Controversial French director Catherine Breillat is obsessed with sex and power.
Breillat's last film, the brilliant Fat Girl (2001), featured one of the most excruciating "seduction" scenes on record, in which a beautiful teenager (Roxane Mesquida) is talked out of her virginity by an older boy in a prolonged battle for control. In Breillat's films, sex is a complicated, psychologically hairy negotiation in which girls measure their own desire against society's judgment. In all of her films, Breillat's contention is that where women are concerned, sex is never just sex.
Breillat's latest offering, Sex Is Comedy, has a misleading title considering how much unfunny hand-wringing Breillat brings to her under-the-covers battleground.
This film about the making of a film tracks the attempts by a resourceful, self-actualized and neurotic female director, Jeanne (Anne Parillaud), to direct a film similar to Fat Girl about the escalating sexual relationship between a teenage girl (Roxane Mesquida) and an older boy (Gregoire Colin).
But Sex Is Comedy is no laughing matter. Anyone who's ever imagined onscreen sex as a turn-on may have that notion put permanently to rest by an early scene in which the actor and actress neck at the beach wearing skimpy bathing suits while the film crew jumps up and down for warmth in down parkas and scarves in the frigid weather.
Things only get worse. Jeanne and her actors seem equally freaked out by what will transpire in the film's dreaded, climactic sex scene where egos will be stripped away and the truth revealed.
It turns out the actress and actor despise each other, a serious impediment to how well they're able to convey sexual passion in their scenes together. Jeanne does her best to act as a stand-in for her erotically challenged actress (the notion that Breillat is more enticing than the exotic Lolita Mesquida typifies the director's evident vanity) and sexually provokes her actor to play the part of a sex-starved guy.
Jeanne cajoles, bullies, soothes and insults when necessary. One minute she's holding onto Colin and stroking him like a lover, and the next she's berating him like a wayward child. Amid all of the fatuous psychodrama, the promised comedy of the film's title finally materializes when Jeanne acknowledges her actor's inability to perform on cue, and has her prop man craft a ludicrous 9-inch erect prosthetic penis, which the actor then wears, strutting around the studio like some X-rated Pinocchio.
All joking aside, Sex Is Comedy is ultimately a flaccid film more concerned with the endless negotiations between a director and her actors. Jeanne is perpetually blocked in her desire to assert control by her male actor, who is clearly threatened by the power she has over him. The crux of the film is how closely the relationship between Jeanne and her actors mimics a seduction and becomes an erotic tango of its own.
But Sex Is Comedy feels more like an abstract intellectual theorem in which Breillat proves women can be as conventionally libido-driven as men than any real commentary on the sexual and personal politics of filmmaking.
Breillat wants to make a political point: that a woman can win at this power game and that she can be smarter and stronger and also more desirable while doing so. Sex Is Comedy contains some interesting ideas, but is excruciatingly didactic and often laughably pretentious, typified by lines like this one from Jeanne: "I love postindustrial garbage dumps. I dote on whatever mangles the landscape."
If the director in Sex Is Comedy is truly a stand-in for Breillat, most people would probably prefer not to spend any time in the company of this pretentious, manipulative, autocratic woman. As is so often the case in such making-of films, the end result--not the prolonged, labored process--is what counts.
This article first appeared in Creative Loafing, Atlanta's alternative newsweekly.