A Handful Of Tangos In Paris

Outside of porn movies, no film has ever explored sex more explicitly than Catherine Breillat's "Romance." This alone will make it a subject of controversy--one erect penis on a U.S. screen is more incendiary than a thousand guns, and "Romance" has more than one. What makes it even more groundbreaking is that the point of view is distinctively female. French director Breillat puts us inside the head of Marie (Caroline Ducey), a schoolteacher who is in love with a model named Paul (Sagamore Stevenin). But the narcissistic Paul, who shares her bed, refuses to have sex with her, and his erotic indifference sets her off on a sexual quest that is every bit the opposite of Tom Cruise's never-satisfied journey in "Eyes Wide Shut." This one provoked even the shockproof French.

Paolo, Marie's first fling, is Paul's opposite--pure carnal desire. (He is played by a legendary Italian porn star, Rocco Siffredi.) Her second encounter, with the principal of her school, is as much mental as physical. Robert (Francois Berleand) isn't good-looking, isn't young, yet he boasts of thousands of conquests. His power is verbal, and he introduces Marie to the world of S&M. The bondage scenes are presented with remarkable matter-of-factness. Breillat is not making judgments, or aiming only to titillate. When Marie cries from the pain, her lover pulls back, and there develops between them a tenderness that is nowhere else to be seen in this tale. "Romance" is indeed an ironic title: Marie's exploration reaches its nadir in a brutal encounter on a stairway that leaves her shattered.

Throughout, Breillat counterpoints her shocking images with Marie's thoughts, which we hear in voice-over. Some viewers may have as much trouble with the words as the sights, not because they are "dirty" but because they are so highfalutin. Breillat is on to something important here--for sex is at least as much in the mind as in the flesh--but the French, with their love of abstract discourse, don't talk about sex the way we do. The philosophically fat-free American audience may find Marie's ruminations ("Physical love is triviality clashing with the divine") a bit too high-caloric for its taste.

Nonetheless, "Romance" can't be easily shrugged off. Breillat and her brave actors take us places we haven't been. For the audience, as well as Marie, it's a journey that has few signposts. We don't get to "know" these characters in the traditional dramatic way: motives and feelings are left enigmatic. In the realm of the senses, logic does not apply, and one's sense of identity can morph like a sci-fi special effect. For those who believe that movies are a proper place to explore the riddle of sex, no holds barred, this movie is de rigueur. For the rest, be warned.

A Handful Of Tangos In Paris | News