Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Thursday, February 10, 2000

romance, romance

Did you ever read the reviews of a film after you'd seen it, and then just wonder what film you were all watching?

I rented the French film Romance tonight. (Against the explicit nonrecommendation of a friend whose taste I usually trust, I might add.) Why did I rent it? Damned if I know. Apparently, this vacation stuff has gotten boring enough that I'm now into self-torture.

After I'd suffered through to the bitter end (and that's not just an expression in this case, thanks), I started looking at the reviews online. Just to see what was up. I must admit, I can't remember the last time I saw such incredibly divergent views of a film. Reading through them, it reminds you that the same two people will never experience the same event in quite the same way, simply because they are two different people. Their overall viewpoints may be the same, but somewhere along the way, there will be at least small differences between them on some detail, some large point or the other.

At 24 Frames Per Second, the review of Romance was just so odd that I almost wondered if we'd seen the same film. (And the remark near the end of the review, where the reviewer says, "Of course, the film is not pornographic," is just weird. I mean, I think I know what they mean by that remark, but I think it requires a bit more explanation than they give it. However, reviewing a review in quite this way is just the teensiest bit too much, I think.) I must admit, the side question the reviewer raises is interesting: this film must have had utter miseries getting shown in Canada, even though it eventually made it through as an "art" film, due to the base of its censorship laws. I mean, it's pretty clearly exploiting its lead actress, but then, the director is a woman and the intentions are clearly artistic, so does that make it through?
I have to admit, the issue of power, as such, struck me as something of a side issue in her explorations. I mean, it's clearly there, but I'm not sure that it's the issue that Erich Schulte (the reviewer for this site) thinks it is.

Newsweek doesn't really review the film; they talk to the director a bit. Mostly they do a sort of pre-buzz buzz, really.

The review at Chicago CitySearch probably comes closest to agreeing with my own viewpoint (see below). He seems to indicate--but doesn't quite say--that the film is both underwritten and overwritten at the same time. The concepts, the ideas behind the script, just don't match up to the acting.

The reviewer at clearly loathed the film. Kerry Douglas Dye, the reviewer, does raise a couple of interesting questions, about whether or not an American audience is mature enough for the film. (Although may I say, in defense of American audiences, that the birthing scene is just gross. Nothing to do with the concept that the baby is coming out of the vagina--it's blue and bloody and gross. I strongly suspect that the miracle of birth isn't necessarily beautiful if it's someone you don't know--and it helps when the director is clearly trying to make it look icky, of course. But I digress.) Anyway, he says, "It's just snooty French philosophical silliness, but on the other hand it's pornographic snooty French philosophical silliness, which may make it worth the money." Which pretty much sums up his viewpoint rather nicely.

I think you'll need to read the review at Nitrate Online yourself. I'm fairly baffled as to what that reviewer was saying; I do believe that she liked the film, however.

Matt Heffernan at really really loathed this film. (Well, if I'd bounced from "Belle du Jour" into this in literally the same afternoon, I think I'd have been pretty savage to it, too.) He does get one crucial detail wrong, though; she becomes a nymphomaniac because of the dysfunctional relationship; she didn't start out that way. At least, that's what I think she said. Interestingly, he engages the director (well, sort of), directly on her own ground. In her Newsweek comments, she says that "There will be those who will label it as art and those who will label it as rt and what is porn[...] Nothing is prohibited in art." Heffernan says: "I've see enough of both art and porn in my life, and this one goes in the latter column."

I have to admit, I'd put it in the "art" column, if only because most of the sex is so sincerely unpleasant. Granted, the scene with Rocco Siffredi isn't unpleasant--and I understand that it was extraordinarily difficult for him, which I quite understand--but it's also, aside from a moment here and there, stunningly unerotic. (OK, the bit where she talks to his erect penis in the condom kind of works. And the bit where she talks about condoms whilst handling a recently filled one kind of works.) In some ways, he might as well not be there, or maybe he could just be a really tall and tanned vibrator; he's there so she can talk at him during sex.

Roger Ebert recommends the film, but doesn't like it. (I also think he completely misses what happens in the rape scene; another moment when you wonder exactly what film someone was watching, because it clearly wasn't the one that I saw.) He makes an interesting comment, which is exactly what I'd observed in looking through all these reviews: "I know few men who like it much (sure proof it is not pornographic). Women defend it in feminist terms, but you have the strangest feeling they're not saying what they really think. At a screening at the Toronto Film Festival there was some laughter, almost all female, but I couldn't tell if it was nervous, or knowing."

To be sure, I wouldn't say that the women I've read aren't saying what they think; I just say that, on average, the men dislike it intensely (with the exception of Ebert) and the women are more willing to give it a chance. It may well be that the men actually expected it to be pornographic or erotic--in the sense of something intended to tittilate or arouse--and this film doesn't do that; as he says, the sex and the fact that there's an actual pornster in it may give the wrong set of expectations. It doesn't even try to do arouse; the sex is almost all fairly unappealing. (By contrast, "In the Realm of the Senses", the film that the director says inspired "Romance", is quite explicitly intended to tittilate and arouse at the beginning, and then it moves into an area where it's all just too much; the characters are having sex in this animalistic, driven sort of way. But I digress.) If they're expecting one thing, and get something quite different, it may affect the review in a way that doesn't reflect the content of the film.

The review at is ... puzzling:

"Whether to satisfy her carnal desires, or to "get back" at her boyfriend, (it's not really clear), this anti-heroine takes the film through a series of sexual escapades in search of the answers to soothe her tortured soul. While Marie is too weirdly obsessive for most people to identify with, she does get particularly nasty in the end. And some of the sex scenes are pretty hot -though unfortunately short in duration. While unrated in Canada as an "art" film, it will certainly be rated X in many other jurisdictions. What I want to know is:
Why can't we have porn actors like Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi (Marie's first affair), in North America? (Rocco was HOT - instead, we get stars like Ron Jeremy - BLECH!!!)"
If nothing else, it's certainly the most unique take on the film I've seen; nobody else seems to have even vaguely enjoyed the sex scenes. (Just for reference, in case anyone else wants to know, Rocco makes American pornvids.)

The reviewer for This, That and The Movies, Doug Schneider, seems to be in the same camp as Ebert; there are things he likes about the film despite its many flaws. He also makes some very interesting comments about men and relationships.

One of the interesting and intriguing things to emerge from all this review-reading, though, was an unusually consistent definition of both pornography and erotica. For whatever reason--perhaps because the film was so UNerotic or UNpornographic--the reviewers lumped both pornography and erotica into the same category. Basically, they all define pornography and erotica as those things meant to tittilate and arouse some sort of sexual excitement or reaction.

I must admit, I find this interesting because people are almost never willing to allow pornography and erotica to co-exist in the same category, let alone agree on a common definition. Basically, people seem to feel that porn is gross and icky, and erotica is somehow more worthwhile. It's seldom that you see them placed together this way. It may be just that there's so little serious film that deals with sex in a way that allows the issue of porn vs erotica to arise.

My own overall impression of the film?


I mean, everything else aside, you simply Do Not Understand why she stays with her boyfriend. Not ever. Not once. He's pretty, yes, but that clearly doesn't matter that much to her, or she wouldn't get involved with her boss, the principal. He's shallow and manipulative and cares more for something about himself than for her, or he wouldn't be putting her through this; he'd either have sex with her because he wanted to, or he'd tell her to go (or, less likely, to go out and have herself a ball). You don't understand the reason why she does some of the things she does--why in the name of sanity would any woman with a brain go with some guy she meets on the stairs who says he'll give her $20 bucks if she lets him sniff betwen her legs? You might want to shake things up, do something different, a little edgy, but that was just brain-damaged. (Things turn out rather worse than that simple transaction.)

Of course, relating to this film, this character, is made more difficult by the fact that she doesn't understand herself, either. She's groping for some sort of understanding, both of herself and of men, and not getting any closer to herself; she just gets (understandably) a lot more cynical about men. At some level, all the sex is supposed to be about self exploration, but she doesn't seem to actually find out anything about herself through it. (And it all looks sincerely unsatisfying. I suppose it all is, at some level.) Basically, it all seems to spiral down into many rather degrading situations; since she decides that love and romance don't really exist, she allows herself to be put into some very ugly situations for the sake of sex.

For my own taste, despite all the sex--rendered graphically, of course; that's the selling point of the film--there's just too little actual interaction, brain to brain (as it were) between the main character and everyone else in her world. (And yes, I do realize that this is partly one of the points. When she says "I'm something of an ice-maiden," I thought, "No, REALLY? After all that unemotional uninvolving sex? I would NEVER have guessed!")

The orgy scene is ... um. Well. It's there. And it's quite explicit. And I think that the ejaculation, the "money shot", was quite unnecessary.

During that scene, she does ask one question that I've always wondered, although she does rather over generalize (and the question doesn't really get answered, as she doesn't know the answer). The question is this: why do some men like looking at dissociated body parts? I mean, why do some men fixate on breasts, to the extent that they really don't care about the woman attached to them? Or vaginas or penises, for that matter? I mean, I can understand liking a particular penis or vagina or whatever, when it's attached to a particular person, but the contextless genitalia or body parts? I don't get that. Not at all. No matter how attractive the body part. (Yes, there are such things as attractive penises ... for penises.)

For that matter, do some women fixate the same ways? I mean, they must, right? Theoretically, it should all be a part of the human condition. Society being what it is, though, you'll probably seldom hear a woman saying, "Wow! What a great dick! No, really, I only like looking at dicks; I don't care about the men," or anything like that. At least, not in the same way.

But I digress. I think.

OK, I could have lived FOREVER without seeing the pelvic exam, thanks. (I always thought utensils had some role to play in all this. That speculum gizmo. They really physically palpate the cervix? Eww. I mean, we're talking MUCH worse than The Glove and The Finger that men have to deal with, here.)

Thing is, aspects of the film are absorbing enough to keep you watching long after it becomes apparent that you will Not Like This Film. (And I'm not sure that anyone could really like the thing unreservedly--though that's probably an unfair evaluation.) The lead actress, Caroline Trousselard, is, actually, phenomenal. It's not just the explicit sex (and I just don't know how the director talked her into going through with that pelvic exam scene, where it's gruesomely obvious that 20 separate people are really and truly sticking their hands inside her vagina). She's a good enough actress that, even through truly overwhelming amounts of voiceover narration, she doesn't look bored and the narration isn't in and of itself boring; she somehow keeps you involved with a character that's absolutely lost. (Though there is far too much voiceover.) And since it's obvious that her questioning is sincere--she doesn't understand why she's staying with him, either, which makes the fact that she does even more puzzling--she makes the film somewhat involving.

None of the men is sympathetic. Or even particularly distinctive; the male roles could have been played by any man off the street. They didn't even need to be good actors; except for the boyfriend, they simply don't have all that much to do. (Well, except shtup, of course.) Her boyfriend is a manipulative jerk. The widower that she gets involved with briefly (pornster Rocco Siffredi) is, of course, well-hung, but he's otherwise not developed much as a character; he's mostly there to serve as a foil for her to reflect ideas off of during sex. (Yes, during.) The principal of her school, with whom she gets into an SM relationship and who seems to be something of a braggart (10,000 women, yeah, right) is also not well fleshed out; to the extent that he is, it's fairly clear that much of the time, he simply does not see her, he sees an object for his fantasies. In the scene with the ropes and the leg-spreader bar, it's really clear that she could be Anywoman. (Although she more or less seems to take over his fantasies ... though that's not well handled, I think; it could be a bit more clear what's happening.) And then, of course, there's the crotch-sniffing rapist. (I honestly don't understand how Ebert can say "But is it rape?")

All I have to say is that men like that make lesbianism (or, from my point of view, heterosexuality) sound like a much better alternative.

After everything, the central idea of the film seems to boil down to this: that romance is a deception the human species perpetrates on itself to allow sex to happen. Love only enters into it to allow the deception to flourish and sustain itself until babies happen. At which point the illusion is no longer necessary. (I think.)

Darwin and evolutionary biology reduced to essentials, indeed.

And I feel sorry for the cat, too. What it did to deserve its fate, I'm sure I don't know.

Posted by iain at 09:32 PM in category