Catherine Breillat – Sex Is Comedy (2002)
From The New York Times:
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: October 20, 2004
Thanks to movies like “36 Fillette,” “Romance” and “Fat Girl,” Catherine Breillat has acquired a reputation for both fearlessness and perversity. Her two most recent movies, “Anatomy of Hell” and “Sex Is Comedy,” arriving in New York theaters within a week of each other, will no doubt extend that reputation, though in different ways. The newer movie, “Anatomy of Hell,” which opened last Friday, takes her fascination with female sexuality to a new extreme of literal-minded explicitness. “Sex Is Comedy,” which was completed in 2002 and which opens at Film Forum in Manhattan today, is much less graphic than “Anatomy,” and it is probably Ms. Breillat’s most restrained and self-critical film. There is less nudity and less on-screen sex than in her previous movies, but a good deal more self-exposure.
Rather than delve into the clinical details of sexual desire and behavior, Ms. Breillat reflects on what it means for a filmmaker to conduct such an inquiry and to use other people’s bodies in the service of her own will. The result is a minor, meandering film that shows a family resemblance both to François Truffaut’s peerless “Day for Night” and to a more pedestrian genre, the director’s commentary “extras” that bulk up so many current DVD’s. “Sex Is Comedy” (which ends, by the way, in tears) might work best in a boxed set with “Fat Girl,” Ms. Breillat’s strongest movie, and the one it refers to most directly.
Roxane Mesquida, who played the slimmer, older sister in “Fat Girl” (which is known in France as “À Ma Soeur,” or “To My Sister”), here portrays an actress playing a similar part. We don’t know what, apart from the loss of her character’s virginity, the movie is about. Though the layers of Ms. Mesquida’s performance turn out to be crucial to “Sex Is Comedy,” most of the film is concerned with the relationship between the director (Anne Parillaud) and her pouty, loutish leading man (Grégoire Colin). She alternately coddles and berates him, and their scenes of tenderness and tension illuminate Ms. Breillat’s main concern, which is the power struggles that take place on film sets between actors and directors.
To the extent that Ms. Parillaud’s performance is Ms. Breillat’s self-portrait, it is both admirably unflattering and sneakily self-aggrandizing. The director, whose name is Jeanne (her stars are identified only as “the Actor” and “the Actress”) occasionally has a private moment of self-doubt, but she is otherwise ruthlessly committed to being in control. To the assistant who is her confidant (and possibly her lover), she declares that she hates actors, and she resorts to all kinds of aggression and manipulation to get what she wants from them.
Most of “Sex Is Comedy” concerns the preparations for a single scene, and it recreates the complexity, absurdity and sheer tedium involved in counterfeiting the realities of sex (or anything else) on screen. Accordingly, the film itself is at times confusing, often amusing and frequently dull. But it may satisfy some of the curiosity that viewers – admiring, repulsed or ambivalent – have felt in watching Ms. Breillat’s unflinching and radical forays into eroticism. How much of the sex in her films is real? How do she and her actors make it seem that way, even when it isn’t? Is her realism a matter of emotional nakedness, or the physical kind? The ingenuity of “Sex Is Comedy” is that it pretends to satisfy this curiosity, only, at the end, to force us once again to reckon with those uncomfortable questions, as the director treats herself to the last laugh.