Catherine Breillat, the Gallic answer to Germaine Greer, has made a name for herself with a collection of candid plays, films and novels exploring the nature of obsessive love and sexual desire. A success in France, Breillat's latest film Romance (which receives its UK premiere at this year's Edinburgh Festival on Monday 23 August) covers familiar territory as it charts the ailing relationship of Paul (Sagamore Stevenin) and Marie (Caroline Ducey).
Devastated by Paul's refusal to sleep with her, Marie embarks on a series of increasingly dangerous sexual adventures, which see her pick up a stranger in a bar (Italian porn star Rocco Sifreddi in a headline-grabbing piece of casting), receive lessons in sado-masochism from a school headmaster and eventually get raped.
An unsettling mixture of philosophical ideas ("you can be without having, you can have without being" Marie miserably tells her class of conjugating kids) and explicit sex, this disturbing look at female desire split opinion in France. Just like everything from Histoire d' O to Last Tango in Paris and Betty Blue, Romance is was hailed as a cultural milestone, the critics just weren't sure in what way. While Liberation called it "a successful adventure into the female body" and Le Monde cheered that "for once, a woman is the hero", Andre Bercoff of France-Soir screamed, "brothers, we have to admit that mum's a whore".
Even the star of Romance seems unsure how to read the final film. Sometimes Ducey describes the movie as "the final brick in the building of female liberation", at others it's "a very simple love story". Whatever else, a year ago the leading role in a new film seemed a fantastic opportunity for an unknown actress. "The only thing I knew about the film then was a brief outline of the story," says Ducey. "It said it was about `a young girl who is a teacher who is in love with her boyfriend. Their love stops and she goes down to hell'."
Younger and livelier than her alter ego, Ducey also seems smaller and more fragile in the flesh than she does on screen. Dressed in a pair of baggy jeans, white pumps and a tiny vest, she looks like a little girl as she puffs on a cigarette and remembers how she fell in love with director Catherine Breillat.
"I arrived for my first audition on Friday the 13th. I'd never heard of Catherine Breillat before but I felt good with her. We made a real connection. I'd never been looked at like that before. When she stares at people she seems to disappear. She's very precise, very concentrated. Her ideas were interesting, and I told myself, `this woman, she's incredible. She seems to be very clever'."
Fascinated, Ducey found herself at a screen test with six other girls and Breillat. "We clicked," she remembers. "I was the last one to leave the place where we were shooting, so we took the subway together and she gave me a scenario and told me to call her back and tell her what I thought. I wanted to call her back that evening, but I told myself, no I have to read the script first, I have to be able to talk about it."
"So the next Sunday morning I was lying in bed with my boyfriend asleep next to me and I started to read the script. And it was horrible! I started to cry. I told myself `No!', I was terrified and called my agent and asked him: "What is this? Why did you send me to this casting? What does it mean? What does she want? He told me not to worry and said it's always like that, `Catherine Breillat always writes very crude stories, but when she shoots them it's very different'."
Apart from anything else, it was the career break from heaven. "This is a terrific role for an actress because it plays with limits. You know, Romane Bohringer wanted to play this part!" Ducey says excitedly.
With only a month before shooting started, Ducey skipped a crash course on kinky sex and instead, rather sweetly, went to a theatre workshop to practise her improvisations. "There were a lot of things in this script I didn't want to understand," she admits. "Such as the sado-masochism ... I didn't want to see people doing it, or go to a nightclub."
As for lubricious literature, Ducey "read a little Sade at college" but otherwise remained blithely unschooled in erotica.
When Ducey's friends told her that they had heard Breillat boasting about making "a real porno film", Ducey decided that the director was just being provocative. "She wanted to try something new and I thought her ideas were interesting. She explained that the three religions, Catholicism, Judaism and Islam have created the same problems for women, because the woman has to be pure. Either you are a mother or a prostitute. Existing in between is hard. I thought this film would be important for feminism: educational".
Audiences, though, put aside such cerebral concerns, embarking instead on an amused debate about the vital statistics of Ducey's co-star, Rocco Sifreddi. The veteran of over 1,000 porn films, this was Sifreddi's first "straight" movie, although his role calls upon little beyond his sexual prowess. In a welter of nudge, nudge jokes about his nickname ("26 centimetres") even Catholic MP Rosalyne Bachelot joked that she'd liked to see him in action.
Ducey, whose father has yet to see the film (her mother's been three times), is angry that such pre-publicity made people mistake Romance for a porn film. "Catherine Breillat's casting of Sifreddi was very hard for me," she says, looking hurt. "She pulled this stunt with this commercial porn star, when Romance was supposed to be fighting against that kind of thing. I have tried to understand why she cast Sifreddi but I don't think it's fair on the other actors, who worked really hard." For the first time, Ducey looks downcast. "Nobody understood exactly what she wanted to do. She wants to fight against pornography, but she uses it at the same time! For what?
"What was difficult was the impact of the personality of the director," Ducey continues. "She's very strong. That was difficult because I wasn't okay with everything and we didn't speak. She was telling me and I was just listening. Each time I tried to explain what I felt, how I saw the world she didn't listen to me. She's gone her way, and I've gone mine."
It is impossible not to see Ducey's experience in Romance as an amour fou, an affair that's come to a bitter end. Is the finished film different to what she had expected? Ducey nods miserably. "I was happy with what we did when we were shooting, but maybe I didn't understand the real meaning of the story until after we finished filming.
"It wasn't the love story I thought it was," she reflects. "I gave it everything I could, but maybe I lied to myself to make it."