Nationality: French. Born: Bressuire, France, 13 July 1948. Education: Graduated high school at age 16; went to Paris to study Oriental languages, but dropped out to begin writing novels. Career: Wrote her first novel, L'Homme facile, at age eighteen, 1966; had supporting role in Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, 1972; made directorial debut with une vrai jeune fille, 1976; her third feature, 36 fillette, became her first to be released in the United States, 1989; retrospective of her work presented at the Rotterdam Film Festival, in conjunction with the world premiere of Romance, with other retrospectives held at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Anthology Film Archives in New York, and Art Institute of Chicago, 1999. Address: c/o French Film Office, 745 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10151.
Films as Director/Screenwriter:
Une vrai jeune fille (A True Young Woman)
Tapage nocturne (Night Noises)
36 fillette (Virgin) (co-sc)
Sale comme un ange (Dirty Lake an Angel)
A propos de Nice, la suite (d of segment, "Aux Nicois qui mal y pensant")
Parfait amour! (Perfect Love)
Last Tango in Paris (Bertolucci) (ro)
Catherine et Cie (Catherine & Company) (Boisrond) (co-sc)
Bilitis (Hamilton) (co-sc); Dracula pere et fils (Dracula and Son) (Molinaro) (ro)
Gli Occhi, la bocca (The Eyes, the Mouth) (Bellocchio) (asst ed)
E la nave va (And the Ship Sails On) (Fellini) (co-sc)
Police (Pialat) (co-sc)
Milan noir (Black Milan) (Chammah) (co-sc)
Zanzibar (Pascal) (co-sc)
Le Diable au corps (Vergez—for TV) (co-sc); Aventure de Catherine C. (Beuchot) (co-sc)
La Thune (Money) (Galland) (co-sc)
Couples et amants (Lvoff) (co-sc)
Selon Mathieu (co-sc)
By BREILLAT: books—
L'Homme facile (The Easy Man, A Man for the Asking), Paris, 1968.
Le Silence apres. . . , Paris, 1971.
Les Vetements de la mer, Paris, 1971.
Le Soupirail, Paris, 1974
Tapage nocturne, Paris, 1979.
Police, Paris, 1985
36 fillette, Paris, 1988.
"One Day I Saw 'Baby Doll'," in John Boorman and Walter Donohue, editors, Film-makers and Film-making, London and Boston, 1995.
By BREILLAT: articles—
"Circle Releasing's '36 fillette' Is Breillat's U.S. Breakthrough," interview with Doris Toumarkine, in Film Journal (New York), February-March 1989.
"Un vrai jeune fille," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1991.
Interview with T. Jousse and F. Strauss, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1991.
"Un jour j'ai vu 'Baby Doll'," in Positif (Paris), June 1994.
"Boudu sauve des eaux," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), July/August 1994.
"L'eternelle histoire de las seduction," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), February 1996.
"A Woman's Vision of Shame and Desire: An Interview with Catherine Breillat," interview with Robert Sklar, in Cineaste (New York), no. 1, 1999.
"Sex, Love, and 'Romance,"' interview with Dana Thomas, in Newsweek (New York), 26 April 1999
On BREILLAT: articles—
Cros, J.L., "Catherine Breillat tourne 'Tapage nocturne'," in Revuedu Cinema (Paris), April 1979.
Maillet, D., "Catherine Breillat tourne 'Tapage nocturne'," in Cinematographe (Paris), April 1979.
"20 questions aux cineastes," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1981.
Baecque, A. de, and S. Braunschweig, "Des Journees sans tapage," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), April 1985.
Insdorf, Annette, "(Trente-six) 36 fillette' Eyes the Teen-Age Temptress," in New York Times, 1 January 1989.
Vincendreu, G., "The Closer You Get. . . ," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), February 1989.
Katsahnias, I., "Catherine Breillat tourne 'Sale comme un ange'," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), February 1991.
Lenne, G., "Sale comme un ange," in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), July/August 1991.
Sineux, M., "Catherine Breillat: la silence et les emotions," in Positif (Paris), July/August 1991.
Sineux, M., "Ja raconte l'ame et la chair des gens," in Positif (Paris), July/August 1991.
Palmiere, Michel, "Le cinema a-t-il un sexe?," in Elle (Paris), 17 May 1999.
Spencer, L., "Film: What's Love Got to Do with It?," in Independent (London), 13 August 1999.
Bear, Liza, "Catherine Breillat's Romance," in Bomb (New York), Fall 1999.
Murphy, Kathleen, "A Matter of Skin. . . ," in Film Comment (New York), September-October 1999.
Taubin, Amy, "Laws of Desire," in Village Voice (New York), 8–14 September 1999.
Ansen, David, "A Handful of Tangos in Paris," in Newsweek (New York), 13 September 1999.
Darke, Chris, "Film: Yes, But Isn't It Pornography?," in Independent (London), 19 September 1999.
Kirkland, Bruce, "Punching up the Sex? Romance, Fight Club Don't Push the Envelope So Much as Rip It Wide Open," in TorontoSun, 16 October 1999.
* * *
It is not so much her subject matter that makes novelist/actressturned-director/screenwriter Catherine Breillat so provocative and controversial. Rather, it is the manner in which she depicts that subject matter, the choices she makes as a filmmaker as she portrays her characters and their sexual longings. None of the liaisons in Breillat's films are "traditional," because of the age differences between the characters or their stations in life. Their unions are injurious and obsessive, with Breillat not holding back in any way as she explores the manner in which duplicity, contrition, and rejection kindle sexual yearning. Her primary focus most often is on her female characters and their carnal appetites. In this regard, Breillat has spent her directorial career re-making the same film (albeit with heroines ranging in age from adolescence through early middle-age).
With boring regularity, Hollywood has churned out films focusing on teen-agers and their rampaging hormones. Yet Breillat's 36 fillette is a different, and decidedly more adult, take on this theme. Breillat tells the story of Lili, a restless, alienated fourteen-year-old who attracts the attention of several men—and, in particular, a middle-aged playboy—while on vacation with her family. As the story unfolds, the question arises: Will she or won't she lose her virginity?
What sets 36 fillette apart from other teen coming-of-age films is the way in which Breillat presents her lead character. Lili's sexual curiosity does not lead her to boys her own age; instead, she is involved with males who might be her father. The focus of the story is on her, and not her potential sexual partners; she is depicted as being just as much of a sexual predator as any male. Despite her age and lack of sexual experience, Lili is no tentative, blushing innocent. Neither is she a sexual victim. She is instead an indecisive young woman whose fully developed body mirrors her craving for sexual initiation. As Breillat explores the social and sexual realities of the character, the men with whom she deals serve as mere props; they exist solely as a means for Lili to explore the power of her emerging sexuality. And the sexuality Breillat portrays is explicit; her character's tender age is no excuse for the filmmaker to cut away from actress Delphine Zentout's voluptuous body during the film's sex scenes. 36 fillette—and, for that matter, all of Breillat's films—may not be in the same artistic league as the all-time-best cinematic chronicles of sexuality and desire, adolescent or otherwise. What sets them apart are the choices the filmmaker makes for her lead characters, and the candid manner in which she portrays their sexuality.
Breillat began her career as a novelist, and was a published author while still in her teens; because of its salty language, her first book, L'Homme facile, was the subject of controversy in her native France. She started out in cinema as an actress—fittingly, she had a role in Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris—and then co-scripted such inconsequential sexploitation films as Michel Boisrond's Catherine et Cie and David Hamilton's Bilitis. Despite its trite handing, Catherine etCie does offer up a tale of female sexual empowerment as it chronicles the attempt of a prostitute to incorporate herself. Then Breillat's writing credits grew in stature: Fellini's E la nave va (And the Ship Sails On) and Maurice Pialat's Police. The latter deals with characteristic Breillat material as it charts the plight of a racist, sexist police detective who is drawn to a sensual, streetwise young woman involved in a drug smuggling case.
Breillat's directorial debut, One vrai jeune fille, spotlights a young teen's fixation on her burgeoning sexuality. However, Breillat really came into her own as a cinematic talent with 36 fillette, which allegedly is autobiographical (and also is based on one of her novels). In her subsequent films, she has not shied away from graphic sexual depictions. Sale comme un ange, her follow-up to 36 fillette, chronicles the relationship between the wife of a young cop and her husband's partner, a self-hating, fifty-year-old police inspector. The sex scenes between the two are as fiercely candid as those in 36 fillette. Parfait amour! is the story of a middle-class divorcee in her late thirties and her disastrous affair with a self-involved man who not only is unsettled but is a decade her junior. In Parfait amour! Breillat also pushes the sexual envelope; the film includes a scene in which a hairbrush is utilized as a sexual apparatus.
Along with 36 fillette, Breillat's highest-profile feature to date is Romance. Here, she explores the erotic desires of Marie, a twenty-something schoolteacher whose boyfriend refuses to have sexual relations with her; summarily, Marie sets out on a sexual odyssey in which she experiments with several different partners. Romance may not be the first mainstream film to feature oral sex, or a woman undergoing a gynecological examination. However, such sequences usually are discreetly filmed; the physical activity is suggested, rather than shown in detail. Yet in Romance, Breillat's staging and camera placement allow the audience an unencumbered view of Caroline Ducey, the actress playing Marie, performing fellatio on Sagamore Stevenin, the actor playing her boyfriend. During the exam sequence, Marie is shown spread-eagled and in full view. And the male nudity in Romance is more than just full-frontal; Breillat shows the erect member of one of Marie's sex partners (played by porn star Rocco Siffredi).
So why is Romance not an exploitation film? The fact that it has been made by a woman filmmaker is an inadequate explanation. After all, a woman is just as capable as a man of directing a film that exists solely to titillate the viewer with hardcore sex scenes. Romance is not pornographic because of the context in which its scenes are presented. Marie is, like Lili in 36 fillette, a sexual being. She is sexually empowered. In a more dated, traditional film depicting relations between men and women—the classics of this type might feature Doris Day and Rock Hudson—the male is the aggressor while the female is sexually withholding, heroically grasping onto her virginity until her wedding night. Yet in Romance, Marie is sexually experienced; she relishes her eroticism, and is anguished by her boyfriend's ambivalence. Breillat illustrates her character's desires by allowing the camera to reveal all during the sex scenes; she depicts Marie's womanhood by her shot selection in the doctors' exam sequence. By making these choices, Breillat presents images that might be disturbing to some, and might not be for all tastes, but that nevertheless feature an honesty and forthrightness that is not so much shocking as liberating.