Demystifying female sexuality can be a minefield for even the most sympathetic artist. The line between liberation and exploitation is a precarious one, but it's a line French director/writer Catherine Breillat is determined to walk -- and cross, when necessary -- in "Romance," the latest of the fly-in-the-ointment auteur's controversial carnal escapades. A provocative but uneven depiction of a woman's journey to libidinous awakening, it positions its creator as equal parts Shere Hite and Linda Tripp in her simultaneous desire to educate and sensationalize.
Breillat brings these conflicting programs to life in the form of Marie (Caroline Ducey), a young elementary-school teacher whose ego is shattered when her boyfriend, Paul (Sagamore Stevenin), abruptly puts the reins on the physical aspect of their relationship. He gives no reason, but the rejection allows the morose Marie to indulge her already substantial self-loathing.
Marie is used to feeling overwhelmed: Though she's employed as an educator, she admits to being an atrocious speller and hating to read. She's likewise uncomfortable with her painfully thin body, but it gradually becomes apparent that Paul's loss of lust has less to do with her self-perceived shortcomings than with the narcissism that has led him to choose modeling as a career. He finds his joy not in mutual fulfillment but in being the object of unattainable longing.
If we're a few steps ahead of Marie in recognizing that the problem is largely his, maybe it's because Breillat is still stumbling toward the same conclusion. Breillat has been quoted as saying that Ducey initially turned her off by showing up for her audition in "a bad hair style and earrings that didn't suit her." One wonders how this reductive cattiness fits in with the director's stated agenda to craft a film that was "not about masculine fantasy."
Marie embarks on a spree of casual licentiousness, including barroom pickups, bondage scenarios and a flirtation with prostitution. If she always has another bed (or alleyway) to go to, she reasons, she can restore the upset balance of power that she faces at home.
The resulting graphic encounters are already drawing notice for their alleged eroticism, but the penetration shots and images of ejaculation are actually window-dressing to a standard dialogue-driven drama whose heroine pontificates much more often than she copulates. Even the numerous discussions of her paramours' physical equipment are delivered in a matter-of-fact fashion that's as clinical as locker-room language can get. Marie's induction into S&M begins with her partner's unassertive query, "Shall I dominate you?" If Breillat wants to shock us, she needs better verbal ammunition.
The film scores its deepest hits when the balance between language and action is momentarily righted. In the most telling sequence, a stranger who has offered Marie money for fellatio instead violates her on a staircase, doing his best to demean her. "I'm not ashamed, asshole!" she tearfully returns, enraged not at her powerlessness but by the perception of it. The exchange amplifies a recurring narration in which Marie runs down her impassioned (yet often contradictory) stances on mating. Sex, Breillat realizes, is the most important thing that no one really understands.
Those moments of wisdom winnow as the film places increasing stock in philosophical gravitas. Breillat has warned that "Romance's" heavy-handed climax "must be read symbolically," but it's still pat and poorly motivated in its attempted inflammation. Like her heroine, she's consumed by a confused passion, locked into a relationship she just doesn't know how to end to anyone's satisfaction.