Exterminating Angels Review
In 2005, following the release and critical success of his erotic drama Secret Things (Choses secrètes) – a film rated by Cahiers du Cinéma jointly with Kiarostami’s Ten in 2002 as the best film of the year – Jean-Claude Brisseau was taken to court by two actresses who accused him of lewd and improper behaviour, asking them to strip and take part in some activities that were not common for a casting session. Brisseau’s defence – which is not implausible considering the nature and explicitness of his films – was that he was casting for a very specific quality, for the ability to see how a woman expressed herself during orgasm, and specifically how that state of arousal came about as a consequence of indulging in taboo behaviour. Regardless of the suspicions one might have of any director who makes films on such a subject and indeed casts actresses in such a manner, Brisseau’s freedom of expression was supported by notable names in the film world from France and beyond, who condemned the court’s decision to impose a year’s imprisonment and a fine on the director.
Whether one believes that there is any legitimacy to Brisseau’s claim that the acts that he asked of his actresses in the casting process were for a film that undertook a serious examination of female sexuality, suspicions doubtless remained, not least in the mind of the director who, judging by the subject matter of Exterminating Angels (Les anges exterminateurs), still feels the need to justify his actions, regain his not inconsiderable reputation as a filmmaker and put the record straight. It features a director, François (Frédéric van den Driessche), who is having difficulties casting actresses for his latest film where he intends to explore the hidden sexual desires of women, and to do that he doesn’t just want the women to act, he needs women who are prepared to open themselves up to the camera and explore their own sexuality.
Despite the director’s assurances that it is a genuine opportunity, the casting proves to be a long search since most of the actresses who turn up for the audition are rightly suspicious and unwilling to go to such lengths for a part in a film. François does however find the kind of women he is looking for, bringing them out together for dinner and back to a hotel room for further tests and rehearsals where they gladly strip naked and perform for his camera, achieving new sensations of almost mystical ecstasy. The director insists that he is a serious filmmaker undertaking an almost scientific study and resolutely refuses to become involved, no matter how much the beautiful women insist on him taking part in their pleasure. He saves rather his arousal for his wife who is surprisingly understanding of his work, only warning him of the dangers involved in dabbling with women’s emotions and sexual desires, particularly as one or two of the girls seem to be a little unstable.
The film is dressed-up in other mystical aspects – a strange nocturnal visit from his dead grandmother, strange radio messages floating around the ether, and two invisible fallen angels who have a hand in directing events, pushing in the director’s direction evildoing women who are out to destroy him. Like Choses secrètes Brisseau is clearly seeking to find a way of expressing what he believes are the otherworldly aspects of female sexuality, and the strange unfathomable forces that govern human emotions. Even though it seems like protesting a bit too much, one actress who auditions for his film, a porn star, pleads with François as a filmmaker for the sake of all women to tackle a complex subject and venture into this fascinating area that no-one else has ever dared explore. Brisseau almost convinces the viewer that he is indeed onto something, but if he is, it would seem that he is not a strong enough director to make anything of it. One’s willingness to hear his side of the story and consider his exploration of sexuality, taboo and the orgasm goes out the window the moment – if one has been generous enough to indulge him even that far – that he has three glamorous naked women cavorting soft-port style in subdued lighting together on a hotel bed, as he looks on with his, uh... camera in his hand.
Perhaps then what Brisseau claims he is trying to achieve in his films – be to eroticism what Hitchcock was to fear – just isn’t possible on film. In Les anges exterminateurs François rejects using porn actresses to film sexuality, because they are not discomfited by taboo, while actresses that may be discomfited and perhaps turned on by it, are unwilling to expose their most intimate desires on the screen. Yet Brisseau persists in seeking out actresses – people who act – and expects them to be natural on the screen in poses that are clearly choreographed, carefully lit and tastefully soft-porn in styling. Or perhaps there is a certain amount of acting, of role playing in those very sexual situations, a voyeuristic need for the participation of a viewer, whether real or imagined – as the mysterious figures who haunt the film suggest. There’s also an amount of risks taken and danger involved in such exploration of other people’s intimate lives and Brisseau has clearly fallen foul of those. His attempt to salvage his reputation however is limited by over-emphasised protestations of sincere intentions – narrated by Brisseau himself – and ultimately his soft-core stylisations fail to live up to his intentions for serious erotic drama. Whether he’s a brave pioneer in this regard for even attempting it or a just bit of a perv who has been caught out may still then be open to question.
Exterminating Angels is released in the UK by Axiom. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc and is in PAL format. The disc is encoded for Region 2.
Like the French and UK editions of the earlier Choses secrètes, the director’s preference seems to be for a full-frame 1.33:1 release of Exterminating Angels, even though it seems that the image seems comfortably framed in 1.78:1. The image quality is superb – pretty much flawless. The film is softly lit, making a lot of use of warm orange and blue lighting and a great deal of shadows, and these are perfectly presented. Exteriors and daylight scenes show exceptional clarity and detail.
Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio options are provided and there’s not much to choose between them. The stereo track is stronger and more direct, the surround a little more subtle, not making obvious use of the rear speakers. Both serve the film well.
English subtitles are optional and in a clear white font.
Cinema according to Brisseau (42:25) is a long, in-depth interview with the director with some comments by his production designer/editor Lisa Garcia. Brisseau talks about the writing of the script for Exterminating Angels which dates back to 2002, long before the controversy of the charges made against him. He talks about his intentions, the evolution of the script, aspects of the filming and set decoration, working with actors and how he shoots scenes, specifically the sex scenes in the film. A Deleted Scene (6:13) is included, a different version of a scene in the film with a different actress, with an explanation by Brisseau on why it was cut. A Stills Gallery of 11 production stills is also included.
Fearless pioneering filmmaker, a kind of Prometheus of Eroticism, undertaking a serious exploration of female psychology and sexuality? A director with honourable intentions, naively unaware of the powerful forces he has unleashed upon himself, unfairly maligned and unjustly prosecuted? That’s the case that Jean-Claude Brisseau wants to make in an attempt to rebuild his reputation as a filmmaker, and he has every right to do so. What is more questionable however than the self-justification or the rationale behind his approach is the filmmaking itself, the content indeed being of limited merit and rather heavy-handed in its execution. Axiom's DVD release however gives the director the best of opportinities to make his case, with an excellent transfer and extensive examination of the questions raised by this somewhat controversial film.