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Tuesday, December 07, 2004 - Page updated at 08:54 A.M.
By Tom Keogh
Catherine Breillat has written and directed some of the most explicit sex scenes in art-house films in recent memory. Among them is the controversial 1999 "Romance," in which a young schoolteacher, ignored by her boyfriend, engages in trysts, bondage and prostitution with complete or near strangers.
Breillat's frankness is frequently startling, not so much for her films' hard-core accents as for her compelling insights into the male terror of intimacy and the lure, for some women, of losing themselves in sexual domination by men.
Blending graphic sex and deep, emotional candor in a movie must be tricky business at least we, in the audience, can only assume so. In "Sex Is Comedy," Breillat's thinly veiled reflection on what it's like to direct her kind of cinematic study of sexual politics, the filmmaker (and former actress who made her debut in "Last Tango In Paris") tells us we have no idea.
An unusual entry in the films-about-filmmaking genre ("Day for Night," "Living In Oblivion"), "Sex Is Comedy" is less concerned with the entire range of a director's responsibilities than with an auteur's single-minded determination to pull off one critical bedroom scene.
Anne Parillaud is thoroughly charming as a driven writer-director named Jeanne, working on a feature about the relationship between a young man (Gregoire Colin) and a virginal woman (Roxane Mesquida, who starred in Breillat's 2001 "Fat Girl"). We don't know the name of Jeanne's characters or the performers who play them. All that matters, for Breillat, is that we watch Jeanne goad, bully, soothe and generally motivate her two principal players through a crucial episode in her film that requires much baring of skin and soul.
The actors' resistance is huge. Mesquida's character, withholding emotion until the last moment, looks perpetually numb. (Breillat finds a comic refrain in the way the disgusted leading lady pushes her co-star off her body between takes.) Colin's studly young star reverts to adolescent pouting, disappearing for days, skipping appointments with Jeanne, playing the cutup with her crew. Jeanne becomes mom and tyrant to them both, scolding and nurturing, offering herself as confidante, beguiler, fan.
Jeanne's role as instigator and guiding authority may look like indulgent fun, but she never disguises her frustration and never refrains from describing the complex psychodramas that fuel an ambivalent relationship between actors and directors. (Directors cast actors out of misguided love, she says. Actors choose directors out of vanity.)
Breillat's screenplay is wonderfully enlightening in those passages, as is a lovely moment in which Jeanne gets reacquainted with her script by playing her own characters in a rehearsal. There may not be a sexier scene this year than the sight of Parillaud's face slowly transforming with flushed passion as she finds the rapture she had in mind for her fictional lovers.
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org
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