Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Five Unsexiest Movies About Sex: The Breillat Awards

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

I can think of no better poster child for celibacy than Parisian “provocateur” Catherine Breillat, the director of such erotic misfires as "Fat Girl," "Romance," and more recently, "The Last Mistress," which stars another over-hyped “hottie” Asia Argento. Exiting the theater after a Breillat flick, I never want to have sex again. Ostensibly concerned with digging deep into the beating heart of female sexuality, Breillat creates characters that are writhing bundles of drama and pain, anger and confusion. There is no laughter, never any levity nor celebrations of desire at all – just academic intellectualization in lieu of visceral heat, cardboard cutout chemistry between actors, dire emotional consequences hidden in every fuck. The Breillat canon would make for a wonderful addition to those abstinence-only programs George W. loves so much.

Take for example this Breillat quote from the press notes for "The Last Mistress" (which the director adapted from the Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly19th-century novel): “But romance is dark, which was another reason for wanting to make this film; for the romanticism, the burning passion, the terrible suffering, but without perverting the sentiments. The heart of the story portrays an ideal that topples into disaster as soon as it is reached.” Sexy, huh?

It’s in this inevitable disaster that Asia Argento, chewing up scenery like the ice cream cone she furiously devours from her horse-drawn carriage, plays Vellini, a costumed Moorish version of the Ally Sheedy character in "The Breakfast Club." Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t find needy, mentally deranged people the least bit sexy. I can say with utmost certainty that if I was shot in a duel like Vellini’s lover Ryno was, and my lover thrust the surgeon out of the way in order to drink the blood from my wound, it would not turn me on in the least. (But then I also don’t find pout-lipped, A&F model types like lead actor Fu-ad Aît Aattou sexy either – so maybe it is just me.)

For even in the most candied costume dramas there has to be some emotional truth. It’s not that I can’t relate to the trials and tribulations of love. Like Vellini I’ve been a long-term mistress, romantically involved to the point of “terrible suffering,” experienced that unbearable pain that Anais Nin likens to walking over hot coals; she wondered if this were possible without getting burned. I also know that we’re all hedonists at heart – not unrepentant masochists like Breillat’s characters would have us believe – wouldn’t go through the torture, the living hell of love, if it weren’t for the overwhelming growth, the endorphin high of desire. The worst times with someone you deeply love are better than the best times with someone you are merely fond of.

But you wouldn’t know this from any Breillat film. Which is why I’m using "The Last Mistress" to inaugurate my own Breillat Awards – given to the top five un-sexy, sexy indie flicks. Consider "The Last Mistress" the grand prize winner; here are four runners-up, in no particular order:

"Romance": In celebration of celibacy – and probably the only filmmaker on the planet who can literally philosophize the fuck out of an internationally famous porn star – Breillat gets two films honored! Sex reduced to a cerebral exercise even Viagra couldn’t cure.

"Lust, Caution": Ang Lee attempts to neuter smoldering Tony Leung in the same way Breillat tries to cinematically castrate the great Rocco Siffredi in "Romance." The highly stylized, coldly choreographed, S&M sex scenes between Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) and Tony Leung’s Mr. Yee are clean and precise rather than primal, sweat-soaked. Sex between the covers of "Vogue."

"Shortbus": In all fairness to John Cameron Mitchell, his intention was to make a sex film that wouldn’t make you come. And he succeeded in spades! Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I could ever be bored watching a man-on-man three-way. (Where’s transgender bombshell Hedwig when you need her?)

"The Notorious Bettie Page": The director Mary Harron has a terrific knack for choosing the most interesting, sexy subjects and just draining the life out of them. Watching both "I Shot Andy Warhol" and "The Notorious Bettie Page," I found myself thinking “the book would have been better” – except there’s never any book. Having brainy, intellectually astute women like Breillat and Harron at a flick’s helm is a grand idea in theory, but all this thinking cock-blocks the libido. (“If we cut out all sex scenes we can make Bettie the ultimate virgin/whore!”) Note: someone needs to cast porn star/frequent Breillat accomplice Rocco Siffredi and "Bettie Page's" Gretchen Mol together in a romantic comedy as compensation for all their fruitless effort.

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