Following Secret Things and Exterminating Angels, Jean-Claude Brisseau concludes his trilogy of mystical explorations of female sexuality. Noel Megahey reviews Axioms DVD release.
The three films that comprise Jean-Claude Brisseau’s trilogy of explorations of female sexuality and taboo have been dogged by an extraordinary controversy that has ended up detracting from their purpose and thrown doubt on his methods. Arrested and charged with sexual harassment by two actresses after the first film, Choses Secrètes, the second film in the trilogy, Exterminating Angels, would end up being compromised by the director feeling the necessity to explain himself and his methods, suggesting even that his serious exploration of such a forbidden and esoteric subject as female sexuality had unleashed negative mystical forces against him to bring about his downfall. Undaunted, Brisseau completes his trilogy with À l’Aventure, and although still fixated on sexual mysticism and ultimately somewhat simplistic in its arguments and flawed in execution, the film nonetheless recovers some of the sense of purpose and serious intent of his work.
In the context of the subject matter of the trilogy then, the title À l’Aventure clearly suggests a belief in the liberating force of sexual exploration, or at least the ambition to strive towards its achievement. For the characters in the film there are a number of inhibiting factors of social conditioning and modern bourgeois lifestyles that prevent them from attaining that vital aspect of their lives, but the principal impediment for women as far as Brisseau is concerned is clearly the institution of marriage. It’s a trap that Sandrine (Carole Brana), noting the dissatisfaction of her friends’ marriages and her own routine relationship with her boyfriend, wishes to escape from. Unable even to pleasure herself without incurring the wrath of her insecure boyfriend, she ends up dumping him for a guy she meets in a café.
Training to be a psychiatrist, Greg (Arnaud Binard) opens her mind and shows her that sex doesn’t have to be routine and constrained by conventional narrow-minded attitudes, but Sandrine wants to go further in her search for the ultimate sexual experience. Greg introduces her to an old-flame Sophie (Lise Bellynck) – a girl who couldn’t stay faithful for 10 days in her 2-month long marriage – who is into dominance and submission, and with the addition of Mina (Nadia Chibani) to their number, they convince Greg to use his skills in hypnotism to help them find the purest form of sexual ecstasy. Now, anyone who has seen Exterminating Angels is likely to be a bit sceptical of all this, recognising the construction of the familiar configuration of a “mentor” and three females who will inevitably cavort in front of him in a tastefully lit and choreographed exploration of each other’s bodies, but in À l’Aventure, even Brisseau isn’t satisfied now that this will lead to ultimate gratification and takes the film further into other mystical areas.
The ideas explored here are not uninteresting, particularly some of the most philosophical elements introduced to Sandrine by a mysterious taxi driver who appears to her on a park bench (Etienne Chicot), but as an exploration of sexuality in touch with the cosmos, the film is surprisingly dry and academic. With less gratuitous nudity on display here and a lot more talking, Brisseau has the characters recite chapter-and-verse lessons as if from a self-help sex guide or TV show with a few practical lessons for demonstration. Brisseau’s arguments are also rather over-simplified, focussing exclusively on female characters, presumably because he believes that males are less repressed in expression of their sexual desires, or perhaps just more easily satisfied. Leaving out one side of the equation – one suspects because only Brisseau is really interested in exploring female sexuality and prefers filming the female body – the film lacks necessary rigour and is imbalanced in his arguments. Contrary to conventional wisdom – although perhaps Brisseau knows better – it’s just women here who stray outside marriage for more stimulating sexual experiences (one somewhat bizarrely even hooking up with an international arms dealer!). Brisseau’s apportioning of the blame for sexual repression on the binds of marriage, the lack of imagination of husbands, and the dull routine of a 9-to-5 job moreover is also overly convenient and simplistic.
The casting however remains the most problematic aspect of À l’Aventure, the controversial subject matter failing to attract quality actors who fit the parts and are capable of doing justice to the material. It’s hard to imagine any of these calmly considered and philosophically inclined models of bodily perfection being willing to throw away all material necessities and luxuries of their comfortable bourgeois lives for sexual liberation at any cost. The performances are therefore unconvincing, the actors blandly perfect, the whole film having the look and feel of a poorly-acted, soft-porn TV-movie. And in a film whose whole purpose is to inspire the exploration of other sexual avenues, it’s a major failing that there’s little sense of their being any real freedom, joy or liberation expressed here.
À l’Aventure is released in the UK by Axiom Films. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc and is in PAL format. The disc – at least on the checkdisc provided – would appear to be region-free.
Like the earlier editions of Choses Secrètes and Exterminating Angels, the director’s preference clearly seems to be for full-frame 1.33:1 with plenty of head-room if you want to crop it to 1.78:1, and that’s the case also with À l’Aventure. The image and tone match the qualities of the earlier releases, the mostly indoor, studio settings of the film making use of soft, warm glows of low orange lighting, not showing great clarity or shadow detail. The image however is stable, without marks or, on a pretty much barebones dual-layer disc, there is no sign of enhancement or macro-blocking caused by compression. This looks as good as you would expect to.
The film contains Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks. I don’t think there is a great deal of difference between them, the surround mix remaining focused front and central, only really allowing a wider dispersion of sound on one of the climatic scenes at the end of the film. Sound and dialogue are perfectly clear, so again, this is a fine, clear, accurate presentation of the soundtrack.
English subtitles are optional and in a clear white font.
The only extra feature on this release of the film is a Stills Gallery of twenty images.
One has good reason to be suspicious of À l’Aventure’s arrival on DVD in the UK only weeks after its premiere theatrical release in France (where, other than that the customary staunch support for Brisseau from Les Cahiers de Cinéma and Les Inrockuptibles it received a fierce critical drubbing), but the third part of Brisseau’s trilogy on sexual exploration deserves better. The director may be a little too fond of the mystic and fail to really extend the understanding of female sexuality that he is striving for in his work because of over-simplification and poor acting, but the film presents his theories much better and less apologetically than Exterminating Angels. Without all the additional self-justification on the extra features of the latter, but with an equally fine DVD transfer, À l’Aventure is left to speak for itself and some of its ideas are worth consideration, even if the execution is somewhat wanting.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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