A scene from 'Romance'
Courtesy Photo
** stars 103 minutes | Unrated (but sexually explicit)
In French with English subtitles
Opened: Friday, October 1, 1999 (limited)
Directed by Catherine Breillat

Starring Caroline Ducey, Sagamore Stevenin, Francois Berleand & Rocco Siffredi


A movie only for those who think they'd be entertained by watching a pretty, allegedly intelligent young woman loose a battle with low self-esteem.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 2/8/2000

French art porn tale of emotional dysfunction, sexual humiliation fails for its hopelessly self-debasing heroine

By Rob Blackwelder

"Romance" is the kind of French movie that can turn people off from French cinema altogether.

Not just the subtitle-averse, mind you, but anyone who isn't an arthouse snob, anyone who doesn't like foreign films simply because they suggest a sophistication American movies don't.

A dark character study of a beautiful, insecure young woman named Marie (Caroline Ducey) whose self-respect is shattered when her boyfriend loses interest in sex, the core idea here is a intriguing one -- the deep exploration of the natural feminine need to feel desired, gone very wrong. But "Romance" serves its anguish without optimism, making it almost impossible to get behind its hopeless heroine.

After a final, humiliating stab at trying to arouse her lover (Sagamore Stevenin), Marie shames herself into a hateful downward spiral, turning to anonymous sex with strangers, then to S&M, and finally to fulfilled rape fantasies, all in a passionless and frequently graphic (even pornographic) attempt to force herself into sexual indifference.

Meanwhile, a typically French excess of internal dialogue provides the audience a constant feed of Marie's insecurities and her self-debasing thought processes.

If this deliberately unpleasant film with the ironic title allowed its heroine to turn a corner and begin a journey of pride-recovering self-discovery, that would be one thing, but writer-director Catherine Breillat never lets Marie out of her pit of despair. As a human being, Marie turns out to be an emotional write-off, and waiting for her to pull herself together for 103 minutes -- only to find out she never will -- is a gyp.

What's more, Breillat fails to explore any kind of backstory that might explain poor Marie's severe psychological dysfunction. She seems to think her protagonist is perfectly normal -- which leads one to ponder how screwed up the director must be herself.

While Ducey's performance is powerful (the rest of the characters are vulgar one-note sketches), it's almost impossible to watch this movie without wondering what is wrong with an actress who would degrade herself like this for a role (having violent, objectified, on-screen sex, for one thing).

If, in the course of the story, the main character eventually began down a road to recovering her ego, it would probably have negated most of my complaints about "Romance." At least Marie would have held some appeal as a protagonist. But as it is, I honestly can't imagine this film appealing to anyone but misogynists and women who identify so strongly with Marie that they should be in therapy.


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