Although French film director Catherine Breillat describes herself as "puritanical", it's not a term many people associate with her work. Since bursting on the literary scene in 1968 at age 19 with a novel that was almost immediately banned, Breillat has regularly rattled the bars of France's moral cage with books and films centered on sex often so graphic and detailed that they require only scratch-and-sniff patches to complete the "you are there" effect. Last year, scenes of sex — real, not simulated — in Breillat's darkly libertine film Romance led some critics to denounce it as pornography masquerading as art house audacity. Others called its heroine's foray into unfamiliar sexual territory similar to Breillat's own defiance of traditional cinematic boundaries — a lead other filmmakers are now following. Now Breillat has detractors gnashing their teeth anew with Une Vraie Jeune Fille (A True Young Woman) — a raw and provocative work that makes Romance seem more lyrical than licentious.
Released in France last month, Une Vraie Jeune Fille is Breillat's previously unreleased first movie — a 1975 film her own backers deemed too explicit for a French viewing public and society that, by the mid-1970s, was leaning toward moral conservatism. Now, 25 years later — and following Romance's generally positive reception by critics and audiences — Breillat believes the public is ready to deal with Une Vraie Jeune Fille. "The film is the same, but public attitudes have advanced," Breillat says. "Now we'll see if viewers dismiss it as porn, or go beyond the images to the emotions and reflection they provoke."
Breillat has always sought to provoke, "forcing viewers to react," she explains, "then think about the reasons they reacted as they did." Despite Breillat's fascination with sex, it wasn't until Romance — with its myriad male members in varied states of attention and discharge, and close-ups of female genitalia — that debate over whether Breillat had crossed from art to porn began. Release of the even grittier Une Vraie Jeune Fille, about an adolescent girl's unconditional surrender to her irrepressible sexuality, has merely inflamed that debate. The daily Figaro called it a "an exhibition, a stain, an insult to the body's intimacy, which humiliates women." It urged a boycott of the film.
This is just the sort of reaction Breillat shoots for. "We live in a society ill from its own moral obsessions and revulsions," says the soft-spoken 51-year-old mother of three. "I manipulate images to provoke and agitate people so they'll think about their socially programmed reactions, and perhaps realize there isn't anything to these fears and revulsions we have. I say 'we' because I'm the first person who's disturbed by these subjects and images. I'm really a puritanical person. But you must grow up and work to overcome these illogical reflexes."
Breillat believes that the real sex in her films ridicules the hypocrisy of simulated sex in mainstream movies, which "get the viewer imagining what I put on screen. Whether he sees it or imagines it — what's the difference?" Some critics also note that far from inflaming viewer libido, Breillat's uncomfortably intimate sex scenes often leave audiences feeling more hangdog than horndog.
Despite some critical support that pushing sexual limits has allowed Breillat to break new cinematic ground, others in France suspect her of hiding pornographic priorities behind an artistic fig leaf. During the filming of her upcoming movie Fat Girl, Breillat recalls, the crew kept constant watch over her, concerned that she'd try to engineer "something crazy on film" involving a 13-year-old actress. The irony is that it is the mastery of cinematic illusion in Fat Girl that worries Breillat more. A rape scene involving the girl is so genuinely nightmarish, Breillat says, that she is convinced some will believe it was as real as the sex in Romance and Une Vraie Jeune Fille. "The scene is monstrous, horrible," she says. "You think you see things that you don't. On the set, it was nothing, but on the screen, it's gigantic and terrible."
Although Breillat is evasive about her future projects, it's clear her work has already opened doors for other French filmmakers. Last week, director Virginie Despentes got her doggedly violent and sexually explicit film, Baise Moi (Screw Me), to theaters after months of delay as censors debated whether to damn it with an X rating (they didn't). That hurdle cleared, Despentes now faces the test Breillat passed with Romance: convincing audiences her movie is notable for something beyond all the sex.