Marie (Caroline Ducey) has been feeling out of sorts lately, and she puts this down to her relationship with her husband Paul (Sagamore Stévenin) who is not finding life with her all that he expected. He did not realise they would be sharing the same bed in their apartment night after night, he thought he would be taking regular breaks from her, and she worries he has almost completely lost interest in her, especially when their sex life has dwindled to practically non-existent. No matter what she tries, she cannot arouse Paul, he simply lies there without a trace of excitement when she makes a move on him each evening, preferring to read his book. What to do?
Catherine Breillat's most famous film, if it's remembered at all, was possibly the most nineteen-nineties French movie of all time, concerning itself with relationships and how they can drift away into emotional disaster, yet also featuring explicit sex scenes and pretty much unhidden intimate body parts galore, though most of them belonged to her leading lady, who put up with a lot for her art. Or was it Breillat's art? She seemed to be operating Ducey like her own personal puppet, manipulating her body as she deemed fit to convey her messages on the subject of love and sex and where the two intersected, and how one could ruin the ardour in the other if you were not careful.
Even if you were careful, the relationships in Romance were so fraught with despair that nothing, from a one night stand to a marriage, could ever work out to either party's satisfaction. Marie certainly wants to give Paul the best chance she can, but he is afflicted by that very French state of mind: ennui, and apparently it is catching since before long she is moping around in an existential fug just as her husband is. This does not bring them together in a shared sympathy at the pointlessness of their lives, far from it, it drives them apart and Marie into the arms of three very different men, one of whom is a quick encounter on the stairs of her apartment block.
That leaves her in tears, but is that because of the degradation of the sex, or is it because she can't get satisfaction? Her first adulterous pal is played by porn star Rocco Siffredi, pointedly cast by Breillat as the kind of stud that Paul, while a handsome model, is assuredly not, making love with Marie for as long as she wants and apparently her ideal mate, except that he is not exactly a terrific conversationalist and fails to engage her intellectually. That's correct, our heroine must find the kind of man who can stimulate her mind as well as her body, and if she cannot find the thinker then the shagger will have to do, as sex is an easy method of blanking out her philosophical crisis, at least for a while until the angst returns and she repeats the process over again. By the conclusion, it seems she can discover her true calling.
Which given her job is schoolteaching, may not be too much of a surprise, it is after all the eventual outcome of sexual intercourse. Mind you, it's not always the recreational aspect that involves straightforward sex, as the main relationship outside of Paul is with Robert (François Berléand), her headmaster who introduces Marie to bondage games, though even that is not without trauma, and is shot in Breillat's typically dispassionate style as if her protagonist's difficulty with attaining and retaining pleasure was supposed to carry over to us watching. This extended to seeing Marie go through a gynaecological examination by medical students who use her to practice on, the starkness of her sexuality laid bare in a manner that verged on the squeamish. We were never allowed to forget that sex had a biological function, and that left the film accused of being anti-erotic; it did not appear to be keen to turn the audience on, that was for sure. But if it was not entertaining, it did make you mull over its themes almost despite itself.
[Second Sight have released this in all its icy glory on Blu-ray, fully restored and with three interviews as extras, including one with the director and another with the star.]