Where Sex and Tedium Collide
Important pro-feminist presentation of sexuality
Proof that sex really CAN be dull as dirt
Posters for ROMANCE announce that the film is "the most sexually explicit film ever made", and excluding pornography, there's no way one cannot agree. The fully visible on-screen oral, vaginal and anal sex, as well as the presence of more male genitalia that a double issue of Playgirl, certainly make it some kind of a landmark. The film's director, Catherine Breillat, approaches her material with a frank honesty, portraying sexuality as a simple function of one woman's daily life, more the rule than the exception. For its bold, landmark steps in cinematic sexuality, it should be recognized. So consider it now officially recognized.
Does it stand up as a film? Unfortunately, the answer also has to be no. It's a shame, really, that a film with such an interesting subject and fearless director should be so badly written. Sleep-inducingly slow, ROMANCE doesn't have any major ideological revelations at its disposal (which perhaps accounts for its overuse of visual revelations). Essentially a meandering recounting of one woman's (Caroline Ducey) sexual experiences over a year, ROMANCE creates little tension or interest with its tales of a frigid husband (Sagamore Stevenin) and encounters with a secret lover, a one night stand, a would-be rapist, and an S&M father figure.
To make it seem less like pornography and more like art, one can only assume, Breillat has her lead character make a number of racy, sensationalistic comments about sex between men and women. For the most part, this incessant voice-over is filled with cliches; for every truly inspired insight ("Physical love is triviality clashing with the divine"), there are ten boring, obvious ones ("Love is dumb/Sex is a power trip"). She gets tied up, she gets willingly raped, and she has an affair, all at the langorous pace of a snail. It's not that the encounters in ROMANCE couldn't be emotionally fulfilling for the audience, but the monotonous voice over makes everything about as interesting as warm milk.
Breillat should harp less on Less searching and needs, and reach further to find what is truly unique in her vision. She dances around the raw nature of lust and desire, stubbornly refusing to allow her characters to have resonant sexual experiences. Love between men and woman is a devious conflict, to be sure, but there's no reason to assume that sexual activity needs to be psychologically abusive.
The film's lasting impact can be summed up like this: if a man were saying and doing the things Ducey does in ROMANCE, hardly anyone would blink an eye. Most of the truly shocking moments in the film are only surprising because a woman is doing them. While I'm sure theaters may steal business temporarily from their XXX cousins, eventually someone is going to want more substance and less mood. ROMANCE just doesn't have it to give.