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Hot It’s Not: Sex, Love and Romance

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 OPINIONS


Hot It's Not: Sex, Love and Romance by Minna Proctor  


Riding on a wave of pre-release buzz that only blow jobs and ten-inch dicks can inspire, French director Catherine Breillat’s sixth film (the first to find U.S. distribution), Romance, is being marketed as the sexiest art film since Last Tango in Paris and nominates her for a spot in the genealogy of women artists who dare to be frank about sex. The ultra-graphic nature of the sexual material, along with Breillat’s insistence on acknowledging the influence of venerable pornographers the Marquis de Sade and Georges Bataille, would support the notion that Romance is a Third Wave feminist take on the erotic.

Here’s the rub: it’s not sexy or erotic; it’s just graphic. It’s a disturbingly graphic portrait of female sexuality at its most troubled, which is something of a leap from Breillat’s own defense of her project: to “reclaim sexual representation from the pornography industry and to restore some dignity to the portrayal of human sexuality.”


    

Nine times out of ten, when troubled female sexuality is portrayed from a woman’s perspective in books or movies, it is as a kind of disaffected promiscuity. Romance is no different. Marie, played by dark-eyed waif Caroline Ducey, is an elementary school teacher whose boyfriend, Paul (Sagamore Stevenin), a model, does not want to have sex with her and hasn’t for three months. Rather than interpret his lack of interest as a signal that the relationship is, or should be, over, Marie embarks on a tortured and torturous journey of self-examination, taking on the unilateral responsibility of trying to find a way to reconcile her needs — as if it were her problem, not his. She sneaks out of their sterile bed late at night and brazenly picks up a lonely hunk, Paolo (Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi), in a café. She has sex with him, but doesn’t enjoy it because she’s too busy meditating on the differences between men and women. She starts an exploratory and stilted bondage affair with the principal at her school, a talkative father figure who can both make her cry and comfort her afterwards. She picks up another stranger in the street and lets him eat her out in the vestibule of their apartment building. But even when it goes awry and he rapes her, she’s really just focused on being the last one home so that Paul might wonder where she’s been. All for naught.


    

The graphic scenes include a couple of unconvincing blow jobs, some tentative stroking of Paolo’s condom-shrouded penis, one come shot (part of a Madonna/whore allegorical dream sequence), close-ups of Marie’s pubes, one damp digit, an overpopulated gynecological exam and a full-on stretched-to-the-max birthing scene. These scenes might push the scandal envelope of the art-house circuit, but erotic they are not. There is little human about the sexuality portrayed, even less dignity, and the only thing sexual about the depictions is that they’re explicit.


    

No, Romance is more like a Pasolini film where the obscenity lies in the usurpation of Catholic iconography and the sympathetic depiction of morally bereft characters (not in a random cleavage or crotch shot). What is pornographic about Romance are the misbegotten extremes of self-effacement the heroine goes to in order to retain the promise of love. It is painfully obvious that the relationship between Marie and Paul is not worth salvaging. And if it isn’t clear in the opening scene where the two are sitting over a table discussing their moribund sex life — Marie in tears and Paul aloof and defensive — then it becomes transparent when we see them in bed together and it’s revealed that they haven’t had sex in months. While tears can be thrilling, despondence is boring. Marie’s character has despondence written into it, which casts a deadening shadow over her multifarious adventures, blurring what might be picaresque experimentalism into a kind of one-note

flailing. Marie robotically goes through the motions, dropping naive existential platitudes all the while, and finding not a hint of enjoyment (she even makes masturbation look tragic). The school principal appears happy

enough, rummaging through his toy trunk for bondage paraphernalia like an expectant seven year old, yet he ultimately seems more interested in chatter and literary reference than eroticism per se. Paul is actually insulted by the notion of sex. The vestibule rapist insults with sex. Ironically, the only person who seems to enjoy himself is Paolo, Rocco Siffredi’s character — the guy Breillat imported from the porn industry.


    

But at the risk of overstating the obvious, sexuality doesn’t need to be rescued from pornography any more than Rocco does. Sex isn’t a pie with only so many pieces to go around, and only so many ways to slice it. Quite the opposite. Porn speaks to the sexuality of its fans, as does any erotic endeavor, and the ways of doing it are as diverse as the players. One hopes that female sexuality has not been so set adrift by French philosophy that it doesn’t allow for desire without grief or psychological second-guessing.


    

Despite the hype, making feminist porn, or even a sex movie, was the least of Breillat’s artistic intentions. The Russian formalist Victor Shlovsky claimed that the purpose of art was to make the “stone stony,” to slow down or jar the reader or spectator so that the art itself was experienced. In other words, rather than reference sex, misery or suspense, the artist should strive to evoke it. In that respect, Breillat goes a long way toward making her presentation jarring. Here is where her graphic use of sex is effective — it keeps us looking. Things that are hard to look away from: Rocco Siffredi’s big happy dick, Stevenin’s little flaccid one, the gaping vagina in the birth scene, Dulcey’s awkwardly pretty face and waif-like body. Breillat uses sex as a formal device to grab our attention, to confuse us and thereby force us to struggle with the much more difficult and, frankly, more intimate story of human behavior in the throes of a diseased relationship.


    

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that while girls seem to suffer more ebbs than flows of the libido — especially over the long haul — boys, in general, like to get laid. A couple of off days might mean trouble at work, not enough red meat; a couple of off months indicates larger problems in the relationship: infidelity, boredom, discontent, the approach of a breakup, or confusions about sexual identity. Any one of which is a red flag. What, then, drives a person to stay, to wheedle, to beg? Love? Masochism? Insecurity? Clarity, as such, is not always immediate, and warnings are never easy to heed. We go through the machinations, fearing — God forbid — we might send away Mr. or Mrs. Right. Marie and Paul

remind us of affairs we look back on and think, “How could I have? What was I thinking?” People are peculiar in how they hang on to each other, the contortions they perform trying to stick square pegs into round holes, as anyone who has ever struggled to break away knows all too well.


    

As a “relationship” movie, or, more specifically, a movie about the tendency of the female psyche to be accommodating, Romance cuts uncomfortably close to the bone on the subjects of attachment, dependency and the cruel dynamics of just wanting to be loved. Strip away the sex and Romance is the story of a young girl who is with a man who doesn’t love her. In her attempts to recover the sensation of the beginning (those first gushes, when the thrill of discovery is fed by the sense of possibility) she indulges acts of desperation that inevitably drive the stake in deeper.


    

And so finally, what makes you squirm in your seat is not the close up of Marie’s crotch bound by white rope, but rather the uneasy acknowledgment that she’s doing it for Paul, even though Paul’s a dead end. What’s really obscene about Romance is that undercurrent of recognition that each of us has, in our own way, let ourselves be bound.






©1999 Minna Proctor and Nerve.com

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Locked in the Ivory Tower: A Romance Novelist Cries Out

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS







Locked in the Ivory Tower: A Romance Novelist Cries Out by Julie Tetel








My
name is Julie, and I write romances.


    

Though I have over a dozen novels to my name, my friends outside the romance community seem
to think I should put my writing through a twelve step program. But recovering from romance writing
would mean “doing it” with “literarily correct” conventions in “literarily correct” positions. Ick. I was once
a member of an elite local writer’s group. When it came my turn to read, I chose a passage from a romance I

was working on: the all-important hour of dressing where my heroine, attended by her Italian hairdresser,
sits in charming dishabille and is intruded upon by her husband-hero who is determined to get to the bottom
of her illegal investments in the stock market. The alpha writer in the group was generous with her praise.
“You are so talented,” she said. “I am eager to hear what you do when you grow into writing a real book.”


    

Over the years, I have learned to take — without a blink — the casual insults that regularly come my
way from all sorts of people who repeat deep and wide patterns of literary prejudice with no thought that
they are being insulting — or that they might need to read my work in order to comment on it. Of all the
genres, only romance is judged by the worst examples of its kind. Of all the genres, only romance is
considered by other writers as fair game to stigmatize.


    

I don’t criticize other writers and genres, and I refuse to play the They’re Just
Jealous ‘Cuz We’re Having All The Fun card. I have my standards.


    

Not even my intellectual credentials have made much of a dent in anyone’s perception of my
chosen genre or particular interpretation of it. I have a Ph.D. and teach linguistics in the English
Department at Duke University, yet my academic profile, when coupled with writing romances, tends either

to make me a curiosity — an unnatural hybrid — or to make things worse.


    

Not too long ago, while I was doing a signing at a local bookstore, a man I did not know
approached me and identified himself as a professor at Duke in one of the science departments. His purpose
was to inform me that I was sullying both the university and the nobility of literature by writing what I
write. In short, he came to tell me that “no one will ever give a Nobel prize to a romance novel.”


    

“The 1928 Nobel prize in literature,” I was happy to inform him, “went to Sigrid Undset for her
historical romance, Kristin Lavransdatter, and it’s about time for another one.”


    

Sheesh, science guys . . . Nobel prizes? Get over yourselves.


    

So, when faced with the routine malevolences of academic life and the ungrounded prejudices of
public opinion, what’s an embattled romance writer to do?


    

The answer is easy: write back.






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©1999
Julie Tetel and Nerve.com