Agent Provocateur: French Director Catherine Breillat Dissects Desire

During her visit in Israel, Breillat, one of cinema’s most daring directors, outlines her philosophy and tells why she will never yield to the censor.

Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
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Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

When Catherine Breillat was 12, she saw Ingmar Berman’s 1953 movie “Sawdust and Tinsel,” starring Harriet Andersson, one of the Swedish director’s ensemble actors. The film, about an aging circus ringmaster and his young lover, was an intensive viewing experience for the young Breillat. So deeply did she identify with the Andersson character, she decided to become a director and writer. “Through Bergman I learned that what cannot be expressed in 26 letters can be conveyed in 24 frames a second,” says the provocative filmmaker, who grew up in a pious Catholic family in the small town of Niort, western France. For several decades, Breillat has unrelentingly probed the limits of representation and tried to expand them in her consistent and controversial way. She has written best-selling novels replete with sex scenes, and more than 30 film scripts, as well as directing 13 feature films, many of which have been screened at prestigious film festivals including Cannes and Berlin.

Breillat’s philosophical replies in a telephone interview, held in French, ahead of her arrival in Israel as a guest of the International Student Film Festival in Tel Aviv ‏(until June 24‏), help explain why she is considered one of the world’s most daring directors. She also cites numerous books, artworks and films which have influenced her, and spices her replies with anecdotes.

Thus, when asked what originally drew her to deal with the sense of shame, and, more precisely, shame as a feeling identified with female sexuality, she replies with the following story: “Before starting to shoot my first movie, ‘A Real Young Girl’ [1976], I had lunch with [the famed Italian neorealist director] Roberto Rossellini. It was my first film and I was very arrogant. I already considered myself a director, even though I had not yet done anything ... Rossellini asked me, ‘What innovation do you want to bring to cinema in dealing with sex, which is quite a hackneyed theme?’ I replied, ‘The theme of shame, because you − men − implant it in us, and we are the ones who carry it. And you [men] will never make a film about it. It has never been done.’”

Breillat’s work is obsessively preoccupied with sex, shame and death, and with their interconnectedness. As an adolescent, she attended an acting studio in Paris, but her breakthrough occurred as a writer.

At the age of 17 she published a novel, “L’Homme facile” ‏(“Easy Man”‏), sparking the first of many public scandals to follow. “It was utterly absurd,” she says. “The book was banned for readers under 18, whereas I myself was barely 17, so I was actually prohibited to read what I had written.”

The young Breillat’s encounter with state censorship did not lead her in the direction of self-restraint. On the contrary: her debut feature, “A Real Young Girl,” told the story of Alice, a 14-year-old girl ‏(played by Charlotte Alexandra‏), who is attending a boarding school and for the summer vacation returns to the small village in which her parents live. The provocative film includes scenes of masturbation and nudity, and one scene in which the young protagonist fantasizes that a man, who is working for her father, ties her to the earth with barbed wire and scatters worms on her naked body.

Breillat’s debut heralded not only her distinctive cinematic style, but also the way in which her controversial work would be received. “A Real Young Girl” was banned in many countries and was effectively removed from circulation for a quarter of a century. It wasn’t commercially distributed until 2002, in the wake of the success of Breillat’s film “À ma soeur!” ‏(“Fat Girl,” 2001‏), which catapulted her to success.

Asked about her relations with the censors, Breillat replies, “In general, I always told the censors, ‘You can cut, but you have to explain to me why.’ My problem is not with what is censored − sex scenes, usually − but with the reason. If these scenes possess meaning, they are art. But if they are empty and aimed only at sexual stimulation, then as far as I am concerned they really can be censored. But this is a distinction which we, the filmmakers, make ourselves, so I believe that censorship is unnecessary. After all, one cannot censor thought itself.”

“Why is censorship practiced nevertheless?” she continues, emotionally. “Because we adults are supposedly liable to be harmed. It is important to understand that I am not against censorship for children. Children might be too young to be exposed to certain things, and it is good that there is a mechanism to protect them. But censors for adults need to check into a psychiatric hospital as soon as they enter the profession; after all, they claim that adults are liable to be harmed, yet they themselves are also adults, just like everyone else.”

Infuriating

In life, as in film, Breillat does not make do with words alone. In 2000, the French film titled “Baise-moi” ‏(“Rape Me”‏) was restricted to viewers 18 and over. Even though Breillat did not make the film, she decided to assist the codirectors ‏(Virginie Despents and Coralie Trinh Thi‏) in their battle against the censors. “I organized a petition and persuaded directors such as Claude Lanzmann and Jean-Luc Godard to sign it,” Breillat recalls. “Everyone joined us. Our basic argument was that there was nothing ‘dirty’ or unacceptable about showing adults in sex scenes. We also fought against the hypocrisy related to the porn industry: films that declare themselves to be blue movies are outside the boundaries of state censorship. In other words, sex scenes are only a problem in the case of artistic films.

“That infuriates me,” she continues, “because there is, in any case, covert censorship which I call ‘money censorship.’ By that, I mean that filmmakers are afraid to include overly frank scenes, because then their films will not be broadcast on television and they will lose income. The result is that there is a great deal of self-censorship.”

Why are sex scenes censored in films but not scenes of violence?

“It really is interesting that there is no censorship of violence. People always ask me if the love scenes in my movies are real, but they never ask if I kill my heroines. [Spoiler] Many of them die onscreen, and people believe in this because they scream, notably in ‘Fat Girl.’ Despite this, no one has ever asked me if I killed the mother and the daughter at the end of the movie. We are selective in our belief about what we see on the screen. It is all fiction. Cinema is an art which makes us believe in what is real and what is not real. There are real things in cinema: when you enter through a door, you are really entering through a door; when you drink a cup of coffee, you are really drinking a cup of coffee. So, in the final analysis, the geography of the everyday is genuine.”

Throughout her extensive career, Breillat has consistently examined the connection between sex and violence. Particularly, she has honed in on society’s appropriation and control of the female body through terms such as “shame,” “virginity” and “beauty.” In her 1999 film “Romance,” a young woman with a boyish body embarks on a sexual quest with men she doesn’t know after her boyfriend informs her that he no longer wants to have sex with her. Her sexual fantasies grow increasingly daring, including rape, bondage and physical violence. In one of the last scenes in the film, she is lying on a gynecological bed as young interns with glazed looks stick their hands into her genitals. The sharp transition from sex scenes to the medical examination portray the feminine body as a passive entity, or as an empty space, which men penetrate on various pretexts.

“Romance” contains many scenes that are difficult to watch. Breillat herself, though, does not think that her films are provocative. “What is a provocation?” she asks. “If it is deliberate, it is a provocation, but if it is not deliberate − and in my work it is not deliberate − what it means is that the society is very unprogressive. Since my first book was censored, I have become used to being a walking scandal. That is an image which I have neither the will nor the need to fight against. I do not think I can reshape myself. But I think that when something is perceived as provocative, it is in relation to the society in which we act.

“I will give you an example. Many years ago I was invited to take part in a conference on cinema in Iran. I remember that the French Foreign Ministry did not want me to go, because the Iranians had just stiffened their laws. For example, they passed a law allowing women who wore two different-colored socks to be flogged, because that was considered sexually provocative. So you see where you can sometimes find provocation!”

Yet the same is true of French society, which is “moldy and conservative,” she continues. “In my debut film I wanted to push the boundaries a little, but without crossing a certain threshold. However, what is unexpected − and you see this happening in France again today − is that the boundaries sometimes regress, and very much so. Today’s society is more conservative than it was in the 1970s. What might expand the boundaries again is a film such as the new work by Abdellatif Kechiche [“Blue Is the Warmest Color,” which won the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival], which I haven’t yet seen. In any event, nothing deters me, nothing stops me from saying what I want.”

Do you think a director must be provocative, that this is an artistic obligation?

“No, it is definitely not obligatory; it is an option. It might be a directorial style. If it is innate in the director’s nature, as it is in some sculptors and painters’, there is no point in opposing it. I do not do what I do because of any obligation. My obligation, and also my nature, is never to censor myself. That is a very different thing.”

A recurrent theme in your work is boredom. In many cases, the protagonists are bored with life, with themselves, with their lovers. How do you define boredom?

“The main problem is the tendency to confuse loneliness with boredom. I am very fond of the book ‘On the Shortness of Life’ by the Stoic philosopher Seneca, because it contains everything. It is an astonishingly lucid work, which helps us understand why we phone one another all the time, why we go to all the meetings to which we are invited. We save money but not time, and in the end we reach the end of our life without ever having conversed with ourselves, without having spent time with ourselves.

“Boredom is a genuine phenomenon in our society, which has decided that if we are alone we will be bored. It is simply untrue that loneliness means boredom! When we are educated to think so, then, yes, loneliness becomes boredom, even though there is actually no such thing as loneliness: we are with ourselves.”

Do you believe it is possible to create a work of art that explores boredom without the work itself being boring?

“I think it is possible. To begin with, nostalgia is the twin sister of boredom, and aesthetically it can contain great beauty. Boredom is also a refusal to integrate into a society that is not appropriate for you, that rejects you, whose codes you do not understand and which you do not want to accept. Therefore, boredom is a form of rebelliousness. Boredom bears the potential for provocation.”

Dramatic clash

Faithful to this philosophy, Breillat pointedly makes films which are perceived as “boring.” That criticism was leveled in particular at her 2004 film “Anatomie de l’enfer” ‏(“Anatomy of Hell”; based on her novel “Pornocratie”‏). The film opens in a gay dance club in which the young protagonist ‏(Amira Casar‏) tries to slash her wrists. A masculine-looking gay hunk ‏(the porn star Rocco Siffredi‏) saves her life, and the two are swept into a sexual adventure lasting four nights and filled with numberless scenes that are excruciatingly difficult to watch, all set against a background of endless philosophical dialogues.

The film sparked one of the most dramatic clashes between Breillat and the censors. In Israel, before allowing “Anatomy of Hell” to be screened commercially, the film review board ‏(a unit in the Culture Ministry‏) demanded the removal of three scenes: one in which a character drinks blood from a glass in which a dirty tampon has been placed; another in which a pitchfork is inserted into a woman’s body; and a third in which a telescope penetrates the body of a young female actor. The board also demanded that the film be restricted to viewers above the age of 18.

In response, Breillat wrote a long letter explaining why she had included those scenes in the film. “I wanted to enhance and deepen the line of thought that flows from the concept of romance. That is what the film’s female protagonist is searching for in her quest to explore her sexual identity,” she noted.

“During the shoot,” she added, “we were aware that this is my most extreme and dangerous film, and we did everything possible not to yield to sexual monstrosity, and not to be dragged into a controversial display of lustfulness. This is a story of mystery, and it is intended solely for adults.”

Breillat went on to emphasize that the scenes referring to children’s nudity are a visual illusion which was done with the aid of a doll created by Dominique Colladant, the film’s special effects artist. “In France, Portugal or anywhere else in the world, I would be punished for an act like this [child nudity] and my film would be banned,” she emphasized.

In contrast to “Fat Girl,” which won prizes and was critically acclaimed, “Anatomy of Hell” stirred a furor and was almost universally panned by the critics, some of whom maintained that it is unwatchable. The late American critic Roger Ebert gave the film just one star and wrote, “Of course we are expected to respond on a visceral level to the movie’s dirge about the crimes of men against women − which, it must be said, are hard to keep in mind given the crimes of The Woman against The Man, and the transgressions committed by The Director against Us.”

Even today, almost a decade after the film’s release, Breillat continues to insist that this, her most controversial film, is actually a study of the concept of intimacy. “In a certain sense, I do not want to see intimacy but to experience it,” she says. “It is very difficult for people to experience intimacy. Intimacy is one of the most difficult aspects of being human, because we live in a culture in which the human body is considered a burden. We spend most of our lives in an attempt to liberate ourselves from the shackles of the body.”

Is that why you engage obsessively with the concept of shame?

“Definitely. We are used to seeing our face, and we are used to being looked at, but we are not used to exposing our body. There is something natural and liberating in nudity, as it is part of human existence. I think we need to − absolutely have to − look at ourselves. I do not want to come to the end of my life not knowing who I am because of fear. People pretend to be living without really living.”

Whose fault is it that our body is a source of shame and guilt? Is society to blame?

“Yes. There is an abyssal difference between the sexes in this regard, because shame is forced on women by men. When we engage in sexual relations, we are generally already no longer ourselves but someone else − someone outcast. In my films, loss of virginity is a type of suicide: the girl ceases to be herself. When the sexual act is accompanied by a sense of shame, it is also actually a sense of death. In ‘A Real Young Girl,’ the protagonist examines her genitals and
immediately feels shame. It is important to emphasize that this is not shame brought on by having sexual fantasies, but simply because she has female genitalia. That is why I focused on the sexual organ in ‘Anatomy of Hell,’ and that is what the critics did not understand.”

Breillat’s critique of the violent manner in which society causes women to be ashamed of their body can explain why many of her films are about the act of looking. There are many scenes in which two people engage in sexual intercourse while a third character watches them. In the famous final scene of “Fat Girl,” in which the young female protagonist stares long and hard at the camera − and at the viewers − the frozen frame confronts us with the feeling of voyeurism that underlies cinematic enjoyment.

According to Breillat, “The other’s look is what makes you. When you are considered ugly day after day and you read the dismissiveness in the looks of men, you become ugly in your eyes as well. Daily self-nullification is suffering which makes you treat yourself as contemptible. Thus, we return to my permanent subject: opprobrium. I remember being pregnant with my daughter and feeling that I was being branded with a white-hot stamp of ugliness. In the same way, the woman’s sexual organ is also branded ugly. That is why my female protagonists are so curious. They explore their sexual organ and try persistently to understand why it is ‘ugly.’ This is where the true provocation lies: not only do they look at their sexual organ, they do not react as expected of them.”

The F word

Many female critics maintain that your films are not feminist but that you present masochistic women who enjoy the male violence that is perpetrated on them. Do you agree?

“Yes, they possess a certain degree of masochism, which is related to the death instinct. It is also related to the subject of self-respect, because for fear of contempt and opprobrium the woman prefers to brand herself with the white-hot iron herself. If she does it herself, no one can brand her more deeply. She can go farther than anyone, and this is the only possibility society leaves her to achieve control of her life.”

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

“No. Politically, it is obvious that I am a feminist, but artistically I deal too much with machoism, and the feminists cannot accept me as one of them. I was ostracized for many years. I stripped my female actors and I placed them in masochistic situations, and this is fundamentally opposed to feminism. But clearly I am in favor of absolute equality between men and women − an equality that was never achieved and which has actually regressed. We live in a religious century: among the Jews, Christians and Muslims, women are subjugated. They are inferior in comparison to men and are considered men’s property, almost an object. I see myself as a human creature, and that is why I struggle for equality − so that the gaze fixed on women will not diminish them. In this I am uncompromising. If that is what’s called ‘feminism,’ I prefer the term ‘humanism.’”

What is the role of cinema in advancing this humanism?

“It has the potential to teach us about ourselves. Through the exploration of others, we can explore our body and our mind. For me, language is not the Rubicon that the animals will never cross, but a representation or reflection. All the first cave paintings are representation; cinema, painting and literature are representation. In other words, we can get to know ourselves through the way in which we are reflected in the characters. Because to know ourselves, we must first identify our representation. Man differentiated himself from the animals the moment he painted on the walls of the cave. He became human when he learned how to represent himself.”

To generate deep emotional identification between viewer and characters, Breillat casts her films with relatively unknown actors. She avoids working with French or American stars. Her commitment to this approach has enabled her to find her actors on the street, in bars or in cafes. When she was casting her 1988 film “36 fillette” ‏(known in English as “Virgin”‏), she placed an ad in a daily and received more than 5,000 replies.

You choose handsome men for your films, but the women do not always correspond to the Western ideal of beauty. Is that a deliberate choice?

“In my eyes they are always beautiful,” she laughs. “When ‘36 fillette’ came out, people claimed the girl was too fat. One French critic even wrote that there was an expectation she would have sagging breasts. That, too, is censorship: a girl of 11 or 14 who has a body that she is supposed to be ashamed of. Above all, we are not all the same thing, and that is not shameful but lovely. Beauty is diverse. If it met absolute rules, we would all be animals, all from the same race: panthers are all identical, and that is absolute beauty. Men and women have a soul, and that is another way to see beauty. A body in which a soul resides is not exactly like the body of an animal.”

Has it ever happened that an actor who agreed to be in one of your films changed his mind after reading the script?

“I am constantly afraid of that. There are some who agree and at the last minute, when they realize they can longer back out, they resort to blackmail and say they will not agree to do some of the scenes in the script. When that happens I always say that I am an Israeli: I never surrender. For instance, in ‘Anatomy of Hell,’ one of the actors suddenly got cold feet two days before the start of shooting. There were cases in which I threatened legal action. I never yield, never. The actor is stronger, but in the end the matador always kills the bull.”

In 2004, not long after the release of “Anatomy of Hell,” Breillat suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed for months. After recovering she directed three more films: “Une vieille maîtresse” ‏(“The Last Mistress,” 2007), “Barbe bleue” ‏(“Bluebeard,” 2009‏) and “La belle endormie” ‏(“The Sleeping Beauty,” 2010‏).

That trilogy introduced a stylistic and aesthetic transition for Breillat, in which she moved from realism to fantasy. “The Sleeping Beauty,” for example, is a tender film in which Breillat’s trademark use of pornographic scenes is abandoned in favor of soft eroticism and colorful, highly imaginative sets that recall the films of Tim Burton.

In addition to Breillat’s regular themes − maturation, sexuality, gender − “The Sleeping Beauty” also deals obsessively with time. The young heroine sleeps with a handsome collection of ticking clocks, and in one scene finds herself “stuck” in a cuckoo clock whose movements she counts. In reply to a question, Breillat says that her present occupation with time is not related to the stroke she suffered. “Next month I will be 65,” she says, “but I have always thought about death − that is not new. I have always done things at any price, to ensure that I will be able to look at myself in the mirror. I do not believe in God, but I do believe that one should always have an ideal over which there can be no compromise − even if it evokes Don Quixote and leads you to tilt against windmills. My artistic ideal is to strive for purity and truth.”

In Israel, you will be a judge in the International Student Film Festival and also give a workshop. What is the most significant challenge facing filmmakers?

“That is a complicated question. When I wrote the final scene for ‘Fat Girl,’ I was apprehensive, because it is a scene of violence and crime − which the Americans do better than the French − and I did not have a budget for special effects. That raised the question of how to do the impossible. I love to implement the impossible. I gave it a lot of thought and I presented what no one had done before. I decided to freeze the shot, the frame, in order to startle the audience. The heroine does not move. She is stunned and mute. She does not run and does not shout. No one shouts. There is absolute quiet. In the end, it is the viewer who shouts. For me, that is the greatest challenge.”

Catherine Breillat: “I have always done things at any price, to ensure that I will be able to look at myself in the mirror.”
From “Perfect Love." Breillat’s use of female characters means “the feminists cannot accept me as one of them,” she says.
From “Fat Girl." Critic Roger Ebert called it a “brutally truthful story.”
From “Romance." “Nothing deters me, nothing stops me from saying what I want,” says Breillat.Credit: Courtesy of Pyramide International

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