Romance is a 1999 French drama film, written and directed by Catherine Breillat.
[Unless noted otherwise, all quotations are from the subtitles.]
Breillat is notorious for explicitly showing sexual acts in her films, as well as her unsentimental view of heterosexual relations. Sex between men and women is always a conflict in Breillat’s films, though who is winning isn’t always clear.
The protagonist is Marie (Caroline Ducey), a young woman who lives with her boyfriend Paul (Sagamore Stévenin), a model. In the first scene, Marie watches from a distance as Paul is posed as a matador in a photoshoot with another female model. The photographer instructs Paul and the model in performing proper masculinity and femininity.
They return to their apartment, where their clothes and the furnishings are all white and off-white. Instead of innocence, it suggests sterility and emptiness. Paul rejects Marie’s sexual advances again, in a reversal of the usual gender roles.
Paul’s passive-aggressive head game is that if he completely eliminates sexual desire in himself, he gains the upper hand in his relationship with Marie. Having her dance on the end of his string is more interesting to him than actually fucking her.
Marie decides that if Paul can separate sex and love, so can she, and goes out in search of men. Her first infidelity is a stud she picks up in a bar (porn star Rocco Siffredi).
In my opinion, fading to black when it comes to sex is cheating the audience. How a character performs sexual acts can develop plot and character just like any other physical act, and Breillat uses actions like performing fellatio or stripping off a used condom as part of the cinematic language.
After their sex scene, Marie’s voiceover narration talks about how she wants to be alienated from the men who fuck her. “I want to be a hole, a pit… The more gaping, the more obscene it is, the more it’s me, my intimacy. The more I surrender… It’s metaphysical. I disappear in proportion to the cock taking me. I hollow myself. That’s my purity.” It may be that Marie has realized that the getting-to-know-you chit-chat she exchanges with her stud is actually more alienating, bringing them further from the truth.
Her second affair is with Robert (François Berléand), the principal of the school Marie works at. He’s an older and less-than-handsome man (by his own account) who identifies as a dominant and claims to have slept with over 10,000 women. In person, he seems more like a lonely eccentric, who is more interested in puttering around in his trunk full of bondage equipment. His apartment and clothes are all reds, browns and blacks; blood and earth tones.
He’s also a talker, perhaps too much of one.
Robert: “The only way to be loved by women is via rape. Women yield to a stranger, but play hard to get with a wretch who loves them, who’d die for them, and swears he respects them. So it goes…”
Robert: “But do they want to be respected?” [Marie doesn’t answer.] “In a sense, yes. But respect is in the nature of things: since they’re up for grabs, they want to be taken. I’ve had 10,000 women. I don’t remember them all, but I kept their names, their age and their circumstances. Their cunts…. No two are alike, they’re as memorable as faces. But take ten men, cut off their cocks, put them in a basket: no one can tell his own!”
Marie is disengaged in this scene, as if she is waiting for him to finish the perfunctory ritual of seduction and get to the physicality. She gives the minimum response possible to him, making him do all the work to elicit something from her. When he asks her if he can tie her up (sloppily) or gag her, she answers with faint “Mmm” sounds.
Marie: [voiceover] “Why do men who disgust us understand us better than those who appeal to us?”
Bound and gagged, Marie freaks out. They didn’t establish a safeword or safe signal, but Robert ungags and partially unties her.
Marie: “At first, you feel your hands going numb. You think you can stand it. Then suddenly it’s unbearable. A form of dying. A galloping death. You think your hands will fall off. You slowly turn into dead flesh. And then it has to stop at once, it can’t last a second more. I was afraid you couldn’t hear because of the gag. It’s really freaky.”
Principal: “But you liked the gag?”
Marie: “I don’t like having to say things.”
After this, Marie goes home and masturbates intensely.
Marie: (voiceover) “What’s done is done. It’s behind me. My head is very clear. It’s all I can be in my head. I feel my body doesn’t belong to me. It’s an anonymous appendix. In my head, there’s Paul.”
Marie: (voiceover) “He could have reconciled me with my body. But he didn’t want to do that. Because I don’t like my body. I was easy prey. I mean, a victim. Anyway, women are the victims men need for atonement. I always masturbate with my legs closed. I rarely part them. I can offer myself to myself, rape myself. It’s mildly satisfying, a bit nauseating, but it’s proof I don’t need a man if I have to resort to this.”
She goes out to look for Paul, and observes him just having dinner by himself.
A passing man offers to pay her to eat her out, and she takes him up on the offer in the stairway of her building.
Marie: (voiceover) “To be taken by a guy, anyone, a nobody, a bum, with whom you wallow for the joy of wallowing. For the dishonor, the discredit, that’s pleasure to a girl.”
This suddenly turns into rape. When the guy finishes and leaves, Marie cries but yells after him, “I’m not ashamed, asshole!”
Marie: (voiceover) “Is nymphomania destroying yourself because you choose a man who doesn’t love you? I don’t want to sleep with men. I want to be opened up all the way: when you can see that the mystique is a load of innards, the woman is dead! Maybe I really want to meet ‘Jack the Ripper.’ He’d certainly dissect a woman like me!”
She deliberately hangs out in the stairwell so she comes home after Paul. “That’s proof that women are capable of more love than men.”
Marie returns to Robert’s place for another scene, this time wearing her hair down and in a flirty red dress, instead of her usual prim white dresses and up-dos. She is still somewhat passive, making Robert work for it.
Afterwards, they eat together at a restaurant.
Marie: (voiceover) “I enjoyed it so much, I grew attached to Robert. Tying me up without tying me down was the secret of his ritual. After these sessions I wasn’t gloomy. We giggled. We partied and over-ate.”
Marie returns to Paul’s apartment, and entices him into very brief intercourse, though when she gets on top and says, “You be the woman”, he angrily throws her off him and onto the floor. In voiceover, Marie says that was enough to get her pregnant.
While volunteering to be examined by multiple medical interns, Marie talks in voiceover about how Paul believes that “you can’t love a face if a cunt comes with it.”
Marie fantasizes about a circular room. Women lie down with their upper bodies inside the room, in a white, hospital-like space, each with a man standing nearby. Their lower bodies protrude through the wall into a dark space with rust-colored walls, full of men fucking the detached bodies.
Marie: (voiceover) “I fantasize about a brothel where a head is separated from a body by a guillotine-like contraption before the blade comes down. Of course, there’s no blade. I wear a silky red skirt that billows up and rustles. And those silly trappings that give men a hard on.”
This is the classic virgin-whore complex, seen from the woman’s perspective, inside. This produces a doubling for the women, with two men, the sweet husband and the brute.
While pregnant, Paul and Marie fall back into their own patterns. When Marie’s labor begins, Paul is passed out drunk. She turns the gas stove on, and drags a befuddled Robert into the delivery room. At the moment she gives birth, the apartment explodes, killing Paul. We last see Marie in a black dress with white floral patterns, holding her baby, at Paul’s funeral.
Romance feels a little like Belle De Jour, though in the former the woman is trying to separate love and sex via encounters with other men, while in the latter, the woman is trying to combine them. The other big difference is that while Severine’s love of her husband is mutual, Marie has to realize that Paul is emotionally abusive.
It’s also like The Piano Teacher, as an exploration of heterosexual female masochism.
Marie starts out in a standard heterosexual pairing, goes through Paolo (the stud), Robert (the sadist) and the guy on the stairs (the rapist), before she can finally separate herself from Paul and become an individual. Marie plays a passive, masochistic role as an escape from the standard female script of resistance to male advances, embedded in our ideology of heterosexual romance.