(Think that you can't rent movies at Netflix that contain legitimately explicit sexuality? Think again, my frustrated friend! In this special essay series, I look at a total of thirty mainstream films made over the last forty years, all of which contain scenes of such actual graphic sex acts as fellatio and penetration, reviewing them not in only in terms of the movie's quality itself but also the amount of sex it portrays, and whether this sex is any fun or not to actually watch. For more about how these movies were chosen, as well as the full list of all thirty titles, you can click here; and don't forget, these reviews are also mixed into the master list of all movies reviewed here, over at CCLaP's main movie page.)
The story in a nutshell: The second film by controversial radical feminist Catherine Breillat to be reviewed in this "Naughty Netflix" series (and still with one to go, 2004's Anatomy of Hell), you can easily look at 1999's breakout hit Romance as an unofficial sequel to 1976's A Real Young Girl, taking the confused 14-year-old of that movie and imagining what she'd be like as a fully grown-up thirty-something two decades later; and the answer is "even more confused than ever," a woman who combines half-baked radical feminist theory with her push/pull feelings about sex in general (she's fascinated by it to the point of obsession, but also kind of disgusted by both the sex act and human bodies in general), which when added to her natural trainwreck-like personality makes life pretty much a living hell for all the people around her, even as they are all rightly attracted to her keen intelligence and sense of risk-taking. As with many French erotic films, then, this all adds up to a rather slow-moving plot which concentrates much more on character development; it's basically a look at this woman as she becomes rutted in early middle-age, stuck in a frustrated marriage but not sure what she might want instead, embarking on a series of sexually graphic experimental adventures that don't really go that well (including a torrid affair with a recent widow played by real-life "thinking man's porn star" Rocco Siffredi, who instead of blending in with the rest of the characters will make many of you spend a half-hour saying, "What's porn star Rocco Siffredi doing in some hole-in-the-wall pub?"), which turn her both more and more bitter and man-hating as the movie continues marching towards its inevitably tragic end.
What I thought: You know, after two movies now, I have to admit that I am really digging Catherine Breillat, a big surprise given how bad a reputation she has in certain circles for being a penis-snipping radical feminist who exclusively makes films that males will despise. And that's because -- and maybe this is just me -- but in the two films I've seen, it seems clear to me that Breillat is "in on the joke" as it were, by which I mean that she seems to consciously acknowledge that part of these female characters' propensity for clinging to feminist theory is a simple coping mechanism, a lazy justification for the more basic personality problems these women face, even as she makes it clear that such feminism really is worth believing in and fighting for, and that there's a lot of truth to these radical statements no matter how cartoonishly ridiculous they may sometimes sound. (In fact, there's a great line in this film that sums up not only the movie in general but Breillat's entire career: "Why do the men who disgust us always understand us the best, while those we are attracted to understand us the least?" Oh, Catherine, why indeed?) I mean, just to take this movie as an example, Breillat clearly does not mean for us to look at our main protagonist Marie in any kind of heroic way; she's undeniably terrible to many of the people around her, even if this terribleness does ultimately come from her confusion about her own life and desires, and not really from any kind of deliberate malice, and even if she has a hard time understanding where the line lays between "all men are pigs" and "maybe these men are simply responding to something terrible I've done." This makes Marie infinitely compelling as a character, a complicated and difficult woman who fascinates and repels us with equal measure (you know, much like a certain Miss Bovary we both love and hate, or a certain Miss Sharp), which when combined with the sometimes gut-wrenchingly intense sex scenes Breillat peppers throughout makes for an utterly riveting film when all is said and done. Or at least, that's my take on it.
What makes it an explicit movie? A fairly decent amount of stuff, actually, including copious nudity, close-ups of both female and (erect) male genitalia, and half a dozen scenes of on-camera oral sex and penetration. Plus, for those trawling this essay series specifically on the lookout for unusual stuff, please take note of the filmed sexual fantasy that Marie has near the end of the movie, in which she envisions an entire room of nude women who are halfway stuck through walls, so that the nude men in attendance can do their business with the lower half of these women's bodies and never have to interact with their top halves, which Marie means as a bitter feminist statement about how men would much rather interact with a woman's vagina than her face, but that is surprisingly erotic anyway when actually watched on-screen. This is Breillat in a nutshell, and a good example of why she's so brilliant -- because she makes you understand that a person can be both a radical feminist and interesting in bed, that it's not an 'either/or' situation like so many critics of feminism have leveled over the years.
Is the sex actually fun to watch? Well, that's an interesting and complicated question, just like everything else concerning this movie; because as mentioned above, most of the sex in this film is designed to be both slightly repellant and slightly compelling at once, unusual scenes that Breillat deliberately chose for their shock value, and because they back up this 'push/pull' theory I mentioned about Marie's personality. Also, it's important to understand that a running theme of Breillat's work is how the human body can be both physically attractive and disgusting at the same time, depending on what section you're looking at and under what circumstances, and that her films are precisely known for having random bits thrown in unexpectedly that help demonstrate this idea; for example, this movie ends with explicit footage of a woman giving birth, blood and pus and everything, a jarring sight when for the last two hours you've been watching its delivery tube used for erotic purposes instead. Although there's a good chance that you'll find several of the scenes in Romance to be erotic, it's the kind of eroticism that you'll feel slightly guilty about afterwards, and that you won't really want to tell anyone else about.
Strangest piece of trivia: This is the only mainstream movie in the history of Alberta, Canada to receive the same rating as pornography.
Worth your time? Yes