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Wednesday, July 11, 2001

Sense, censors and sensuality

Japanese title: Romance X

Rating: * * * * Director: Catherine Breillat Running time: 99 minutes Language: FrenchNow showing

Caroline Ducey in "Romance"

As anyone who's seen the provocative poster for "Romance" (a woman's hand placed between her thighs, with an electric "X" branded over the point of contact) already knows, this French film is undoubtedly the scandal du jour. And yet, despite the casually explicit sex on display (and an in-your-face childbirth shot), director Catherine Breillat's film is anything but mere controversy: It's a film that weds the provocative and the poetic, the outrageous and the mundane, in a precise exploration of female sexuality.

Director Catherine Breillat

The film follows a young schoolteacher named Marie (Caroline Ducey), who's frustrated when her male-model lover Paul (Sagamore Stevenin) refuses to respond to her in bed. Seeking something between revenge and relief, she embarks on a series of flings: with a pickup named Paolo (played by Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi); her school's principal, Robert (Francois Berleand), a bondage fanatic; and a random encounter on the street that gets out of hand. When she becomes pregnant, Paul finally responds to Marie, but it's too little, too late . . .

Knowing that the film's reputation would precede its Japan release, director Breillat and her star, Ducey, came to Tokyo to answer the difficult questions. Meeting the pair, it's easy to see why they worked together: Both are outspoken, intense and passionate about their art. Ducey the actress gave herself over to Breillat the director, taking great risks with both her performance and image as an actress, with much the same sort of surrender as Marie offers to the men in the film.

For Ducey, the character of Marie was fascinating, but a challenge to understand, especially why she remains in love with a man who won't touch her.

"For me, it was the story of someone who becomes crazy because she's too idealistic and just can't stand the fact that love can break, just like that," Ducey said. "But the real story is of a girl who's imprisoned, because she's totally dependent on the gaze of men. She thinks that men see women as somewhat shameful objects, a bit dirty. And she needs to go further into this idea before she can become free."

Actress Caroline Ducey

Ducey described some apprehension before taking the role. After reading the script, Ducey admits: "I cried and cried, because it touched me deep inside, but it was too hard. I called my agent, asking what's this about, is it pornographic? And he said not to worry, because Breillat always writes something pornographic, but she wants the feelings. Finally I told myself, OK, I want to touch those strong feelings. With or without 'real' [sex] scenes, it wasn't my main concern.

"It's a strange job, acting. You can become a little crazy. I got deeper into the character as we went along and by the time we were ready to shoot, I was for no self-censorship. I was just ready to go as far as I could."

Her most difficult moment came not when she was tied up in bondage (the "real" tears critics point to were some fine acting) but when she had to shoot a sex scene with Siffredi. Breillat kept the actor's identity secret from Ducey until the last moment. Ducey almost walked off the set but managed to find a way to make the scene work, making it clear to Siffredi that "we don't do the same job." With hindsight, she sees Breillat's motives: "She's a little bit like a witch. She chose very different ingredients, knowing they would react in a strange way. She wasn't sure how, but she likes to take risks."

Breillat had her own reasons for casting Siffredi. "The porn industry is there to defy the idea of obscenity, so casting such an actor brings another frame of reference to the film, and leaves quite an impression." (Twenty-six cm worth, one might add.)

When informed that Siffredi's manhood would be cut by the local censors, Breillat unleashed a torrent of scorn: "To show an erect penis, is that obscene? Everyone has sex; we're no strangers to it. If you're looking for parts of the human body to label 'dirty,' there's no end to it. I mean, there was a time when the ankle was considered obscene. But for me, it's purely an aesthetic view. To show the entire body on film, that's a very natural thing. I think the mosaic is obscene -- when you're banned from seeing something, then it becomes lewd. Of course, if sex is presented as just a commodity, soulless, that is true obscenity. But if you retain soul, feelings, that's not porno."

Indeed, many of the cuts demanded by the Eirin (Japan's censors) seem farcically capricious. Heya nudo (pubic hair) has been acceptable for five years now, but apparently hair that's "wet" or "too bushy" is still forbidden. Yet another cut was demanded because the censors "felt like" they saw genitalia. The demand to cut the childbirth scene was the cake-taker for Breillat: "Don't the censors want children? Are their wives 'obscene' if they give birth? If they don't like where they came from, maybe they should go back."

So why this need to provoke? "When something gets banned, it stirs up people's interest in it, and it stirs up your interest in expressing those things that can't be shown," said Breillat.

"But more than anything else, I wanted to concretely express those sexual feelings that I've kept inside me, that have been unresolved in my work so far. It was really personal and private, and came from the deepest part of me, but it was necessary."

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