Thursday, October 25, 2007

ACMI Focus on Catherine Breillat

Catherine Breillat stands out, not just as a female auteur, but one who embraces challenging material. Her films are mostly explorations of female relationships, stories that depict the transformative and transgressive nature of sexuality. Some find her films obscene, while Breillat herself questions the meaning of obscenity.

À ma souer! (For My Sister, 2001) is a gritty family story about two sisters. Anatomie de l’enfer (Anatomy of Hell, 2004) was particularly challenging for audiences with its depictions of female perversity. Romance (1999) was originally banned in this country, but received an R rating upon appeal. It’s a mystery, then, why her latest film, Une vieille maîtresse (An Old Mistress) has received an R-rating, as it bears little in common with her earlier works.

An Old Mistress apparently marks a new point in Breillat’s career. She claims to be leaving the coming-of-age stories and sexual explorations of her earlier films behind her. Her latest film is a lavish period piece (set in 1835, and based on a novel of the same name by Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly [1808-1889]) whose budget was greater than her previous ten films combined. Says Breillat:

All my previous films were judged nefarious or scandalous, but they did not represent the real me. I think this film really corresponds to my personality. I'm free at last. It represents the me that does not rise up against the world and its taboos. When I'm at peace, I'm actually terribly romantic.

Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) is a notorious womaniser who has had a torrid relationship with Vellini (Asia Argento) a woman of dubious morals herself. Ryno visits Vellini to tell her their relationship is over and that he truly loves another woman, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). The Mistress in the title is Hermangarde’s grandmother and guardian, the Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute), the woman to whom Ryno must convince of his genuine love for her charge. The film's story unfolds as he frankly divulges the details of his affair with Vellini to the Marquise.

In many respects, this is a fairly conventional period story though, as I have mentioned in previous posts, the French seem much more capable of working in this genre than their English counterparts. While the English get bogged down in staid caricatures and theatrics, the French are able to breathe life into their characters with a much greater sense of naturalness and a fluidity of narrative that more readily engages an audience. I found this with Patrice Chéreau’s Queen Margot (1994), Pascale Ferran’s recent Lady Chatterley and it’s certainly true with Breillat’s An Old Mistress, in which she has assembled a fine cast that both look good and play their parts most competently.

Not unsurprisingly (for Breillat), the film depicts some nudity and sexuality, but, it’s quite passé, hardly any more risqué than Pascale Ferran’s recent Lady Chatterley, which received an M-rating. Maybe the censors (because that’s what the OFLC are) automatically assume a Breillat film is going to offend. This is unfortunate, because this is a beautiful and inoffensive film that should get the exposure that an M or MA rating would allow. The sex and nudity is a very minor aspect of the film.

Part of my respect for Breillat’s films are their ability to challenge my own sensibilities. I find it perverse that a film’s depiction of graphic sex or nudity should cause such moral outrage when violence is both ubiquitous and considered entertaining. And when one looks at a film like Tarantino’s hugely violent Death Proof (due for release on 1 November) with an MA-rating, one wonders about the consistency of the OFLC.

An Old Mistress will probably attract fans of Breillat’s films, and I’m intrigued to know what they think of it. I liked it a lot, though I prefer the grittiness of her more social-realist films. The film will also appeal to an audience that may have previously avoided her work. It is definitely a more accessible film, that will likely appeal to those who liked Lady Chatterley, yet it still has that little extra edge.

Personally, I’m very much looking forward to ACMI’s Focus on Catherine Breillat, which opens tonight with the premiere of An Old Mistress. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing Romance, which I missed when it was released in 1999, as well as other titles such as Brève traverse (Brief Crossing, 2001), Sex is Comedy (2002), Sale comme un ange (Dirty Like an Angel, 1991), Tapage nocturne (Nocturnal Uproar, 1979) and 36 fillette (1987).

ACMI’s Focus on Catherine Breillat opens today and ends on 4 November. The screening dates are also in my Calendar of Film Events (in the sidebar).

Links: Interview re: À ma souer / Interview re: Anatomy of Hell / Senses of Cinema

Photo: Fu'ad Ait Aattou as Ryno de Marigny and Asia Argento as Vellini in An Old Mistress


Marina said...

Interesting. I hadn't heard of Breillat before but I did see "An Old Mistress" (at VIFF it was called "The Last Mistress" which I think is a better title) and I didn't like it all that much though I could appreciate some of what she was doing, particularly her focus on female sexuality which is apparent even from only one film.

I've made a note to check out some of her earlier work to see if there's something else in her catalog I may enjoy more.

It was a beautiful and interesting film but not one I'll watch again.

Enjoy the series!

Paul Martin said...

Marina, I had noticed from IMDB that the US title was The Last Mistress, which I found an abomination of the actual title as it totally changes the meaning. The original title refers to the grandmother whereas the US title refers to Vellini.

I think the film would have held more interest for you if you were more familiar with her previous films and their much more transgressive nature. This film only barely hints at it compared to her earlier films. I do prefer her earlier films, but it's always interesting when a director tries his or her hand at something different.

Filmnut said...

For me, Fat Girl is her best film by far. The actresses were terrific and it has one of the best endings ever. Great film. I thought Romance was over-rated and Sex is Comedy is pretty light-weight stuff for her. She definitely is an interesting filmmaker and I always look forward to what she does next.

Paul Martin said...

Funny how those Yanks bastardise names. Yet another one: Fat Girl. I remember when the film was distributed here, someone referred to it by the US title, but I'm pretty sure it was released under the literal translation, For My Sister, though I've always remembered it as Á ma soeur (long before I took up French).

It's also my favourite, though I've only seen three of her films. Anatomie de l'enfer was a hard film to watch, which is exactly what I liked (or respected) about it. I'm interested to see as many of the films at the current ACMI retrospective as I can, as she makes a type of film we don't get much access to. Often a director's body of work is more interesting than any individual film.

Cibbuano said...

I saw this in Sydney and it was pleasing enough. I expected a little more vitality from Breillat - it seemed like the costumes and sets slowed her down.

Still, I find Argento mesmerizing onscreen!

Paul Martin said...

Cibbuano, I think it will be interesting to see what Breillat does in future, considering she claims to be moving onto new types of films. I think she has made an excellent film, for the genre it is. For me, the problem is I'm not big on this genre. I much prefer social realism and the confrontation of issues she's most famous for.