Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene All Screwed Up

No sex, please, we're Nashvillians--and no Romance', either

By Noel Murray

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  French director Catherine Breillat's film Romance has caused a mild sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. But it's unlikely to cause much of a stir here in Nashville--because it's unlikely to make an appearance in any local theater, chain or otherwise. The film has no MPAA rating, but it would be a clear NC-17 because of the presence of several explicit--some might say pornographic--sex scenes. Which means that Nashville cinemas won't touch it, and local filmgoers with an interest in mature subject matter will have to settle for Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo.

The weird thing is, though, what would be likely to shock audiences in Romance is what happens amongst all the clinical copulation. In one sequence, the film's lead character, Marie (played by Caroline Ducey), sneaks out of the bedroom of her model-boyfriend Paul (Sagamore Stevenin). She picks up a man in a cafe, makes out with him in her car until morning, makes a date to meet later for sex--and then drives straight to her job as a grammar school teacher.

Romance is not necessarily about the distance between our sex lives and our "normal" lives, but it's not not about that either. The film is a sometimes harsh, sometimes arousing (in more ways than one) look at one woman's sexual dysfunction, and by extension--Breillat would likely assert--all women's.

Saddled with a sexy boyfriend who won't sleep with her, Marie endeavors on a series of increasingly degrading affairs. With the stranger from the cafe, Marie attempts to see if she can make sex disgusting to a man by constantly referring to human hair, blood, and semen. She fails to turn him off. Later, Marie allows herself to be stripped and tied up by her boss, then proceeds to sell herself to a man on the street, who essentially rapes her without paying her. Marie is undeterred. She defiantly shouts after him, "I'm not ashamed!"

Ultimately, Marie gets pregnant and allows herself to be a case study for gynecology students. They stand in line with their plastic gloves, awaiting a turn at the exam table. The story, and all lingering eroticism, ends with a nothing-taboo depiction of live birth.

Because this is a French film, the scenes of graphic sexuality are interspersed with static shots of quiet contemplation, shattered by voice-overs in which Marie ruminates about her dissatisfaction with life. Were the conversation about, say, actuarial tables, Romance would be pretty hard to take. But because it's about sex, the abundance of silence and stillness holds a fascination. And much of what Breillat has to say, via the (very) brave young actress Ducey and their mutual character Marie, is boldly intriguing.

A few moments stand out. Marie holds a mirror to her vagina and her face, and wonders if men are able to make a connection between the two, to love them both equally. Similarly, Marie's boss jokes that most men couldn't identify their own penis if they had to pick through a basketful to find it. The two insights are brought together in a fantasy sequence: Marie imagines a brothel where women are presented to men from the waist down, only to be ravaged truly anonymously.

All of this has to do with the three-way disconnection between human intellect, emotion, and desire. But if Romance comes off more as an admirable, hard-to-like "think piece" than a gut-wrenching emotional powerhouse, blame Breillat's own disconnection. The writer-director never articulates fully whether her film is an essay on sexuality or a narrow character study. The main problem is that Breillat never explains Marie's boyfriend's sudden disinterest in sex, which makes what follows all the harder to understand.

Whatever its flaws, Romance is a thought-provoking and often upsetting film, with a high degree of artistic merit. And while film fans in other major cities are free to love it or hate it, the large number of cinephiles in Music City will have to table their debate until next year's inevitable video release. How ridiculous is it that in a city with "The World's Largest Adult Bookstore," where just about every downtown corner houses a strip club or massage parlor, a serious look at sexuality is all but shut out? Perhaps it's just a reflection of our nation at large, where jokes on TV are getting smuttier and smuttier, but we can't see the uncut Eyes Wide Shut. We push the envelope when it comes to making fun of sex, but not when trying to understand it.

Class dismissed

It's commonplace in contemporary cinema to see male stars in their 50s or 60s paired with much younger female costars. It's not unusual to see such a match in the real world, especially when the man is extremely wealthy. But there's another kind of May-December romance that pops up frequently in life and not so frequently in the movies--the mentor-student relationship, which is creepy in some ways and yet charged with emotion and meaning for the parties involved.

Audrey Wells made a name for herself a few years ago with her screenplay for The Truth About Cats and Dogs, a knowing (if superficial) look at how standards of female beauty undercut the sisterhood. Her directorial debut, Guinevere, is a sensitive (if again superficial) portrait of the dynamic between a sage older artist and the naive young woman who confuses a desire to learn with just plain desire.

The wan young Canadian actress Sarah Polley, who made an impact in The Sweet Hereafter and Go, stars as Harper Sloane, the insecure youngest daughter in a family of well-to-do, mean-spirited lawyers. Instead of entering Harvard, Harper hooks up with her sister's wedding photographer, a doe-eyed, self-possessed Irishman who calls her "Guinevere."

Stephen Rea plays the photographer, Cornelius "Connie" Fitzpatrick, who promises "Guinevere" that he can teach her the secrets of art and life. Harper is smart enough to know that she's living out a clich, but she can't resist the attention--or the feeling that she's finally learning something useful. Even when she learns that she's the latest in a string of "Guineveres," Harper still wants to go where the lesson plan takes her.

For most of Guinevere, Wells keeps us similarly fascinated. How much is Connie's manipulation intentional, and how much is just a result of his own insecurity? Who's using who? But the film's momentum runs out about the same time that its keen observations do. In the final half-hour, Wells drops her amused detachment, and we begin to see Connie and Harper as little more than pathetic losers with nothing real to offer each other (or the audience).

Then there's an abrupt "four year later" coda, in which the "Guineveres" gather for a sort of class reunion. There's an unfortunate smugness to this finale, as Wells stops sharing the attraction and repulsion inherent in a mentor-student romance and instead presents her characters as fully formed products of the experience. The director seems to be saying that the only way to understand this situation is to live through it. The funny thing is, for awhile, thanks to Wells, we were.

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