Romance's controversial reputation precedes it. Back in 1999 – when Catherine Breillat’s film was first released – it was called “the most sexually explicit mainstream movie ever” and questions centred on whether its “graphic sex scenes” were real or staged. Twenty years later, when porn has conquered the world, 50 Shades of Grey took BDSM mainstream, and full frontal nudity on TV is a regular occurrence (especially if you watch Channel 4’s Naked Attraction), a couple of erect penises and a spot of bondage seem rather passé.
But while Romance might have lost much of its ability to truly shock, it remains a frank and fascinating exploration of female sexuality, albeit one wrapped in occasionally baffling philosophising (courtesy of lead actress Caroline Ducey’s voiceover) and ambiguous storytelling. The sex itself – and there’s a fair bit of it – is not so much porn as “anti-porn”; by turn cold, clinical, matter of fact, absurd, even downright ugly and unpleasant, as notions of “disgust” and "shame" are referenced quite regularly. In truth, it’s also rather tame when compared with Breillat’s jaw-dropping 2004 film, Anatomy of Hell, while 2001’s pitiless Fat Girl remains her best work.
Schoolteacher Marie (Ducey) is in a relationship with male model Paul (Sagamore Stévenin), but when he decides he no longer wants to have sex, she feels unloved and frustrated, soon commencing a series of assignations with other men, including widower Paolo (real-life porn star Rocco Siffredi) and Robert (François Berléand), her school’s head teacher. But these libidinous episodes don’t seem to make Marie any happier, as her relationship with Paul continues to deteriorate.
Romance is open to several interpretations. Breillat doesn’t view it – nor any of her films – as feminist, but you could certainly put that spin on it. Marie attempts to liberate herself from Paul – who treats her appallingly – by commencing a journey of sexual adventure, but her other lovers turn out to be just as inadequate and narcissistic – Paolo’s only interested in sex, bondage enthusiast Robert has some horrifying attitudes to women (“The only way to be loved by a woman is through rape”). She only knows peace – and achieves true agency – when she is rid of them all and stops defining herself in terms of her relationships with men.
During an interview included in the disc’s extras, producer Jean-François Lepetit expresses his belief that Romance is a “somewhat conservative” work and that viewpoint, too, is defensible. I’d assumed the title was ironic, but it could easily reference Marie’s desire to find a man who loves her for both her mind and body (one of the film’s main themes is the separation of the two). She wants a proper, permanent, romantic relationship with Paul, who, for reasons that are never fully explained, is incapable of providing one.
Looking for sex outside of their relationship only brings more heartache – Marie spends a lot of the film in tears – and she even ends up being raped by a man who propositions her in the street. She doesn’t even seem to enjoy the consensual sex she does have very much, appearing mentally and spiritually absent on several occasions. You wonder if Breillat is suggesting that sex without love is both alienating and harmful.
There’s so much bubbling under the surface in Romance, it’s easy to forget just how arresting its actors and their characters are. Ducey's is a performance very much underrated. You empathise with Marie because she's in love with a man who has turned out to be a crushing disappointment, and she radiates hurt and confusion as a result.
Stévenin’s Paul remains infuriatingly enigmatic throughout. You're given little insight into what makes him tick or precisely why he feels as he does towards her. Their relationship has clearly moved a lot quicker than he would have liked and he complains that they see each other every night. He’s incapable or unwilling to put the brakes on it though. Like some French Patrick Bateman, he lives in a weird apartment that is all white – bed sheets, curtains, cupboards, tables, even his pyjamas and pet cat!
Next to Robert, though, Paul seems positively well adjusted – the head teacher (essayed with creepy relish by Berléand) claims to have bedded 10,000 women (“several a day!”) and even plays Marie a recording of his Casanova exploits being discussed on a radio show. Breillat has given us a good few male grotesques over the years (several more appear, sans trousers and any sense of modesty, in a truly disturbing scene later in the film), but he is truly in a league of his own.
Disc and Extras
This is a newly-restored version of the film, which is being released in the UK on Blu-ray for the first time.
There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles here, but the three brand new interviews – all around 18 minutes in length – with Breillat, Ducey and producer Lepetit, are certainly worth checking out.
Breillat – now in her early seventies – is combative, hugely entertaining, and not particularly complimentary about Ducey – “Caroline wasn’t exactly beautiful [and turned up] wearing cheap and vulgar earrings and a skirt that was definitely not her size”. She’s also candid about how difficult and driven she can be while making a movie, admitting: “I’d climb over corpses to get the film I want.”
Ducey was clearly left somewhat scarred by her involvement in Romance and specifically by the way she was treated by Breillat – on and off set. The actress floats the theory that the director’s “inconsistent, paradoxical” behaviour was the result of something “mind-shattering” in her past. She also recounts the occasion when Breillat threw her out of a press conference in Rome. I think it’s safe to say the pair don’t exchange Christmas cards.
Lepetit discusses why the film wouldn’t get made today (“conformism is reigning”) and also hints at the production’s fraught nature, admitting: “No one involved in Romance came out unscathed.” It comes as no surprise.