I have a hankering to revive my old ‘Scenes of Erotica’ series, in which I used to reference those cinematic moments that have stirred my eroticist’s blood. As such, it seemed reasonable to begin by reposting the first seven articles, that used to reside within the old archives. So here are my thoughts on a scene from Catherine Breillat’s 1999 film, Romance. I’ll repost the remaining six over the course of the next few weeks, and then I’ll be free to post #8…
I fantasise about a brothel
Where a head is separated from a body
By a guillotine-like contraption before the blade comes down.
Of course, there’s no blade.
I wear a silky red skirt that billows up and rustles.
And those silly trappings that give men a hard-on.
It’s proof a hard-on doesn’t mean they love us.
Such is the dialogue that plays over one of my favourite scenes of erotic cinema. It’s not especially long, no more than a minute from start to finish. It appears in the film Romance, a French discourse on the nature of sex, attraction and sexual identity, for both women and men. Directed by Catherine Breillat, it’s art house cinema whose use of explicit sex scenes caused some controversy at the time of its release in 1999. It’s a film that seems to polarise its audience: from what I can tell, people rarely feel ambivalent about it.
But this isn’t meant to be a critical appraisal. I just want to talk about this one scene.
The protagonist – Marie – is fantasising about being in a brothel. She – along with several other women – lie on trolleys arranged around the circumference of a circular room. The room is bright, almost sterile; given the trolleys, the setting is reminiscent of a hospital ward. Each woman is tended to by her husband or partner.
Bizarrely, the women have only the upper halves of their bodies inside the room. Their lower halves – everything from the waist down – protrude out into a dark, circular corridor, as though from the openings of pipes. The corridor is smoky; the dominant colour here is rust. Industrialised decay. The women all wear skirts, which are bunched up around their waists, revealing legs clad in stockings and suspenders. Men are able to wander around the corridor, perusing the women on offer. One man settles himself between Marie’s thighs and begins to tongue her sex, and on her side of the divide, she responds by gripping her boyfriend’s hand. As the camera returns to the corridor, the audience sees numerous men: a few voyeurs, some walking around, some standing still. The sound of the women’s pleasure echoes around the chamber. Some of the men are fucking the women, while others stand naked, masturbating, awaiting their opportunity. Marie’s expression is one of almost abstract pleasure. One impatient male – cock hard and eager – pushes his way through the crowd to replace the man already fucking Marie. He greedily feeds his cock to her, and then spills his seed across her belly.
As I said at the beginning, it’s by no means a prolonged scene. No gradual building up of tension. Rather an exquisite, revelatory explosion, almost brief enough to miss. Its impact upon me the first time I witnessed it (in a cut-for-UK-TV version) was profound. That impact doesn’t seem to have lessened, despite several subsequent viewings. I have a fair understanding as to why. The scene possesses elements that appeal strongly to my own sexuality: voyeurism; the no-nonsense directness and anonymity of the sex; women with an insatiable desire for cock; the prospect of your partner being pleasured over and over by voracious strangers. There was a part of me that would have relished the chance to be one of those men, offered the choice of anonymous cunt to pleasure. But it was more than just that; a part of me – a darker part – yearned to see my wife in Marie’s place, to watch lean, hard strangers rutting between her stockinged thighs as she moaned endlessly with pleasure. It was as though the film had found a series of random dots inside my head, and joined them up to create new and exciting vistas for me to explore.
The film contains far more sex than that contained within the brief montage I’ve described. For those amongst you with a passion for ropes and restraint, there are a couple of scenes that may well appeal to your tastes, and I wouldn’t discourage any liberal-minded adult from undertaking at least one viewing of the film. There are men who’ve derided it as overly feminist, women who’ve decried it as misogynistic in the extreme. Perhaps it’s both; after all, what better way to start a debate? All I know is that there are people of both sexes who consider it a crafted piece of cinema.
For myself … I find the film slightly pretentious, not to say a little too detached, a little too bleak in its depiction of sexual politics. Are things really that bad? Romance is never going to be one of my favourite films, though I’ll admit to finding it at times intriguing, and mildly erotic.
Except for that one scene, one I’m sure that I’ll remember for some time to come.
Originally posted 1 December 2005