Dir: Catherine Breillat. France. 2002. 92 mins.
A welcome reprieve from the joyless intensity of such recent succes de scandale as Romance and A Ma Soeur, Sex Is Comedy allows Catherine Breillat to reveal the kind of light touch and easy humour that some critics may have thought was beyond her. Films about the making of films can sometimes seem like the last refuge of a bankrupt talent, but Breillat finds fresh inspiration in attempting to de-mystify the creative process. Positive critical reaction and favourable word of mouth should create a potential audience in all territories where Breillat's work has won acclaim or notoriety. The lack of controversy on this occasion however might limit its prospects, especially if it is regarded as a lesser diversion between more compelling works. It is released in France on June 24.
The film begins on a beach, where, as written, the sun beats down, holidaymakers frolic and a young couple are drawing closer together. The reality is grey clouds, unpredictable weather, extras who refuse to discard their woollen jumpers and an actress whose lips are turning blue with cold. Just when a take seems possible, the heavens open and filming is terminated. The director Jeanne (Parillaud) decides to retreat to a studio where the elements can be contained and she can exercise greater control over the vagaries of production.
The film then shifts to a studio construction of a house and bedroom where the cast and crew prepare to shoot an intimate and explicit scene in which a young girl surrenders her virginity to an older partner. Audiences will recognise the scene from Breillat's A Ma Soeur.
Reminiscent of an intellectual Living In Oblivion, Sex Is Comedy focuses less on the mechanics of film-making and more on the emotional wear and tear suffered by those in the frontline. Breillat seems to view a film set as another battleground in the war between the sexes and her director is constantly massaging egos, whispering sweet nothings or bullying her actors into submission. Her greatest struggles are with the actor (Colin) who will not allow himself to readily submit to her will. A combination of insecurity and arrogance, he refuses to remove his socks in one scene and there's a great deal of humour surrounding the Dirk Diggler-style fake penis he is required to wear in the seduction scene. Inevitably, vanity dictates that he selects the largest one on offer from the property department.
Sex Is Comedy sheds a good deal of light on the unfathomable intimacy between director and actor. Like all of Breillat's films it is about the exercise of power and the shifting balance of control in relationships. The extensive autobiographical element will only further endear it to fans of the director's work and playing a version of Breillat, Anne Parillaud relishes the demands of her best role in many years. Tough, demanding and aware of the games that must be played to win an actor's confidence and respect, the character and performance speaks volumes about Breillat's passionate, unstinting commitment to her art. There is even a hint of sentimentality in her ultimate bittersweet confession about actors -'I hate them but deep down I love them.'
Gregoire Colin also makes the most of a sympathetically written character, essaying the vulnerability of a man whose profession and boss leave him desperately seeking all the reassurance his fragile ego can acquire. Ashley Wanninger also makes a strong impression as Leo, Jeanne's right hand man and solid support throughout the entire process. Only A Ma Soeur's Roxanne Mesquida is shortchanged by the script and a character that is secondary to the clash between director and actor.
Eschewing the kind of self-indulgence or the leeway for pretension that the subject matter might have encouraged, Sex Is Comedy is a witty, tightly-constructed and clear-sighted work of autobiography where affection replaces the bitter, feminist anger of Breillat's previous films and perhaps reveals a glimpse of her true colours.
Prod co: Flach Film
Int'l sales: Flach Pyramide International
Prod: Jean-Francois Lepetit
Cinematography: Laurent Machuel
Prod des: Frederique Belveaux
Ed: Pascale Chavance, Sylvain Dupuy, Pedro Marques
Main cast: Anne Parillaud, Gregoire Colin, Roxane Mequida, Ashley Wanninger