Review - The Cinema of Catherine Breillat

May 6, 2018

The Cinema of Catherine Breillat.

by Sophie Bélot. Brill Rodopi 2017. $112.00 hardcover. Also available in e-book. 162 pages.

Reviewed by William J. Simmons

            Catherine Breillat may be one of the most difficult filmmakers to write about with sensitivity, not only because she eschews traditional feminist critiques even as she engages with them, but also because her work appeals to a complex register of emotionality that frequently evades academic discourse. One example among many would be the much-discussed final moments of A ma soeur! (2001), in which the protagonist Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), who has already been demeaned throughout the film, sees her mother and sister killed and then is subsequently raped by the murderer. The central ambiguity is that Anaïs claims just before the credits roll that she has not been raped. “Don’t believe me if you don’t want to,” she implores, disarming thereby any desire to pass judgment or even to engage critically with her situation. Anaïs’s statement could be said to connect to the core of history and criticism as narrative operations that combine knowable facts and inscrutable performativity. Breillat’s films require interpretations that are willing to live among mysterious and contradictory concepts.

A hyper-intellectual reading of A ma soeur! denies the fact of a young girl being victimized, even if Anaïs does not see claim victimhood in her forced sexual encounter. Any writing on Breillat must take up these ambiguities in terms of both subject matter and argumentation. We might follow Lauren Berlant’s formulation of desire as necessarily dangerous and potentially fulfilling in its cruelty, “This view of ‘a life’ that unfolds intact within the intimate sphere represses, of course, another fact about it: the unavoidable troubles, the distractions and disruptions that make things turn out in unpredicted scenarios…producing, at the extreme, moral dramas of estrangement and betrayal, along with the terrible spectacles of neglect and violence even where desire, perhaps, endures.”[i] Likewise, as historians and critics, and as historians and critics who cannot extricate ourselves from desire, we should strive to account for the paradoxical nature of love, lust, and degradation, as well as the public, private, and embodied mediations of those concepts. Nowhere are these allegedly conflicting discourses more apparent than in Breillat’s cinema.

            While Sophie Bélot’s The Cinema of Catherine Breillat provides useful citations and concepts for an introduction to the entirety of Breillat’s filmography (save Abus de faiblesse of 2014), it fails to transcend superficial close readings and simplistic argumentation. In her introduction, Bélot claims her goal is to draw a connection between Breillat’s career and personal life with her films. Bélot presents this aim as a feminist one, though of course the biographical has a complex relationship to feminism. As someone coming of age in the 1960s feminist movement, the assumption is that Breillat exhibits an easily identifiable feminism with a specific historical siting. Rather inexplicably, a biographical reading shifts into a psychological one: “In many ways, all her films deal with women’s lack of freedom and ways to escape this oppression so often accompanied by masochism.”[ii] However, Breillat’s films often purposefully do not escape masochism; they instead revel in it. What would it mean to allow Breillat to stay in the realm of masochism in a feminist way without assuming that her position serves a critical function? Are we simply trying to rescue feminism from anything that might be considered patriarchal?

            Bélot’s desire to make the characters and films fit into a critical paradigm is also set out in the introduction: “‘Le corps amoureaux’ is the person’s intimate self/scene that is totally disclosed in Anatomie de l’enfer—and in her other films too. The disclosure of this intimate self/scene opens up to a familiarity or proximity with another self.”[iii] Breillat’s work may literally disclose the body and sexuality, as in the ever-shocking Anatomie de l’enfer, but to understand this as any kind of internal disclosure or legibility would be a mistake, for her goal is exactly to find that which cannot be articulated under the pretense of showing us everything. The space between identification and distance is the root of a more generative kind of intimacy, an intimacy in which the difference of the Other is not leveled and incorporated as legible to the Self. Anaïs could certainly not be said to be inviting any kind of familiarity, for instance, since there is no ethical way to empathize with her traumas.

            The first chapter attempts, in this vein, to draw an obvious parallel between Breillat’s simultaneous status as novelist and director. Bélot posits a binary relationship between the body and the linguistic elements of Breillat’s cinema. Of Sex is Comedy, Bélot suggests, “The focus is on the body beyond the limits of linguistic articulation and social and cinematic representation.”[iv] The author does not connect this statement to her earlier assertion that the body is fully articulated in Breillat’s films. There can certainly be an in between, but Bélot does not offer the theorization necessary to assist a reader in conceptualizing it. Bélot then goes on to offer a good summary of the relationship between film and literature, but her application of theory falls short. Breillat’s films become mere illustrations of academic circumstance and are subsequently subjected to totalizing statements like, “It appears through the filmic images [in Une vielle maîtresse] that passion is favoured over sentimental love. While love is associated with conventions, passion is an expression of individuality that defies time.”[v] Such a statement is not only academically untenable, but affectively suspect in its assumption that all love is conventional. What of the queer relationships in Breillat’s films, for instance? After all, a form of love exists among a gay man (played by a straight porn star) and a straight woman in Anatomie de l’enfer. We cannot with surety categorize the nature of their relationship as either sentimental or based in passion, as if the two could be parsed.

            After a tepid second chapter on Tapage nocturne, Bélot returns to A ma soeur! and two other films dealing with adolescent sexuality—36 fillette and Une vraie jeune fille. Bélot’s argumentation is entirely predictable in her assertion that these films represent the repressive function of the family and the state, especially the notion of virginity. The chapter reads like the simplest feminist studies thesis: “Breillat’s coming-of-age narratives centre on the rebellious behavior of her young female characters in order to challenge patriarchal society and its definition of virginity, in terms of discourses and representations.”[vi] To expect female characters to automatically make statements about feminism through their words and bodies is a mistake. Nobody should be understood as prima facie radical; a body’s radical nature should instead be arrived at via rigorous and experimental argumentation. More useful is understanding the fact that Breillat’s characters simultaneously desire and are repulsed by anti-feminist constraints. From there, we can approach a theory of being a feminist but still retaining normative desires. This, I believe, is at the core of Breillat’s films. Berlant describes the feeling thusly with regard to melodrama: “Permission to live small but to feel large; to live large but to want what is normal too; to be critical without detaching from disappointing and dangerous worlds and objects of desire.”[vii]

            The next chapter focuses on Brève traversée and anxieties surrounding masculinity, when, once again, the film is more complex than any totalizing explanation. Bélot is scattered and starts many arguments without fully realizing them, from the frequent occlusion of the penis in film to fear around feminization to Calvin Klein advertisements and movies that take place on boats (that Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon is not mentioned seems an obvious missed opportunity). Nothing, however, coalesces into a compelling thesis. Bélot concludes with more hackneyed postmodern ambivalence regarding the main character, Thomas, who loses his virginity to a middle-aged woman: “His identity as a man differs from the stereotypical one because it is defined by tension and complexity. The male body is posed as not static, but fluid.”[viii] Stereotypes do not lack complexity. Homi K. Bhabha had theorized this already in 1983: “My reading of colonial discourse suggests that the point of intervention should shift from the identification of images as positive or negative, to an understanding of the processes of subjectification made possible (and plausible) through stereotypical discourse.”[ix] Equally important is the affective dimension of the stereotype. The protagonist of Brève traversée seems to love the idea of enacting an adolescent boy’s dream of having sex with an older woman, even though she must return to her family at the film’s end. More important than if she confirms stereotypes is why she would do so, and I expect the answer is a simple, but revolutionary, because she wanted to. Her desires, as well as those of her young male companion, may serve no critical function, and a careful reader of Breillat’s films would sit longer with this possibility.

            Bélot then discusses the genres of the crime film and the romance in her penultimate chapter with regard to masochism, a prominent theme in both filmic lineages. She enumerates the obvious possibilities for the genre film offering sites of self-realization or subjugation. Bélot suggests, “Hence, in her films [Breillat] presents the idea of masochism to confront and overcome the constraints of women’s emotional desire. By highlighting the subordination of women’s sexual experiences in dominant heterosexual relations, Breillat manages to show how it is possible to subvert women’s condition through masochism.”[x] Most, if not all, of Breillat’s characters choose to engage in masochistic relationships, and, once again, it is not possible to decide if their choice is a critical one meant to “say” something about feminism.

            Bélot concludes with a discussion of Breillat’s fairy tale films, which could be a realm of possibility that ultimately dissolves into postmodern truisms. To say that Breillat’s work is beyond critique would be simplistic. What is important is to insist that the histories and critical modes with which we attend to Breillat’s films must be as complex as the films themselves. A more useful methodology than the one Bélot adopts would be to consider criticism as a cliché, as C. Namwali Serpell has argued.[xi] Criticism is thus akin to the melodramatic traditions Breillat explores. Understanding this truth about writing histories also allows the multifariousness of Breillat’s politics to come through with greater clarity. The task at hand is not to identify the feminisms in her films, but rather to view her films as illustrating the dizzying range of possible ways in which one can live or not live a politics.


[i] Lauren Gail Berlant. Intimacy. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1.

[ii] Sophie Bélot. The Cinema of Catherine Breillat. (Leiden and Boston: Brill Rodopi, 2017), 1.

[iii] Bélot, The Cinema of Catherine Breillat 6

[iv] Bélot, The Cinema of Catherine Breillat 26

[v] Bélot, The Cinema of Catherine Breillat 40

[vi] Bélot, The Cinema of Catherine Breillat 67

[vii] Lauren Gail Berlant. The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 3. Italics in original.

[viii] Bélot, The Cinema of Catherine Breillat 105

[ix] Homi K. Bhabha.  “The Other Question: Homi K. Bhabha Reconsiders the Stereotype and Colonial Discourse.” Screen (24) 6 (Nov–Dec. 1983): 18–36. 18.

[x] Bélot, The Cinema of Catherine Breillat 124

[xi] C. Namwali Serpell. “A Heap of Cliché” in Elizabeth S. Anker and Rita Felski. Critique and Postcritique. (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2017), 153-182.