Friday October 1, 1999
Should anyone need help understanding the difference between graphic sexual content and eroticism, or, for that matter, between tedious pseudo-philosophizing and real thought, "Romance" has arrived to clear the air. As pretentious as it is hard-core specific, this fiercely anti-erotic film makes even the chilly "Eyes Wide Shut" play like "The Big Easy." Who could have imagined that sex on screen could be so unbearably dull?
French writer-director Catherine Breillat (whose seventh film this is) is playing a dubious double game. On the one hand, we're supposed to believe that what makes "Romance" worth enduring are its windy metaphysical speculations on the nature of love and/or sex, but these thoughts are so pompous and banal that without the lure of hard-core material the audience for this film would be severely limited.
Yet those deluded enough to go to "Romance" for its unapologetic scenes of masturbation, oral sex, intercourse and intricate bondage are going to be even more angry and disappointed by the torpid, uninvolving quality they exude. Distant sex, no matter how explicit, and bogus posturing turn out to be a deadly cinematic combination.
A painfully simple-minded film that grabs every chance it gets to depict men as thuggish rapists or narcissistic fools, "Romance" lets us in on the tortured, unhappy life of a young elementary schoolteacher named Marie (Caroline Ducey).
Marie lives with self-involved fashion model Paul (Sagamore Stevenin), someone who'd much rather read Charles Bukowski by himself in a Japanese restaurant than have anything to do with her. In fact, Paul and Marie have not had sex for three or four months (the film can't make up its mind which), a situation that the faithful Marie is understandably unhappy about.
"You despise me because I'm a woman. I disgust you," she screams at the indifferent Paul while letting on, in similarly lighthearted fashion, that she feels like "a heavy invisible cage has descended on me."
In truth, Paul and Marie are such insufferable pills that they are likely made for each other, but sexual frustration is not something "Romance" takes lightly. So fed-up Marie, faithful no more, sets out to have as many sexual adventures as the film's running time allows.
First stop is handsome Paolo (Rocco Siffredi, apparently a well-known Italian porn star), picked up in a local bar. According to the press notes (the film is far too cerebral to stoop to making things clear on screen), Paolo satisfies her sexually but is incapable of love. A live-and-learn type, Marie moves on.
She doesn't have to move very far. It turns out that Robert (Francois Berleand), the principal of the school where Marie teaches, is an accomplished seducer with 10,000 women (but who's counting?) on his list of satisfied partners. What's Robert's secret? He takes the time to talk to women and listen to them. Really.
A fussy dominator, Robert ties Marie up with such a wide variety of exotic knots it's a shame an expurgated version of their sessions together couldn't be made available to Boy Scouts needing help with their merit badges. Even with the knots, this relationship, supposedly the most tender in the film, will not do anything but bore anyone not already bondage-inclined.
All this soporific sexual activity is punctuated by the kind of pointless but supremely self-important dialogue that French films have a weakness for. Comments like "He wants to conquer because he's a man" are frequent, but, though the competition is stiff, the one line you're most likely to remember is the question "Why do men who disgust us understand us better than men who appeal to us?"
Extremely hard to take as seriously as writer-director Breillat insists it deserves to be, "Romance's" sexual explicitness may be undeniable but its empty pomposity makes it play like a caricature of an art film. When Marie's boyfriend feebly suggests that "there's more to life than sex," it's a shame the entire film didn't take him at his word.
Romance, 1999. Unrated. Released by Trimark Pictures. Director Catherine Breillat. Producer Jean-Francois Lepetit. Screenplay Catherine Breillat. Cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis. Editor Agnes Guillemot. Music D.J. Valentin, Raphael Tidas. Sound Paul Laine. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. Caroline Ducey as Marie. Sagamore Stevenin as Paul. Francois Berleand as Robert. Rocco Siffredi as Paolo.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times