Erotic

Charlotte (Maroussia Dubreuil) and Julie (Lise Bellynck) engage in sex acts for a film in “Exterminating Angels.” (La Sorcière Rouge)

Rather than "fade in," the screenplay for French filmmaker Jean-Claude Brisseau's symbol-laden erotic drama, "Exterminating Angels," could very well have begun with, "Dear Penthouse ... "

Though the film expresses a kinship to Luis Buñuel, Federico Fellini and Jean-Luc Godard and carries a certain degree of high-mindedness, its scenario of an artsy filmmaker obsessed with the subject of female arousal provides plenty of opportunity for male fantasy fulfillment. Frédéric Van Den Driessche plays François, a handsome, middle-aged director, preparing an experimental film in which he will explore the ways women achieve orgasm.

Brisseau's film opens with François awakening from a dream thinking that he needs to visit his grandmother, until his wife, Nathalie (Sophie Bonnet), reminds him that she's been dead for 10 years. The old woman's ghost then appears, warning François that he is about to enter dangerous territory. Two other apparitions, unseen by François and looking like they stepped out of a Robert Palmer music video, circa 1985, sans lip gloss, hover nearby, apparently holding the director's fate in their hands.

In his office, François interviews young, nubile actresses, assessing their willingness to engage in various sexual acts on-camera. Those that are up to the challenge then go with him to a hotel where he videotapes them pleasuring themselves. François' gaze, which is more professorial detachment than unabashed leer, is crucial to the process because it is the women's relationship to him — their desire to please and/or manipulate — that propels the film.

Brisseau, who directed the strident and sexy 2002 film "Secret Things," shares François's predilection for filming the erotic. Riffing off a legal entanglement that ensued following the earlier film, he seems to take delight in the self-reflective nature of the material. While François remains relatively unmoved by the women's self-ministrations, holding himself to a strict hands-off policy, Brisseau lets his camera ogle them uninhibitedly.

As François assembles his cast, he begins pairing them to judge chemistry and test how far each is willing to go with another woman. The unstable Charlotte (Maroussia Dubreuil) and the submissive Julie (Lise Bellynck) immediately take a liking to each other, and François pushes them to engage in increasingly transgressive acts. Complications ensue when Stéphanie (Marie Allan) enters their ménage.

The sex is fairly explicit, and Brisseau surrounds those scenes with a lot of psychosexual and philosophical discussion of the nature of the orgasm. An air of foreboding develops as François appears to be sliding further down a rabbit hole. The film maintains its narrative hold as long as there is a question of who exactly is exploiting whom.

Brisseau calculatedly offsets the silliness of the surreal elements and the earnestness applied to the sex by savoring the overall absurdity. The film — buoyed by its cast of excellent actors — loses its momentum in the final half-hour when it starts to take itself too seriously. With all the theoretical and practical application of ideas toward the questions about female desire, Brisseau finally seems more interested in the price paid for pursuing unattainable knowledge.

kevin.crust@latimes.com

"Exterminating Angels." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500.