Catherine Breillat’s work as a novelist and filmmaker is often surrounded by controversy and sometimes scandal. In her films she defies normative portrayals of romantic love to unearth erotic fantasies within historical dramas such as the ‘Last Mistress’ (2007), or in fairy tales like ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ (2010) or ‘Bluebeard’ (2009). In her film ’36 Filette’ (1988) the 14-year-old protagonist Lili discovers her sexuality, and is depicted as voluptuously bursting out of her children’s dress size 36. Catherine Breillat responded to the wide censoring of her sixth feature ‘Romance’ (1999) by placing emphasis on the X-rating, linking this to the female X-chromosome and pronouncing the origins of the taboo rooted in the negation of a woman being in touch with her own sense of sexual pleasure.
Keen to project a sensuality that is not a sweet spin on the idea of love, but something more animal, more immediate, she works with characters rather than actors, recruiting porn stars, rappers and even well known crooks. This is a professional method that often has consequences for her personal life, and her connection to the infamous conman Christophe Rocancourt prompted her newest film. Adam Kleinman speaks with her about seduction, censorship, violence and its attractions.
Adam: Just to start out, may I ask what you are working on right now?
Catherine: I’m working on a film; it hasn’t been released yet, but its called Abus de Faiblesse (Abuse of Weakness). Its narrative is my own story, a court case that became a news item. I think that films are always autobiographical. They’re autobiographical for the director and the spectator; for the director because she invests herself into the work, and for the spectator they’re autobiographical because the spectator projects himself into the work. In this case, the characters are simply not disguised. The court case it’s based on is well known in France, and the film is an undisguised biography. As for the case itself, the courts have ruled in my favor, but nonetheless what makes it all so seditious is that there’s a complete element of seduction to the case. Even as a consenting adult, one is consenting to pleasure involved, even when being had. And that’s what makes this literally seditious: The element of seduction, the element of pleasure.
Adam: In just a few words, would you mind summarizing the case for our readers?
Catherine: I was working on a film called Bad Love with Naomi Campbell. It’s about a man who seduces her character. The man isn’t very intelligent, but nonetheless very seductive. In my films I don’t work with actors, I seek people who correspond to the characters that I am writing. Christophe Rocancourt, a known confidence man and imposter, corresponded exactly to what I was looking for in the role. At the time of the shooting, and just after, I had just suffered a stroke. I was disabled and wasn’t able to go out. I was more or less a prisoner in my own house, so I invited Rocancourt over and we met and things went very quickly. He was constantly with me. There was a dizzy acceleration of things and he simply took over for me. At the time I was having epileptic fits, and at the hospital they proscribed the drug that is known as the ‘rape drug’ as a treatment.
Catherine: Exactly. While I was under this medication, I was left to do things not of my own will. I was in a very pleasant state of mind under the effects of the drug, but I wasn’t in control. I’ve never dared to call Naomi Campbell back after all this. Because of my responsibility as director, you’ll see my name all over the Internet; you see her walking up the red steps at Cannes accompanied by Christophe Rocancourt… I never dared to call her back. I was so ashamed.
Adam: He is seductive, but not intelligent. Is there necessarily a tie between intelligence and seduction?
Catherine: Not at all. Not necessarily intelligence, although a form of intelligence is required in his field, his line of work. He’s a crook, he’s a fraud, a swindler, and he’s very good at that. In fact he took in all the media in France and convinced them that he took in all the stars of Hollywood. He’s very good on television, very convincing. The thing is that for Abus de Faiblesse I required a body. I don’t necessarily require intelligence on film, but I need a body to inhabit space and for that reason I turned to France’s best rapper, Kool Shen, to play the role of Rocancourt. Kool Shen is the first French rap star. He had a group called Nique Ta Mere or ‘Fuck Your Mom’ – it’s a cult group. His band mate is Joey Star, again this naively American name that French people can’t resist…
Adam: And they’re occupying space, but also a persona. Is there a certain way that the viewer is positioned in regard to this history?
Catherine: Filmmaking and directing is an act of desire and possession. I’ve always compared my filmmaking to the Corrida; the bullfight. I see myself as the torero and the weaker of the two beings. I’m the one with the weakness who should die, but I’m the one who kills the bulls: The actors.
I have to desire him. I have to like him; I have to want him in order for it to come across in the film. With this character, I was absolutely overwhelmed by him and constantly surprised by him…
Adam: And the ‘weakness’ in the film title? Is the desire, whether to seduce or swindle, lead by the pleasure in overcoming someone or something?
Catherine: Even though the film is about an erotic predator, unlike many of my films this is not an erotic movie. As Director, I’m the protagonist in the film, the heroine in the film, but I’m also the victim. So I am the Director, and yet the actor embodies me, but I am also the predator. There’s a double role. When I’m filming my actors I can only film them when I find them beautiful. The camera has to be in love with them, and I have to be in love with them. Otherwise it wouldn’t be possible for me to film them.
Adam: Have you ever been behind someone else’s camera?
Catherine: Very, very little. I had a tiny role in Last Tango In Paris, and also in a Vampire film with Christopher Lee.
Adam: Oh, were you a vampire or a human?
Catherine: I came out of a casket in a corset with lots of fruity lace and it’s very erotic this scene. I became a vampire. He loved me and wanted me to become eternal like him.
Adam: Eternal love? So, on the subject, let’s get back to this idea of camera love: What are the qualities of this kind of love?
Catherine: It’s all a question of the actor, in this case Kool Shen, playing the role. The fact is that the role that he’s playing is one of an intelligent person, but more importantly when I look at him, I have to desire him. I have to like him; I have to want him in order for it to come across in the film. With this character, I was absolutely overwhelmed by him and constantly surprised by him: Attracted to him. He’s incredibly intelligent, and I didn’t expect that. He’s physically extremely attractive and he also has an incredible capacity for violence. As you know I’m attracted to violence.
I don’t consider Kool Shen to be attractive in the normative sense, not at all, but nonetheless he is extremely seductive. He has an aura: Even French girls find it absolutely irresistible. He’s not my type, which you might be able to tell from my other films. I’m much more into the dandy-ish figure, the feminine girlish male. Nonetheless, I found Kool Shen irresistible and was seduced by him from almost the very first scene he was in.
I am interested in exploring, and also fear, the question of what is obscene. What are the rules about obscenity?
Adam: Like magnetism?
Catherine: Yes, magnetism. That’s what’s most important.
Adam: You are quoted as saying that that censorship is a male preoccupation? Would you mind telling us a bit about this statement?
Catherine: Censorship has two roots. There are religious roots and bourgeois roots. Religion is purely male and religious structures have been purely exercised by men. The bourgeoisie then, at least in its historic roots, is also based on the power of men. Censorship is something men impose on something; often on women. Women who are veiled by choice and not because of such impositions may be an exception. This is a sense of self-censorship, wearing the veil. And again this religious insurgence shows the dominance of men. It shows the censorship that is exercised over women. In terms of secular censorship this too is instituted by men, and has a legal origin, a legal power, which is likewise a power instituted by men: Censorship of parts of bodies, based on notions of obscenity, by social and legal bodies that are created by men. It’s always been a male domain.
I am interested in exploring, and also fear, the question of what is obscene. What are the rules about obscenity? What are the claims about what should be seen and what should be censored? There’s no real legal definition of what obscenity is; a simple response doesn’t exist. Censorship is exercised in the absence of any definition of what it’s about. When there’s a scene of actual, physical love in my films, I’m constantly asked if the actors really did make love on set? Likewise, when there are scenes of rape, I’m asked if the woman involved was really raped, but I’m never asked if the people who die in my films are really killed. Many of my films end in death, but I’ve never been asked if the actors were killed at the end of my films…
There’s always the question of the morality of the actors. It’s a personal question, where it’s absolutely irrelevant if they kiss with their tongues, or give the illusion to the spectators that they’re kissing with their tongues. It’s a moral witch-hunt.
Adam: I was looking at a recent study on the MPAA rating system, and it appears that their censorship is completely arbitrary. There’s no actual system, it’s five people who decide what they like and what they don’t like. Shockingly the study showed empirically that the thing that was most often cut (censors never articulated this themselves), was not necessarily sex or the female body or anything like that, but more importantly women showing pleasure in the act of having sex. So the smile was edited more than even the sex itself.
Catherine: Yes perhaps this censorship is a question of the excision of female pleasure. Historically it’s something that goes on today. Men seek to control women. Women don’t know about their pleasure, their sexuality, and that’s the case in America. In Western society men still seek to exert their pleasure, and to hide the reality, the desire, of female pleasure. Even though, and this is absolutely obvious, women have much more sexual power then men do. Women are the animals of the kingdom. Men don’t know when women are ovulating and women are fertile; women may experience desire anytime. For men sex is about engendering, it’s about creating offspring, its about having children. So for that reason men seek to exert their control over women to be at least certain of the paternity. They do two things: First of all they lock up women. Secondly, they seek to hide a sense of pleasure so that women will remain submissive and allow themselves to be locked up.
Adam: Since you brought up ovulation, I’ve noticed a visual trope in many of your films, especially Anatomy of Hell, and that trope is the show of blood. For example the scene in which Rocco Siffredi drinks a glass of water infused by a used tampon. What does the image of blood signify on the screen?
Catherine: For the longest time we’ve had to hide theses elements. We’ve had to hide the fact that women menstruate in the same way it’s a complete taboo that we go to the bathroom. Its very existence, this liquid, oozy meniscus consistency, is thought of as repugnant. It’s seen as repellant, but there’s also an aesthetic aspect to obscenity. What oozes in that sense is necessarily sexual, but we experience that as repugnant, which reveals an aesthetic aspect of obscenity. We are horrified of what is aesthetically repugnant and pure at the same time.
Men are always hesitant to shoot those scenes as well as love scenes in general, with the exception of Rocco. My experience with actors is that it’s always the male actors who claim it’s the actress that doesn’t want to do an intimate scene. The men hide behind the actresses. But in my experience the women, although they feel some hesitation about doing it, throw themselves into the part without fear or hesitation. Men always find it more difficult.
Adam: Why do you think men feel this way?
Catherine: I think it’s a huge problem for men that I’m a woman asking them, directing them. I was one of the first people to make films more explicit in their dealing with desire, and it was much more difficult for men to accept taking directions from a woman. Also, when I’m on set I always have to show the men how to behave, what they should do, how they should move. I take their place and block the scenes with the actresses to show them what I expect from them. I have to do this because men are stiff before the camera. I have to show them how to let down their masks. When shooting The Last Mistress, I stopped Fu’ad Aït Aattou to say, ‘No you’re doing it all wrong.’ I showed him how to kiss Asia Argento. Among male actors there’s a lot of inhibition. Asia was absolutely horrified by the shot. She said ‘You’d be sued in the United States for this!’
Adam: Amazing. Now I’m bashful and I don’t know where to go!
Catherine: If a director shows an actor what to do, the actor has no excuse. They have to do it. If you ask it is not precise, but if you show then it is very precise and there’s no way they can get out of it.
Adam: So do you show them often or not? Do you have to rely on that?
Catherine: Yes, absolutely. But in The Last Mistress, when we were shooting a scene with Roxanne Mesquida and Fu’ad, at one point Roxanne became furious with him and said ‘No, you have to put your hand like this! My back is arched, my pelvis is arched, you have to put your hand here or else it won’t look good on screen!’
It’s the pose, the mystery of desire, which allows the elusion to exist.
Adam: Now what is nice to the touch is not necessarily nice to the eye and vice versa. I’m wondering, does the way something looks on the screen, look the same way in reality, or is there a confusion of the senses?
Catherine: It’s not about what is nice. The only thing that interests me in sex scenes is the rape, or the violence, of it. It’s not about showing a beautiful sex scene. That’s not what I am interested in.
Adam: But specifically what Asia says, that her pelvis will look like this, will look a certain way on the screen. The look on the screen may be erotic, but is there a dichotomy of what looks good and what feels good?
Catherine: No there’s isn’t a dichotomy. What’s pleasing to the eye is the emotion that you see… The female nudes that you see exhibited in the Louvre… It’s the pose, the mystery of desire, which allows the elusion to exist. This is the third time that I’ve filmed with Roxanne. We shot a scene similar in terms of framing and aesthetics before, so she knew what I wanted. Cinema is all about the framing, the frame of the view via the theater. So the filming has to be extremely precise.
Adam: This might be kind of a cinophile question: One of the things that I always found fascinating, in Nosferatu for example, Max Shreck the vampire, his makeup changes every scene so you never get a view of him. It’s always a composite. I’ve heard people talking about it, I’ve even talked about it, because the vampire is not actually shown, it’s not graphic. It sort of occupies a part of your imagination. And this is a one of the classic ways of doing horror; not simply showing something is the most powerful way to express it. How do you think this question of what is revealed relates, not to horror, but in relationship to intimacy? What are cinematic tropes that would either agree of disagree with that titillation or something to that effect?
Catherine: I’ve always been inspired by German Expressionism, F.W. Murnau, in particular. I love the framing. I love the light of those films. When I was making Mila I told my director of photography that I wanted to shoot a silent film in black and white. We then shot it in color and with sound, but my inspiration was the German expressionist cinema, and I almost felt in making these films that their vastly arching poles are really an impossible approach to cinema. You shoot scenes, scenes which are intimations and suggestions, but they look realistic and the spectator believes things or on the other hand you film things that are actually taking place, like acts of physical love, but give the spectator the impression that they haven’t seen it. Those two poles are the two possible approaches to making movies.
Adam: Something that is hidden in plain site.
Catherine: One of the things about silent movies I love is the framing. It’s something that we’ve lost in the sound films, the classic ratio, the format of opinion, and the format of the portrait. There’s an element of intimacy that’s been lost. It’s also a way of filming. If you shoot a close-up then you have the impression and the focus on the face. You can see exclusively the face. Whereas if you use the wider aspect of the cinemascope, then you either are forced to cut off the face, to do an extreme crop off the top or the bottom of the face. Or if you want to show the entire face you have to cut off the entire surrounding. So I think we’ve lost a lot of that.
Adam: Do you see differences in relation to filming the body or the face?
Catherine: Of course the face is very, very important, and it has it’s own tropes from psychology. What about shooting the body though as opposed to focusing on the face? How has that frame changed the way one views the body? Is there a way to put more focus on the body as opposed to the face? And what does that mean if it is done? The only way to do that is with tracking shots. You start with when you’re showing the body you have to start with a wide shot to place the body in space and then you close in on the face. That’s the only way you can do it. This is where you show the pleasure on the face, that’s what interests us: The look on the face, the emotion the person is feeling. That’s the only way to shoot the body.
Adam: I only bring it up because I’m thinking of Oshima or Candida Royale. These directors, their shots of sex and intimacy are… I don’t want to say ‘anti-pleasurable’ but a lot of what is done is that the camera is focused on the knee, on the elbow, and you’re kind of constantly denied the face as a way to… Well, it de-eroticizes the image in some way to actually just show the body, making it more corporeal and making it more flesh, denying the face, denying the emotion. It seems this is what makes it graphic.
Catherine: I’ll respond with Oshima’s diaries. He said that he realized he was obstinate in showing physical scenes. This was something he was not able to do. He realized it was something that he’d have to do. He said that as directors what we’re interested in showing is: A woman naked in love with a man, or a dog, or another woman. The two scenes that interest you are; a woman making love, or someone dying. When he was offered the opportunity to make In the Realm of the Senses he didn’t immediately accept it. It took him two years, because he realized that he’d have to force himself to struggle against his initial inclination and depict the act of sex. He’d have to put himself in a situation where he had no choice but to depict it.
Adam: How do you view the audience in relation to making these images? Do you have to project an ideal audience situation of being in the theater?
Catherine: My apologies to my audience, but I never consider the audience. I’m never concerned with the reaction of the audience. I’m interested in searching for my desire, searching for my pleasure, my artistic sense. When Van Gogh cut off his ear, did he do it to increase his profit margin? No, it was a quest, an artistic search, a question of his ideals and his own path. When I film, I’m searching for subjects to express myself, and I’m not concerned with the audience’s reaction. However, I have to add that when the audience does respond well, and likes my films, this provides huge pleasure, but it’s not what motivates me.
Adam: Let me cheekily ask the question in a different way. When you go to see films. Do you prefer to see them with an audience or to watch them alone?
Catherine: I infinitely prefer to see a film with an audience, but when an audience feels awkward or embarrassed about what it’s seeing, then that creates a relationship of hatred to what’s on screen. The response to a film depends so much on the country that the film is being seen in, the audience response, the critic’s response, there’s so much.
Adam: What kind of different reactions have you gotten on the same film, say between France and Germany, or the United States?
Catherine: Probably the most striking example was 36 Fillete, which had the entire French Senate, and the film industry, in such a state of shame and embarrassment. Deep shame, it was certainly considered the worst film of the year, and one of the worst films of all time. When the film was invited to the New York Film Festival the President of the UNI France, whose job it is to promote and sell French films around the world, felt that it was necessary to attend the festival and to reassure the audience that the film was not representative of French films. He accompanied the film around the world.
Adam: What do you think it was that touched such a nerve?
Catherine: I don’t know what it is. I don’t think people remember their adolescence or how they were as adolescents, and feel embarrassed to see adolescence on screen. They found the film obscene. In France, one critic wrote that even the people’s gazes onscreen were obscene. Anglo-Saxon audiences seem to understand me better, far better, than French audiences do actually. They simply don’t get me or respond well to me. This is confirmed by the one country that speaks both English and French, and that is Canada. In Ontario, where the main language is English, I get great reviews and great audience responses. Whereas when the same film is shown in francophone Quebec, it tends to be torn apart by the reviewers. So there’s something about me and French that just doesn’t seem to go along.
Adam: That’s ironic, because the stigma is that Anglo-Saxons are the prudes.
Catherine: I must point out that I myself am very prudish and puritanical, so when I make films like this, it’s an explosion from Puritanism.
Adam: So it’s your inner Anglo-Saxon?
Catherine: Why yes.