Catherine Breillat Bares Her Romantic Side
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Catherine Breillat isn’t a fire-breathing feminist. At least, she never set out to be one, even if that’s how critics and scholars have characterized the filmmaker and her work in her more than 30 years of writing and directing. Indeed, Ms. Breillat’s reputation has grown out of a singularly fiery and sexualized vision of comfort and suffering.
What little else we know about the French auteur, whose new film, “The Last Mistress,” arrives in theaters next Friday, stems in large part from Anne Parillaud’s leading role as the fickle and manipulative artiste plodding around with a cane in “Sex Is Comedy” (2002), Ms. Breillat’s fictionalized account of the making of her own film “Fat Girl” (2001). “Sex Is Comedy” centered on the story of a director who struggles to film an intimate sex scene between two actors who hate each other.
From that we might gather that she does have a sense of humor, though many of her films, such as 2004’s “Anatomy of Hell,” about a suicidal woman who hires a gay man to watch her silently while she is “unwatchable,” make you wonder. In a recent interview, I asked the 59-year-old filmmaker if she idealized the notion of l’amour fou — the all-consuming passion. She blushed and giggled.
“Of course,” Ms. Breillat responded through a translator. “That’s always been the misunderstanding between myself and the world. In fact, that’s why I wanted to do ‘The Last Mistress.’ I am eternally, devastatingly romantic, and I thought people would see it because ‘romantic’ doesn’t mean ‘sugary.’ It’s dark and tormented — the furor of passion, the despair of an idealism that you can’t attain.”
“The Last Mistress,” an adaptation of Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly’s 1851 novel “Une Vieille Maîtresse,” concerns an impoverished young man who charms his way into the aristocracy and marries a well-bred, angelic woman. But he is unable to let go of his libertine past and a decade-long fling with a social outcast played by Asia Argento. The proje ct marks a rare literary adaptation for Ms. Breillat, whose own authorship is unmistakable throughout her body of work.
“What makes you put your stamp or signature on a movie is your look,” she said. “Can I put myself sufficiently in something that I am adapting so that I can legitimately sign on it and sign my look? I think ‘The Last Mistress’ is my film. It’s undeniable. I recognize it. I don’t need a DNA test.”
One of her stamps is definitely the reliably frank treatment of female sexuality. But she believes that viewers who are fixated on the taboos in her films are overlooking the obvious — namely the element of love to which physical passion ultimately lends transcendence.
“We are so vigilant — on the one hand very fair and on the other very unfair — with what we call sexuality,” Ms. Breillat said. “Sexuality reaches into something very beautiful. There’s something very sublime. I think it’s the duty of a filmmaker to show that this is not impure or ugly. Only artists can see that pornography is nonexistent; it’s only a commercial invention of sex.”
“The Last Mistress” delves into gender and class warfare perhaps more deeply than Ms. Breillat’s previous efforts. But even though moviegoers and critics alike have long regarded her films as feminist and political, she simply doesn’t view them that way.
“I am not very sociological,” she said. “I prefer to work on myths. I don’t exactly look to see if in 2005 is like in 1905 or 1805. I prefer to say that Shakespeare is modern rather than to say yesterday’s paper is out of date.”
Ms. Breilatt also maintains that there’s an expectation for female filmmakers to make only “pretty movies” and to leave cruelty and eroticism to their male contemporaries. She is more interested in making devastating films, whatever their constitution.
“I hate brutality in life, but I love it in the movies that I make,” she said. “I love to be frontal, brutal. I love blood. And I love it when people come out of my movies livid. But at the same time, it’s so weird. These grown-up people walked out so shocked for, after all, so little.”
Ms. Breillat said that, ultimately, she has made her films for no one but herself. Vincent Van Gogh, she said, cut off his own ear for himself, and not for Sotheby’s to make a profit. But if Sotheby’s does make a profit, she continued, it’s because Van Gogh had so much integrity and did things through so much pain that his works became masterpieces. So even though Ms. Breillat’s films are for her own edification, she suffers for her art all the same.
“On the eve of making a film, all these people are asking, ‘Are you happy that you are going to start your film?’ But I always feel, ‘What am I doing? I am incapable of directing a film,'” she said. “So I call that the Marie Antoinette on the eve of the guillotine. What are you going to do? You go to the guillotine. Final analysis: It’s not as hard as that. I am very Zen. When you think about everything you are not going to be able to do, then you are scared. But when you are there to do it, you just do it.
“When I was younger, I thought it was the solitude during the filming that made me feel that I was in a nunnery and everybody on the crew was having fun,” Ms. Breillat continued. “I separated myself a lot because I felt I had to carry the film and couldn’t mix myself with the sort of daily outside existence, and so I stayed within the film. The first time it made me suffer a lot. Now I demand it from everybody. I forbid any kind of playing around on my movie. Or if there is, I don’t want to know about it. I don’t want the slightest effects of it on the set.”