Film: Yes, but isn't it pornography?

The French director Catherine Breillat claims to have reinvented the adult movie. Chris Darke met her
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`Cinema," says Catherine Breillat, " is practical work with skin and emotions." This is certainly true of Romance, the 51-year-old director's sixth film. On the French posters, the film's title is scored through with a hot red X, which gives us an idea of the sort of territory we're in.

Breillat's film tells the story of Marie, a teacher in her twenties who is trapped in a sterile relationship with Paul, her boyfriend, a narcissistic male model who refuses to have sex with her. Desperate, Marie wilfully embarks on what Breillat describes as "a quest" that takes her into various extreme sexual situations. The forays into casual sex and S&M ritual humiliation are intense, punishing and explicitly depicted; the Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi is a conspicuous presence in the film. When the film premiered at this year's Rotterdam International Film Festival, there was a genuine sense of shock among the audience. But some critics were heard to mutter the word "masterpiece" as they came out.

When I met Breillat, she was accompanied by her young son and her 21- year-old lead actress, Caroline Ducey, who plays the reckless, fearlessly sexual Marie. The family image was decidedly out-of-kilter with the experience of the film. Dark-haired and intense, Breillat radiated intelligence, humour and a certain steeliness. But hadn't she taken a lot of risks in making a film which used the codes and personnel of pornography? Had she, I asked, intended to make a pornographic film? "No. `Pornographic' is a label, an industry, and it's so called to isolate the image of sexuality from human identity, from the dignity that we have as people," Breillat asserted. "My film is about a woman in search of her entire identity ... We all use our sexuality, sometimes to abase ourselves, sometimes to transcend ourselves. The love relationship is highly transcendent, there's a kind of quest for purity."

Despite the explicit sex, Romance will be shown in British cinemas uncut with an "18" certificate. For Breillat has been quite canny in the way she presents sex on-screen. "The most explicit portrayal of sexual intercourse is avoided," notes a statement from the British Board of Film Classification. Images of male genitalia are used in a "safe-sex" context, the statement goes on. And the sadmasochistic sequences are described as avoiding "any violence or non-consensual element", and as notable for the "sensitivity and concern of the principal male character". "With its overlay of philosophical commentary", the BBFC adds, the film is "a particularly French piece".

It's also unapologetically an art movie, and one which has a defiantly modernist tone. The mise-en-scene abstracts the heat from the sex; explicit rituals take place in sterile, anti-realistic rooms that look like art installations. Yorgis Arvanniti's cinematography lends the film a glacial feel, a little reminiscent of David Cronenberg's Crash. And Ducey turns in a remarkable performance as Marie, like one of the silent cinema's martyrs to desire. Breillat has said that what interested her about Ducey was her ability as an actress to illuminate and depict the spectacle of her own suffering. She seems to inhabit it while rising above it.

"I came on to the film at the last minute," Ducey explained when we met. "A friend had done some tests and had been quite troubled by it. But there were a lot of things that I recognised in Marie. Something clicked for me. I knew I could do it." She speaks of Breillat as having "a degree of sincerity that you don't often see in the world of cinema".

There's a savage hilarity to Ducey's performance, a comic and invective- driven spieling. In her scene with Paolo, the good-natured Italian stud played by Siffredi, she offers up a scabrous little riff on the shortcomings of "thin, dog-like p----s", which, she pronounces, are "ignoble". Siffredi, dumbly massaging his own huge erection, looks on impassively. He has made some 1,000-plus forays into hardcore pornography over a 15-year career; his presence caused "a few on-set ructions", Breillat has said.

Breillat has long been accustomed to defending her work against accusations that it is pornographic. She published L'Homme Facile, her first novel (she has six others to her name, as well as screenplays for Fellini, Pialat and Caviani) when she was 20; it was restricted to an 18-plus readership. Her film before this one, 1996's Perfect Love!, was a frighteningly intense study of a young man's misogynystic killing of his older lover.

So in many ways Romance represents the culmination of Breillat's career- long assassination of the myth of romantic love. The trajectory can be seen in the retrospectiveof her work coming up soon at the National Film Theatre and Cine Lumiere in London. And Romance is a major achievement, the hardest, coldest, most refined summation of the themes and styles she has been exploring over 20 years and six films.

But Breillat is no longer the enfante terrible of the French cultural scene. She has steadfastly marked out her place in the predominantly male club of French auteur cinema. And Breillat has become something of a pioneer, too, for a new generation of French women directors, such as Laetitia Masson and Noemie Lvovsky, who are making similarly uncompromising work within the auteur sphere. "I feel singular, it's my way of being alone," she says of her place in the French cinema. "If I didn't, I wouldn't have the courage I have."

Suddenly, all sorts of film-makers seem interested in revitalising the once-moribund tradition of the adult movie: Kubrick's done it with Eyes Wide Shut. The Dogme directors have done it in The Idiots, Festen and Mifune. And a whole swathe of other European directors seem now to want to sexualise the content of the films they make, giving an "adult" treatment to adult subject-matter. The eternal topics of men and women, sex and power, desire and fear, are being revisited and investigated anew.

In some ways we've been here before, in the 1970s, which was the last time the depiction of explicit sexual content went mainstream in art films - such as Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972) and Nagisa Oshima's Ai No Corrida/ The Realm of the Senses (1976).

"Ai No Corrida is an absolutely magnificent film," says Breillat. "It's the proof that pornography, in itself, when put in a film, need not make it vulgar, sordid or mediocre. Romance was more pornographic on paper, because words have more weight than images. Anyway, Caroline is someone with whom it's impossible to make any kind of pornography."

Breillat says that she likes to skip the rehearsals when she's working with her performers. "As soon as they start acting I'm shooting. The magic happens straightaway and can't be repeated. But at the editing I was really worried. I said to Caroline, I have the feeling that everything was good, that I had the best ingredients imaginable, but somehow they didn't gell. It was necessary to find the meaning of the film. That was a real test." "Oui," whispers Ducey. "A real test."

I ask Breillat whether she thinks her films scare men. "They scare women, too," she reassures me. "I think they scare people who are scared of themselves." She admits that she draws creatively from what she describes as "her great reservoir of vitriol".

"When I saw Romance I thought it was proof that I was mad," Breillat adds with a broad laugh. Then she suddenly turns earnest. "When you make a film, you do it in a kind of trance," she says. "It's difficult afterwards to look at it and think, it's me who did that, when you see that it's violent and cruel."

On Ducey's face, a knowing look turns into a smile. And Breillat starts to laugh, too.

`Romance' (18) will be screened at the NFT, SE1 (0171 928 3232) on 2 October, and goes on release on 8 October. An NFT/ Cine Lumiere retrospective of Breillat's work opens on 2 October with Breillat herself in conversation, and continues to 6 October