how women are used in cinema, she chose to focus on the repression of women in Iranian society. “The world is so occupied with the morality of women I find it laughable,” she said in her speech.
Breillat looks back on that moment with pride. “The ministry of foreign affairs in France warned me that the text was unacceptable and said that if I presented it in Iran, there was no way they could bring me back if there were problems,” she said. “I decided this was my chance. I was going to use the opportunity of being in Iran to say things I couldn’t normally say in France. I saw this lecture as a talisman. It was broadcast live by Iranian TV and the hall was full. I assume the text was badly translated or intentionally misconstrued, but everyone in the audience certainly understood French and knew what I was saying. While I was there, I immediately said that I wanted the text photocopied and distributed as is through the audience. They couldn’t say no publicly like that, so they did it.”
The speech yielded appreciative coverage in Le Monde and Breillat, whose work had been considered taboo for years, said she was able to secure financing for “Romance” as a result. “In France, everyone who had nothing but contempt for me, who scorned me without knowing anything about my cinema, who thought I made erotic films, realized that I was someone completely different,” she said. Later, she included her speech as the forward when the script for “Romance” was published as a book in France.
Ducey said she appreciated this side of the movie’s legacy. “The old duality for women was that they were stuck between being a mother or a slut,” she said. “What touched me about this film was how it showed that women have desire that is more than the part they are assigned to play. They are much more than that.”
Ducey said she was gratified to discuss the experience “with a more calm, mature, peaceful state of mind,” noting that she hadn’t been invited to promote the initial 1999 release in the U.S. “It gives me peace to talk about all this,” she said. “I’m really touched. It’s like a second chance for me.” She has started toying with the idea of a book project based on her experiences.
“We listen to the auteur more than the actor,” she said. “I needed to starting writing to be the auteur and take back my own freedom.” Then she laughed, recognizing what she saw as karmic justice.
“Catherine is not my boss anymore,” she said. “She can’t decide everything for me.”
“Romance” screens throughout this week at IFC Center along with 10 other films from Breillat’s career.