Based in Paris, Catherine Breillat became famous as a writer and filmmaker confronting sexuality from a candid and unsentimental viewpoint; she was even dubbed a "porno auteuriste'' by some critics. Her start in film was a supporting role in Bertolucci's landmark exploration of sexual politics, Last Tango in Paris (1972).
Her first film as writer and director, Une vraie jeune ftlle (A Real Young Girl, 1976), focuses on the sexual experiences and desires of a young woman, but eschews the romanticism often associated with such tales. Instead, the main character shows no particular reaction to the plainly incestuous attention of her father. In contrast, a blue-collar worker's indifference toward her creates an insatiable passion for him. 36fillette (Virgin, 1988) and A ma soeur! (Fat Girl, 2003) are also offbeat narratives of young women coming of age. In each of these films, the female protagonists are not viewed as passive victims in a male-dominated society, but as active agents of desire grappling with their feelings, as well as the assumptions and roles that are thrust upon them by society. This is also true of many of the adult women in Breillat's other pictures, such as Romance (1999) and Anatomie de l'enfer (Anatomy of Hell, 2004).
Yet consistently, Breillat's films frustrate attempts to psychologically investigate the female characters. Instead, stylistic choices (including a lack of emotional response by the performers) create a sense of cold objectivity that works to keep the viewer at a distance from the characters. Rather than attempting to explain their desires, Breillat simply presents them—even when the films portray their various sexual fantasies. As Breillat herself said of one of her films, "If people go to see Romance with arousal on their minds they will be disappointed." Depicting the unpleasant and unlikable sides of the women characters often prevents female viewers from identifying with them.
It is perhaps this combination of dispassionate technique and forthright depiction of sex in all its polymorphous perversity that has led to numerous outcries against Breillat's films. A Real Young Girl had difficulties being screened upon its completion. Scenes of actual heterosexual intercourse and a shot of an erect penis in Romance almost kept the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) from allowing the film into the United Kingdom. Neither film was distributed in the United States. The Ontario Film Review Board in Canada also originally banned Fat Girl, objecting to scenes depicting sexual activity by minors and frontal nudity. In 2002 Breillat made the film Sex Is Comedy (Scenes intimes), a self-reflexive story about a female director trying to film an explicit sex scene the way she envisions it while facing obstacles from all fronts. Often outraging both male patriarchal notions and feminists, Breillat's films create their own unique, unblinking attitude toward sexuality.
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