Support Local Journalism. Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club.

Romp and Circumstance 

Romance's sexual adventures yield little insight into the mind-body problem.

Caroline Ducey plays the sex-obsessed lover in Romance.
  • Caroline Ducey plays the sex-obsessed lover in Romance.
Am I a traitor to my gender because I didn't find this unabashed film about female sexuality erotic, brave, or even -- can I say it -- interesting? The ironically titled Romance, directed by the audacious French filmmaker Catherine Breillat (36 Fillette), has become something of a cause cél&eagrave;bre wherever it has played, due mainly to its sexually explicit nature. In French with English subtitles, the movie shows a man's erect penis, a woman performing oral sex, a close-up of a man's finger entering a woman's vagina, and a couple of tame bondage scenes. Marketed as an art film -- as are most foreign-language movies distributed in the United States -- the picture is being released unrated, rather than getting slapped with an NC-17 rating.

Schoolteacher Marie (Caroline Ducey, a slender wisp of a girl who projects innocence and wantonness at the same time) is distraught when her self-absorbed boyfriend Paul (Sagamore Stevenin) declares he no longer wishes to sleep with her. In an effort to make him jealous -- and to soothe her own hurt feelings -- Marie embarks on a series of no-holds-barred sexual escapades. These include a romp with a man she picks up in a bar (played by the extremely well-endowed Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi) and an excursion into the world of sadomasochistic bondage with the principal of her school (François Berleand). Compared to these incidents, which end harmlessly, a later encounter turns ugly for the incautious heroine.

Despite her efforts, the lovesick Marie can't seem to get Paul out of her system, so every night she returns to his bed to try to rekindle his passion. Her obsession with him makes little sense, since he is a total narcissist and a bore, but, then, love isn't rational. More alarming is the way Marie seems to embrace feelings of humiliation and degradation.

Director Breillat's message in all this is far from clear. If she is suggesting that Marie is able to divorce sex from love and attain strictly carnal satisfaction, why does the young woman never seem to be enjoying herself, at least not on any discernible physical or emotional level? In truth, Marie's liaisons seem to be little more than intellectual exercises during which she keeps up a running voice-over commentary, dissecting and analyzing her actions and reactions in almost clinical -- and, what's worse, frequently pretentious -- fashion. "A man who can't love me physically is a fountain of all unhappiness," she intones solemnly. And later: "I disappear in proportion to the cock taking me." Later still: "A thin cock isn't noble." Do the French really speak in such phrases?

A key to Breillat's intentions comes from the writer-director herself, who declares: "I am telling the story of a woman who creates herself through various stages of sexual experience. She has this feeling of being cut in two, her body on one side and her soul on the other. She decides to plunge into the abyss as a way of reaching the light -- and a new understanding of herself and her desires." (Apparently the French do speak in such phrases.)

Unfortunately, Breillat's explanation proves almost as ambiguous and certainly as unsatisfying as the film itself. It turns out that Marie's sexual odyssey is actually a spiritual and intellectual quest for self-realization. A clinging masochist at the beginning of the film, Marie evolves into what her creator obviously considers a healthy, strong individual. Yet Marie's radical solution to the Paul problem is hardly one to be applauded, and if it's any indication of her new, enlightened self, it's not a psychological transformation that bodes well for her future growth as an individual or as a woman. Whether the ending of the film is taken literally or symbolically -- and apparently Breillat intends the latter -- it's an extremely militant cure that seems no better than the disease it is meant to eradicate.

A man couldn't have gotten away with directing this picture; he would have been accused -- and rightfully so -- of degrading women by presenting a docile, needy, submissive heroine and placing her in all sorts of compromising situations. The fact that Romance was written and directed by a woman doesn't make the film any better; it simply makes it objectionable on other grounds.


We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Cleveland Scene. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Cleveland Scene, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club for as little as $5 a month.

Latest in Screens

More by Jean Oppenheimer

Read the Digital Print Issue

December 1, 2021

View more issues

Most Popular

No recently-read stories.

Visit the archives…


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.


Staff Pick Events

  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show @ Cedar Lee Theatre

    • First Saturday of every month

© 2021 Cleveland Scene: 737 Bolivar Rd., Suite 4100, Cleveland, OH 44115, (216) 505-8199
Logos and trademarks on this site are property of their respective owners.

Website powered by Foundation