- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

“Sex Is Comedy,” opening today at the Landmark E Street Cinema, is a French vanity production from the sex-obsessed and hard-boiled Catherine Breillat, whose art-house shockers “Romance” and “Fat Girl” left the impression of a libertine mercenary you would encourage only at your peril.

The new movie is concerned less with demonstrating that sex on a movie set can be a laughing matter than it is with reaffirming the filmmaker’s proprietary claims on perversity.

An alter ego named Jeanne, photogenically embodied by Anne Parillaud, the original “Femme Nikita,” is observed directing scenes from a movie in which graphic youthful sexuality is the preoccupation. The production company begins with a beach rendezvous that has to be simulated on a chilly, overcast day. Miss Breillat is so forgetful that she quickly ceases to make an issue of the climate, initially a big deal for assistants trying to position extras as swiftly and expeditiously as possible. It becomes obvious that the scene might as well be confined to the principals, Gregoire Colin and Roxane Mesquida, young actors cast as prospective sweethearts.

Because the young actress seems to regard the boy as a rotten kisser, among other disincentives, Jeanne is having trouble securing the obligatory takes before retreating from the cold and drizzle. The remainder of the film deals with her methods of coaxing adequate simulations of youthful and naked passion from two performers who don’t seem to care for each other — and may not have much in the way of a script or mentor to enlighten them.

Jeanne is far and away the superior flirt and the center of attention, as she demonstrates while trying to humor her leading actor and confiding in her trusted first assistant, Leo. Played by Ashley Wanninger, Leo bears a genuinely funny resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio. He plays mock consort in Jeanne’s scheme of things, which she likes to think of as creatively devious and exploratory.

Miss Breillat’s rants for promotional purposes are duplicated in much of Jeanne’s dialogue. Here she is being brutally paradoxical: “Actors are the raw material of films. That’s how it is. On a human level, it’s appalling. For the actors, it’s worse, because I’m a woman. It’s harder to surrender, because surrendering the soul is a female act and taking it is a male one. This violence, this power trip that lies beneath it all, is a male thing.”

The dominance-submission issue is likely to be exaggerated, even to absurdity, when a doctrinaire filmmaker prefers to trifle with inexperienced, naive performers. The payoff of “Sex Is Comedy” is an utterly self-referential variation on the ugliest scene in “Fat Girl,” where Miss Mesquida, definitely a slim and delicate presence, was subjected to a rude bedroom initiation by a boyfriend. It seems even ruder in this context despite certain slapstick aspects. Mr. Colin is outfitted with an oversize prosthetic organ in order to supercharge the scene. The prop definitely improves his temperament and performance.

Bliss for Jeanne appears to consist of agonizing her way toward porn payoffs, especially ritual deflowerings. The only thing that prevents the role from becoming insufferable is Miss Breillat’s flattering decision to be doubled by a glamour puss. Nevertheless, Miss Parillaud cannot transcend the fact that in Catherine Breillat, one deals with an exceptionally toxic specimen of cinematic opportunist.

**

TITLE: “Sex Is Comedy”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, nudity and simulated intercourse)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Catherine Breillat. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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