Sex Is Comedy
Those familiar with Catherine
Breillat’s films would probably be loathe to classify
them as comedies, what with their fixation on
familial perversions, domination, gender stratification,
sodomy, voyeurism, and sexual distaste, amongst
other cosmopolitan topics. However, Sex Is
Comedy seems intended to be quite a funny
movie—at least I found myself laughing out loud,
even if most of the viewers at my Film Forum screening
did not. The film’s humor lies in the inherent
awkwardness between people, particularly men and
women, and even more particularly when sex is
involved. Here, the laughs come with a healthy
dose of involuntary cringing.
Sex Is Comedy serves as a counterpart to
Breillat’s earlier film, 2001’s Fat Girl,
and can be seen as the work of a misunderstood
filmmaker talking back to an unreceptive audience.
However, the culminating scene wherein the fictional
director recreates the pivotal sequence from Fat
Girl with the same young actress (Roxane Mesquida)
sets Sex Is Comedy apart as more than just
an exercise in filmmaking inside jokes and industry
self-congratulation. It deserves to be remembered
as an important stride, whether that’s technically
of 2002’s crop or that of 2004.
Standing in for Breillat is Jeanne (La Femme
Nikita’s Anne Parillaud), a filmmaker directing
a movie with two young actors who must feign lust
for each other but have zero on-screen chemistry.
The Actress (Roxane Mesquida) is the pouting ingénue
French cinema seems to grow like weeds, pretty
to look at but not much going on upstairs, while
the actor (Grégoire Colin) prances about the set
and tries to engage the director in philosophical
debate as a means of flirting with her. When Jeanne’s
not trying to keep the actor in his place, she
spends time preparing with her assistant, Leo
(Ashley Wanniger), with whom she also has a complex
working friendship/romantic relationship. Jeanne
does not shy away from using the male/female dynamic
to her fullest advantage. Just when it appears
that one of the figures around her may take the
upper hand with their tantrums or demands, she
yanks it back again with the subtlest of looks
or a freezing out at the craft services table.
All of these ruthless on-set politics are in the
service of her art. Yet the film’s highest drama
lies in whether the controlling Jeanne can elicit
the important performance from her young actors
in a key sex scene. Without it, her film is lost.
The preparation for this pivotal scene takes up
the final third of Sex Is Comedy and serves
as a primer to Uncomfortable Filmmaking 101, as
Jeanne shoos the rest of the crew out of the bedroom
set so that she and Leo can block the scene alone.
Here she instructs Leo to play the part of the
young actress while Jeanne takes over as the actor.
It’s a heady mix as the gender dynamics collide
with the power struggle inherent to artistic creation.
We can’t help but imagine what’s it must be like
on a Breillat set. Is Breillat as bossy and manipulative
as Jeanne or even more so? Is the graphic sex
depicted her films just another day at the office
for her and her crew?
Any thoughts of the mundane evaporate once the
cameras begin to roll. In particular watching
Mesquida inhabit her situation—a young girl losing
her virginity in a particularly rough fashion—is
quite brutal and emotional. Yet there’s something
strangely exhilarating and cathartic about witnessing
her play out this scene for the cameras. As Jeanne
hovers behind the monitors, it’s as though she
is telepathically coaxing the Actress’ emotional
release. Walking out of the theater after Sex
Is Comedy, I couldn’t help but be reminded
that while we feel Jeanne’s triumph over having
finally captured her performance on film, Breillat
was able to get it twice.