Depending on your perspective, “Romance” charts Marie’s downfall or her liberation. Trapped in a white-clad prison with a man who won’t touch her, she journeys into the erotic imagination in increasingly risky sexual encounters. Breillat directs the film with typical coldness; the performances are monotone and infused with longing. Among her movies that use unsimulated sex, “Romance” (with its ironic title) positions sex as an essential need and a tool for forging identity.
Since her feature debut, “A Real Young Girl” in 1976, Breillat has explored many shades of the erotic. Unsatisfied with gentle, romantic narratives, she pushes her characters to their sexual limits. Her approach is hardly naturalistic and favors a cold distance in even her most intimate films. The sex, graphic by nearly any standard, is kept similarly at arm’s length and often unfolds in real-time. It’s often awkward and strange in the same way sex in real life lacks the glossy editorialization of Hollywood.
In an era where sex in movies seems to be on trial, Breillat’s films puncture the conception of “good sex.” Breillat’s films are wrought with uncertainty, unbridled longing, and messy coercion as they challenge easy readings. Though it’s been nearly ten years since her last movie, “Abuse of Weakness,” the thrust of her filmography still can shock. In an era where sex seems to increasingly exist as either a shadowy absence or in excessive overabundance, both are informed heavily by the nature of capital (Disney films avoid sex to appeal to the broadest audience possible, whereas pornography wants uncomplicated titillation to appeal to baser needs, rather than philosophical ones), Breillat asks the simple question, “why do we have sex?”
In her most critically acclaimed film, “Fat Girl,” two sisters vacation with their family. The older daughter, Elena (Roxane Mesquida), has modelesque good looks and dreams of a perfect romance. The younger sibling, Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), is less conventionally attractive and has no such aspirations. She hopes her “first time” is with a man who doesn’t love her. Throughout the summer, Elena strikes up a romance with an older man, an Italian law student who pressures her into sex. Anaïs watches, often literally on the other side of the room, pressed against a wall. It’s a film that doesn’t offer a polemic as much as it does observations about the nature of beauty and desire within a society poisoned by both random and patriarchal violence.