Catherine Breillat’s career has been a treatise on sexuality and womanhood, even her films that aren’t explicity sexual like Sleeping Beauty or Abuse of Weakness are informed by things like menstruation and sub/domme flourishes. Romance falls easily in line with pictures of her past like A Real Young Girl as it is very overtly about a woman’s sexuality and how it connects itself with her feelings of love from her celibate (unless for child rearing) boyfriend whom she loves dearly, but becomes increasingly frustrated with as time passes. Her relationship with him leads her into many trysts with her other men that finally ends with her on the other end of sexual punishment with a man whose ideas of sexuality and of women are incredibly toxic, but she finds the brutality in him that is missing in her otherwise flaccid boyfriend.
Breillat’s thesis on sexuality is handled mostly through voice over as it plays out over scenes of sex. Marie discusses her ideas on men and what she wants out of a relationship with them in terms of carnality and by placing us inside of her head for the entire film as well as navigating alongside her with the camera. There are many close up shots of her body during scenes of foreplay, masturbation, and sex. All these things make it feel more like a first person unraveling of one woman’s sexuality than it does a statement on women as a whole. Which is promising, because sexuality is an extremely tricky business, and Breillat’s raw, unflinching look at pleasure wouldn’t be pleasurable to some, but with Marie sex is more forceful, erect, strong and violent than consensual or even symbiotic. One wonders if sex is even about pleasure with her as the word “Orgasm” is not mentioned one time throughout the duration of this film. Marie likens herself as a hollow, disposable form when discussing the idea of perfect sex, and the more inward and disassociated with her body she becomes the better she feels. These ideas are never more present than in the visual language of a dream sequence late in the picture with Marie’s body being split in half. In two rooms her body is divided, the lower half of herself is spread open, in lingerie in a smoke filled room with naked, lustful men, and the walls are covered in red. The upper part of her body is located in a headache inducing room of whiteness as her celibate boyfriend sits beside her. The disassociation of brain and body, sex and love are ideas at play in this movie and in that one moment they became distinctly clear in her language. The scene closes with a humorous match cut of a man ejaculating on Marie’s stomach followed by her pregnant belly being covered in gel for an ultrasound.This, as well, is the difference between sex in terms of pleasure (the orgy) versus love (the child).
Marie’s sexuality is at it’s most dangerous when she comes into contact with an older teacher at the school she works in and begins engaging in violent S&M. She finds herself drawn towards this man who believes all women secretly want rape; that asking for sex is never appropriate, but taking is what women especially want. Breillat was never exactly easygoing about her film’s sexual nature, but in his monologues the film becomes increasingly difficult to view. He introduces her to being tied up; something she always wanted to do, and gagging her during sex. He enjoys inducing pain in his partners and she finds herself drawn to it. The rooms she has sex in during these moments are closer to that red colour of the orgy in the dream sequence, and are in direct contrast with the stark whites of her boyfriends apartment. She unlocks her sexuality with this dangerous man who has claimed to have slept with over 10,000 women and eventually leaves her boyfriend to be with him.
Despite all of the views of the man I mentioned above, and her decision to be with him I find the film’s feminism to be enticingly rich. It’s strongest feminist text is by simply being about one woman’s sexuality from her viewpoint and her’s alone. She doesn’t make any apologies about what she wants, and what she likes, and she goes after it. She loves her boyfriend dearly, but she’ll cheat on him to get the sex that she needs to find fulfillment. She’s not a nymphomaniac. She’s just a woman, and in killing her boyfriend in the films final moments Breillat’s ideas come full circle that you cannot have love without sex even if they are disparate ideas for Marie. She chose sex. She chose herself.