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The Passenger or the search for identity (FW31)

Catherine Breillat - Interview

Following the UK Premiere of A Ma Soeur (France, 2000) at the Edinburgh Film Festival, the Institute Francais in London hosted a weekend devoted to the work of the French director. By Laura Malacart

Breillat's oeuvre, is daring - but such is art. Art stems from experience and treks across unknown territories that must be painstakingly conquered. Breillat's output spans a period of over 30 years. It comprises of film and writing, which are exclusively devoted to sexual politics - or rather, to the politics of the sexual act. In her vision, the construction of feminine identity through sexuality begins with the deconstruction of any givens and is followed by the subversion of existing codes of interpretation. This rigorous search is designed to shine the headlights onto what Freud conveniently defined as the 'obscure continent'. Breillat's research begun precociously when at the age of 17, familiar with the writings of De Sade and Lautreamont, she published a 'licentious' novel that, paradoxically, was banned to those under the age of 18. Her contention is that sexuality is a cerebral experience, a mental state, and consequently, it is a process that cannot be divorced from thought and is subject to discursive practices, be political or philosophical. The desired outcome is what Breillat metaphorically describes as 'the quest for the Holy Grail', consisting in the will to undergo self-annihilation in order to instigate a new way of being. Somewhat of an essayist in the territory staked by French feminist philosophers, Breillat's original voice exploits the potential of visual language in allowing the simultaneous experience of contradictory elements. Apparent juxtapositions of innocence and evil, angels and devils, virgins and whores, articulate the process of reclaiming the feminine. The protagonists, who have willingly undergone a risky search, are rewarded with a new sense of self. So, how can an angel be dirty, or the Babylon whore, become a virgin? The story unfolds in a slow and quiet style, reminiscent of Japanese cinema, where silence can be more powerful than words.

Breillat's work is often accused of being pornographic, because of the sexually explicit nature of some of its content. Such a superficial reading is blind to the real film content. As her films operate as carefully crafted visual essays, they have little to do with porn, and nothing to do with the reasons behind the production of pornography. When I asked Breillat to expand on the subject, she pointed out: "If one thinks about it, then it becomes clear... pornography, as it is conceived, empties sexuality of thought: everything is reduced to the mechanical rubbing of the flesh. Sexuality on the other hand is intimately related to desire, and desire does not figure in pornography. I feel that the people who promote it, the people in the industry, think they make visible the truth about sex, and instead, they show something dead, something which is not inhabited by thought."

Essentially Breillat's work depicts 'transgressive women' on a journey of self-discovery through sexuality. Perhaps, the shocking aspect of her films reside in challenging patriarchal values of femininity. The 'uneasy' aspect of her work being ideological, rather than a matter for censorship. Breillat is adamant that religious or post-religious ideologies set out to control people, and particularly women, by relating the sexual domain with sin. After all, the expression of sexuality has always been subject to control and legislation: " I am reading a book at the moment called 'Pornocracie' ... it expresses in a tumultuous and opportunistic way, the power of pornography as it is perceived by most people and those critics who don't want to open the dictionary. Because 'pornocracy' is in fact a Greek word: like 'democracy' is the government of the people, likewise, 'pornocracy' expressed in ancient Greece the intolerant feeling of the influence that women had within the government via the tool of seduction. Seduction, because women had nothing else to use having been denied civil rights. So, they seized power via seduction, whilst men, in order to deprive them of rights, tried not to educate them and treated them as if they were animals. So, all this is part of it, and as a woman, I have to say, that I noticed that when my education began, it wasn't intended to make me grow, but rather to contain me. Particularly with religious education around the age of 16 or 17, I understood that it wasn't anything to do with my spiritual growth, rather something reductionist..."

It is essential, in order to understand Breillat's oeuvre, to distinguish between "religion" – intended as a system inhabited by ideology - and people's spiritual aspirations. In fact: "Religious ideology harbors totalitarianism and that is evident not only when it comes to wars - although essentially religion is a war to women, a means to contain them. This is achieved by turning sexuality into something shameful and dirty, and by associating it with woman - because let's face it, by pornography we mean woman… Initially, all this is quite intangible, and to this extent I agree with Cronenberg who states that we need to see things from a material perspective, in their organic manifestation. Take the female genitalia, - having been attributed a connotation of dirt, they are seen as non-aesthetic… well, aesthetic appreciation is nothing but a fad, it's fashion and it can be changed at any time. You can't build morality over an esthetic fad…". By emphasizing the arbitrary or relativist nature of legislation, Breillat infers that discursive issues around sexuality are steeped in the vice of power and control: "…therefore, obscenity is an invention, so is pornography, and they are political notions created against women. Going back to my work, I reconsider sexuality and I deal with the sexual act as inherent to identity. It's a philosophical search rather than a commercial exercise".

We are in the familiar territories of French post-structuralist thinking: Foucault's formulations on sexuality, Kristeva, Irigaray and Cixous' elaborations on feminine identity, all of which stem from the issue that female subjectivity inhabits a patriarchal language and is therefore forced to operate from the 'inside'. As there is nothing 'outside' language, as Lacan or Derrida propose, then all issues relating to identity, like sexuality and desire, are constituted within it. Breillat's preoccupation lays within these discursive practices: "Given it's a political issue, it must be spoken out using language - and desire can only be embedded in language, otherwise the sexual act in itself as materiality, is very insignificant. The orgasm is nothing but the act transcending to something higher and more spiritual, it is the passage from the flesh to the absence of flesh, to the transparent body. It transcends the material and becomes abstract. This abstraction distinguishes man from the animal kingdom. It's a human pursuit and has nothing to do with the bourgeois man visiting the brothel... I don't believe the aim of sexuality is pleasure, but rather a transmutation into an abstract principle".

Breillat rewrites the symbols of Christianity via her visual language - let's consider her film Romance. The work is impeccably sketched out, both in terms of characterization and formal aspects such as colour. In Romance the female protagonist is initially white clad and inhabits the white apartment of her beloved, also clad in white. He refuses to have sexual intercourse with her, as he has done for the whole period of their relationship. When she decides to embark in a journey of sexual discovery through a series of specifically differentiated sexual experiments with other men, the environments change along with the colours. For example, S&M encounters are staged in red and black surroundings. We are in a Manichean world of polarities, where religious symbolism recalls purity and sin, virgins and whores. I asked Breillat how does Christian symbolism operate in a film, where religion is conceived as a perpetrator, as the premise that robs us of our spiritual imaginary: "Christ never intended to form a religion in the sense that one could speak for God. That is the fundamental con. It's impossible, God can govern, and there is no need for a bearded man to intervene. The colours in Romance are totally symbolic of the alchemic process, a symbolism appropriated by the church. And why? Because it refers to the quest for the Holy Grail".

The choice to refer to pre-Christian alchemical thinking and symbols, enables Breillat to undo and undermine Christian thought altogether. Alchemical philosophy in fact, pre-dates Catholicism, and only subsequently was incorporated and reconfigured by the latter. By returning to a pre-Cristian vocabulary, Breillat - and other visual arts practitioners staking similar territories such as Rebecca Horn or Jana Sterbak - disable the stronghold of religious ideology. Equally, the quest for the Holy Grail (which is not intended in its latter Medieval manifestation) stands for a positive attempt at spiritual growth, unpresided by the constraints of the Catholic church: "…that's exactly what religion does not approve of, Christian religion wants guilty people, and its leaders need to instigate a perennial guilt where man has to pay for the original sin - the guilt is inherited and the process continues. Religion is a totalitarian tool that uses our spiritual aspirations".

By the same token, Romance ends with Marie framed as the Virgin Mary with the child and the veil... how does Breillat re-frame virginity according to alchemical symbolism?: "There is a clue earlier in the film, when Robert reads to Marie an alchemical text that says that the Virgin engenders the Child and the Child the Virgin, so the Babylon Whore then becomes the Virgin. It's the constantly found virginity: it's the opposite of the religious ideal. Virginity stands for life, what pushes us to live life on a daily basis? It's the notion that one of these days, we're going to do something amazing, and that's virginity, the yearning for the ideal. And that's the way Marie progresses in Romance, her learning curve consists of undoing all that she's learned, and this painful and potentially lethal... But the death of the old implies the birth of the new, regeneration - just like when,spring comes after winter and on the bare soil vegetation appears... That's the core principle of alchemy and that's is the quest for the Holy Grail. Marie's S&M experience is intended in that sense: she undoes herself and reaches a higher being, so the quest for a sexual identity equates with that of the Holy Grail. I don't think people have understood this intent fully, but I think they have perceived it, because this film defeats all censorship".


The heroine in Romance, is dyslexic. As she is the 'subject in process', the woman who chooses to undo all preconceptions about her sexuality to follow her quest of self-discovery, I asked Breillat, how Marie's dyslexia functions in relations to her position of outsider, as someone forced to inhabit a language that is inherently patriarchal. "Essentially, she's is initially perceived as less-able, but in fact she cannot fully embrace language, it's a way of being different, it's like a reaction to the feeling of inadequacy - sometimes we find that those who appear to seem outsiders are the most interesting people...like when someone who is uneasy in a situation develops a way of estranging him/herself. But society does not see it in these terms and those people are described as victims".

Three out of six of Breillat's films deal with adolescent sexuality. In 36 fillettes, Alice seeks refuge from her boredom with family life into erotic fantasies - including one in which she is raped by a rugged worker. Equally, in A Ma Soeur, Anais wishes to loose her virginity to 'a nobody, a piece of flesh, an animal'. When the rape does occur, paradoxically it is what the girl wished for. After the rape, Anais denies to the officials it ever took place and subsequently her frozen stare leaves the viewer with a sense of astonishment during the end titles. Breillat intends the episode to relate to the notion of disempowerment via victimization: "… her resolution not to admit to the event represents her ultimate preservation from the role of victim. She wished for the sexual act to happen for its sake, and didn't necessarily want it to be associated with love, so she decided the act was for her to own and not for society. As a private event and needed to remain that way, thus avoiding the humiliation of police officers, doctors and official administrators of morality".

Anais'counterpoint is her sister Elene, whose beauty and presumed sexual awareness, invokes a different sexual acting out … "I think A Ma Soeur is centered on the idea that a girl's sexual experience does not belong to her privacy but it belongs to society, the first sexual experience does not belong to the individual: society deprives the individual of it, because it needs to be accounted for. Therefore, the first sexual encounter tends to be lived by kids, both male and female, not as a big deal. After all one doesn't construct a cathedral with one stone... this act is the entering into sexual practice. The loss of virginity, especially for the girls, is the first robbing on behalf of society. In the case of Elena, given that she is so beautiful, but also very young, she cannot expect that the boy, who tells her that he loves her, in fact simply desires her. She cannot know she is an object of desire; no one can at that age. And he, in turn, could not discern to be an object of desire. Her situation enters the problematic of what I call 'the banality of violence', which is in fact the topic of a situation comedy. As such, it is quite an odd topic. She loses her virginity because of his words of love, which herself knows he is just acting out because he has to. For his part, he is convinced that, in order to have of his own dignity and avoid the guilt for desiring her, he accepts to be loved but his is desire... so the whole dynamic is already wrapped in all the society codes that foreground romantic love. And that particular scene, is almost a comedy scene - it spells out all the society codes that prescribe that girls can't have sex unless they do a love sermon. It's the same for the boy - if he doesn't whisper sweet nothings, he loses his dignity... this reciprocity of codes is not taken into accounts and just assimilated into our private lives. So in the film, the comical aspect arises when the audience recognizes themselves in this absurd scenario. The kids desire each other but they must act out the pretence of romantic love".

As a cold bourgeois family frames the girls' lives, I asked Breillat how deliberate was the point of the parents' inadequacy or the dysfunctional nature of the bourgeois family: "the family ought to represent the safe haven, the happy place; instead the parents are themselves trapped by society codes without even seeing it".

In the end, Anais remains defiant on the screen and her stare challenges the viewer into taking into account the extent of her trauma but also her seizing control of it. It is no coincidence that all of Breillat's movies end with a freeze frame of the heroine's stare: just like a full stop, this provocative statement and forces the viewer to acknowledge the dangerous journey of self-discovery the heroine has undertaken.

Les Vetements de mer (1971)
L'Homme Facile (1968)
Le Tapage Nocturne (1979)
Le Soupirail (1979)

La Pelle Liliana Cavani
And the Ship Sailed on, Federico Fellini
Police, Maurice Pialat
Zanzibar, Christine Pascal

Une Vraie Jeune Fille (1976)
36 Fillettes (1987)
Sale comme an Ange (1991)
Parfait Amour! (1996)
Romance (1998)
A ma soeur (2000)