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Almost four centuries after the first Thanksgiving, puritanism is still one of America’s favorite dishes, served up to great applause by religious fundamentalists, radical feminists, and misanthropic satirists. Pat Robertson, Andrea Dworkin, and Todd Solondz all stand in opposition to Catherine Breillat’s career, yet American prudishness is not the only reason the writer-director hasn’t had one of her films released in the U.S. since 1987’s 36 Fillette. Her new Romance challenges American viewers because it is one of the most sexually explicit nonporn films ever made, but also because it is
Romance’s advertising features quotations—all taken out of context, surely—that label it such things as “possibly the sexiest movie ever made.” Well, not exactly. There is full-frontal nudity (more male than female), but this ironically titled film is not one in which physical intimacy seems warm, tender, or even sexy. “It’s hot, but it burns like ice,” claims Breillat, and she’s right about the second part. Protagonist Marie (Caroline Ducey) screws by the book, and the book is a collection of essays by Descartes, Lacan, and the Marquis de Sade.
Living with Paul (Sagamore Stevenin), who no longer wants sex with her, Marie is crazed with lust. She finds a casual lover who wants only sex, but that doesn’t satisfy her either. Her erotic odyssey then leads to an older man who—preposterously yet earnestly—ties her up, a stranger who offers to pay to perform cunnilingus on her, and beyond. These encounters occasion musings that range from the abject to the suicidal as Marie ponders the divide between love and sex and the link between disgust and arousal.
Reduced to that synopsis, Romance sounds like a porn flick with a twin major in psychology and philosophy. Yet Breillat regularly subverts expectations. With her girlish figure and all-white wardrobe, sex-crazed Marie initially seems innocent, even virginal. (Like the protagonist of another scandalously explicit import, Taxi Zum Klo, Marie is soon revealed to make her living as an elementary school teacher.) And while Marie glories in the submissiveness of the female role in intercourse, she’s not nearly so passive as her sexless live-in nonlover, a male model who’s introduced as he’s being made up for a photo shoot. But then Paul is merely one aspect of Marie’s desire: There’s also Paolo (Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi), a pickup whose similar name suggests not a different person but simply a different aspect of Marie’s complex, anti-romantic male ideal.
Contemporary American puritans will complain that Marie’s explorations are a form of masochism, and they sometimes are. Yet Marie is the only full character—indeed, the only consciousness—in the film, which is cheekily uninterested in catering to hetero-male voyeurism. Viewers shocked by Marie’s promiscuity should note that, as the film approaches its impudent conclusion, reality and fantasy become increasingly difficult to separate. It’s less than clear which of Marie’s sexual encounters are actual and which are imaginary, especially since they mostly occur in places—minimalist apartments, sushi restaurants—that look like some chic designer’s idea of the great white beyond. Because this is a film about desire, the distinction doesn’t really matter, save to those who are counting each of Marie’s near-scientific carnal experiments as demerits.
Ultimately, Breillat takes the fable into territory where no pornographer dare tread: Marie gets pregnant. The heroine’s clinical examination of her genitals then becomes the job of gynecologists and obstetricians, and bodily fluids take on an entirely new significance. The life force reasserts its fundamental purpose, the film’s palette changes, and Funkadelic’s “Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow” claims the soundtrack. Despite such ironies, Romance is far too chilly, schematic, and intellectualized to be a laugh riot. Still, you have to chuckle imagining the reaction of anyone who expects “possibly the sexiest movie ever made” and instead encounters this audacious trek through the female id.
An altogether less rigorous foray into the underbrush of modern sex roles, Flawless introduces a homophobic retired security guard to a flamboyant “female impressionist” who’s saving money for a sex-change operation. In fact, the two Lower East Side neighbors already know—and loathe—each other when the film begins. But then tough-guy Walt (Robert De Niro) has a stroke while rushing to protect a friend of cross-dressing Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman) from gun-toting thugs. The incident leaves Walt partially paralyzed and Rusty partially sympathetic. When Walt is advised to take singing lessons as part of his rehabilitation, he turns to Rusty, who leads rehearsals for drag shows and the “Flawless” drag pageant.
It is, of course, pudgy, acerbic Rusty who is flawless. During one of their many tiffs, Rusty informs Walt that “I’m more man than you’ll ever be—and more woman than you’ll ever get,” and the movie clearly agrees. Introduced playing handball and frequenting a local tango parlor, Walt may seem self-realized and self-reliant at first, but writer-director Joel Schumacher doesn’t waste much time showing that his life is mostly self-delusion. This is Schumacher’s campiest movie yet—topping even his two Batman flicks, which were also drag shows of a sort—and its sympathies are never in doubt. Hard-boiled Walt gets his comeuppance, reduced to tears when he can’t open a pill bottle with one hand and when he’s spurned by his regular dance partner now that he’s no longer capable of a macho strut. Meanwhile, Rusty’s life is a nonstop profile in courage: He deals with not only Walt’s scorn and his family’s revulsion but also those trigger-happy goons and some buttoned-down gay Republicans who propose banning drag from a pride parade. (After the speech he delivers to the latter, Rusty might well consider challenging Hillary for New York’s open Senate seat.)
Flawless is an overly triumphant showcase for Hoffman, who played a gay loser in Boogie Nights and a straight one in Happiness. Concentrating on keeping his arm and half his mouth slack, De Niro is game but less interesting. (The movie joins Awakenings and Stanley and Iris on his resume of ill-conceived affliction roles.) Significantly, this is Schumacher’s first screenplay since St. Elmo’s Fire, his account of the loves of a troupe of young Washingtonians. Like that movie, Flawless begins with the director’s attraction to an actual milieu, which he then romanticizes into outer space. For Schumacher, pungent subcultural specifics are only a route to an idealized stereotype. CP