Not only is Catherine Breillat is a bestselling novelist, professor of Auteur Cinema and Bertolucci drama-starring actress – she is also one of France’s most influential modern-day directors, with a directorial oeuvre of nearly twenty films. For over forty decades, Breillat’s viscerally jarring and sensorially perceptive dramas have had generations of cinema-goers on the edge of their seats in anticipation, squirming their limbs in sensorial overload and springing their eyes wide open in unadulterated shock.
Breillat’s first foray into the world of cinema rendered deafening clear the filmic approach which the burgeoning filmmaker was to birth, develop and sharpen during her years dedicated to this art form of visual storytelling, offering a distinctly raw, vividly visceral and non-conformist treatment of human sexuality that is wholly unapologetic. In fact, her debut 1976 film, A Real Young Girl, an incendiary, passionate drama exploring the sexual awakening of a sulky adolescent who comes to grips with her concupiscence during a whirlwind summer, was not released in cinemas until over two decades after it was filmed. Indeed, Breillat’s penchant for the examination of human sexual nature has been one she has possessed since pre-pubescence and has not been confined to expression only in the filmic sphere. At the tender age of seventeen, she had her first novel published, A Man for the Asking, a publication that faced a similar fate to that of her inaugural film, receiving prohibition by the French government for readers under eighteen.
The auteur’s love of art stretches right back to the moment she first became enlightened of her life’s passion to be a director and writer at the age of twelve, after watching Swedish helmer Ingmar Bergman’s 1953 drama Sawdust and Tinsel, finding herself profoundly affected by Harriet Andersson’s character, Anna’s “fictional body”. Perhaps it is no surprise that the controversy-attracting filmmaker who displayed, at such a young age, antennae for the sheer force of expression of the human body when deftly used, made her foray on the acting scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 classic, Last Tango in Paris, as a dressmaker named Mouchette. Whether the fact that the ingenue’s decision to align herself with a filmic masterpiece that was incredibly provocative for its time stemmed from her nascent interest in the corporally sexual in film or whether her involvement set alight an endlessly burning fascination with the subject matter or whether it was a little of both, Breillat certainly reveals herself to be a vanguard figure of a corporeal mode of storytelling in film.
Breillat’s endeavour to provide considered, sensitive and illuminating explorations of sexual intimacy in its diverse manifestations by giving sex an almost sacrosanct place in the human society and life of her films has led to the director’s often startlingly explicit depictions of the close relationship between sexuality and violence. A film like her 1996 romantic drama, Perfect Love, a so-called “anatomy of murder” laying bare the zealous, debauched deadly dance of love between a young couple that swallows them in a tornado of warped violence, gives the viewer the distinct impression that Breillat does not strive to soften the explicitness of her artistic penchant for audience palatability, a commitment that has garnered her unrelenting waves of controversy throughout the course of her career. This dedication to proudly zealous, emotionally charged and fiercely corporeal portraits of human sexuality that furrows its paws into all the social taboos that an unalloyed exploration of intimacy welcomes, has led to the frequent association that is made with Breillat and the “cinéma du corps” movement, a label that the auteur most certainly lives up to.
More than just play with pre-existing conventions in the sphere of art-house cinema, Breillat blurred the boundaries between “real, artistic cinema” and adult films by casting the Italian pornographic actor, Rocco Siffredi in her 1999 film Romance, about a deeply dissatisfied school teacher who is left frustrated and craving sexual danger as a result of the insufficient intimacy she receives from her boyfriend, as well as in Anatomy of Hell released five years later that also explores risk-desiring sexual appetites in the endeavours of a woman who hires a gay man to spend four nights at her home and watch her engage with her body. A self-described admirer of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg’s vivid approach to sexuality in filmmaking – often leading to him being dubbed the progenitor of the “body horror” genre – Breillat herself similarity incites sentiments of shock and fascination in her audiences by offering a brazen explicitness in her portrayal of man’s physicality and presenting sexual negotiation in significantly more off-kilter, unnerving mode than is typically seen on screen, an endeavour that has rightly led to the director being heralded a revolutionary in her genre.
After a brief hiatus from her directorial commitments as a result of a tragic stroke that initially left half her body paralysed and from which she gradually rehabilitated, Breillat triumphantly returned to her directorial commitments in 2007 with her signature romance genre film, the Palme d’Or nominated The Last Mistress, offering a portrait of the betrayal-leaden, sensually-effused, events leading up to the marriage between a debaucherous bachelor and an aristocratic young lady, which was one of only three films that year to be officially selected for the Cannes Film Festival. The auteur proved that she was back on the scene with unyielding force offering another drama only two years later, one which offered a slight deviation in her typical narrative content: Bluebird (2009) emerged as Breillat’s first drama to derive its plot from the western world’s ages-old canon of fairytale folklore by presenting a majestically shot and overwhelmingly poignant adaptation of the classic tale of the relationship between a wealthy aristocrat and a bluebird.
In 2010, Breillat’s second fantasy drama, Sleeping Beauty, based on the eponymous fairy-tale, garnered the director further critical acclaim by opening on the Orizzonti Sidebar at the 67th Venice Film Festival. Indeed, the drama demonstrates Breillat’s ability to seamlessly shift from her own – widely-regarded as subversive – original material to centuries old tales founded on significantly more archaic gender dynamics, ones often espousing notions of masculine chivalry and feminine fragility. Undoubtedly, this is a testament to Breillat’s ability to excavate the raw, unvarnished truths of human sexuality and dexterously portray it in its spectrum of contexts using her insightfully poignant and sensitively nuanced style. Throughout her directorial career, Breillat has viscerally communicated her artistic insights through sharp, gripping narratives that achieve maximum effect through the utilisation of equally deft stylistic approaches. Particularly, she has demonstrated a staunch commitment to her signature filmic technique of using of long, lingering takes – particularly in her most visually grabbing scenes which deal directly with sexual intimacy.
This feature that is perhaps most strongly present in the auteur’s latest drama, Abuse of Weakness (2013), dealing with a stroke-afflicted filmmaker who becomes entangled in the deleterious machinations of a conman – directly based on Breillat’s real-life experiences being swindled by infamous conman Christophe Rocancourt following her hospitalisation – vividly communicates the richness of information that can be gleaned from individual identity in man’s dually vulnerable and empowered state of sexual negotiation. Yet, what is rendered most certain from her examinations of sentient man’s experiences of sexual intimacy and gender relations, relentlessly illuminating the unadulterated truths of sexual experience in a richness of contexts, is that the genre would be a significantly more rudimentary, paltry art form today if it were not for Breillat.