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Trimark Home Video

Starring Caroline Ducey

Written and directed by Catherine Breillat

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When 9 1/2 Weeks hit the screen in 1986 its box office was modest, but when it landed on the video shelves a year later, the immense rental demand for this steamy, glossy, soft-sex flick created a new industry. Spearheaded by Weeks producer Zalman King, a tidal wave of copycat skin movies crashed into video stores and onto late-night cable programming, pushing soft-core content closer to the mainstream market.

Most of these movies shared a common modus operandi — a buxom young housewife, sexually neglected by her work-obsessed, cheating husband, goes on a journey of (often degrading) sexual discovery which ends in a dangerous confrontation of some sort, eventually giving way to fulfilling marital sex. The paradoxes in this genre were profound. The themes feigned at feminist fantasy, but the intended audience consisted largely of leering males. Despite the carnal pleasures explored throughout, the endings tended toward the explicitly puritan. And the sex scenes, softly lit and set to pulsating trance music, seemed less about sex than advertising plastic surgery.

If ever there was an antidote needed for soft-core pornography's rapid appropriation of sex-themed films, it may very well be Romance, an unsettling, graphic, and sometimes perplexing movie from French director Catherine Breillat.

Caroline Ducey (a.k.a Caroline Trousselard) stars as Marie, a young schoolteacher whose live-in boyfriend rejects her sexually. He reacts to her advances with frequent indifference and occasional hostility. This torments her, but doesn't seem to bother him very much. She finally lashes out, not by leaving him but rather attempting to divorce her mental connection between sex and love by sleeping with strangers.

Marie starts by picking up a man in a bar, and begins to discover her sexual power by making him wait one night to consummate their affair. Then, with another man, she agrees to sex as a business transaction. With another, she agrees to bondage, and finds him more interested in his handcuffs than in her. In the course of her experiments, Marie learns how to submit and effectively manipulate the sexual power struggle, finally arousing her aloof boyfriend by ignoring him.

If this sounds like just another pressing of the soft-core template, think again. Romance is a hard film, unflinching in its portrayal of sexual desperation and degradation. Its sex scenes, while not as frequent, are as graphic, at moments, as any hard-core porno's. Just as graphic, though, is a childbirth scene in full close-up. Breillat's approach is clinical; she draws unsettling parallels between sexual intercourse and the cold, impersonal physical interaction of an obstetric exam.

Romance is, in ways, starkly realistic, at least in its approach of the sexually humiliating lengths insecure people will go to try and fix unfixable situations. It's similar in theme to Todd Solondz' brilliant Happiness, and likewise makes its case with the most extreme examples.

At the same time, however, Romance is just as unrealistic as its soft-core precursors, only unmistakably French. Reacting as much to the infamous French novel The Story of O as 9 1/2 Weeks, Breillat's scenes aren't accompanied by sensual mood music, they're set to Marie's long, direct, mood-killing monologues about sexual detachment. This may go a long way toward establishing Breillat's desired tone, but it also often makes the picture feel didactic. This is tough on a character like Marie, whose motives are pure but whose actions are so misguided the audience really needs an emotional connection to stay tuned in. Luckily, Trousselard has enough of an empathetic presence to hold interest, but even that becomes cold and detached as the picture wears on.

Also, the ending takes a sharp turn into dark fantasy, which is jarring in its change of tone, but still effective and provocative if not an entirely successful shift.

This unrated director's cut is presented in 1.66:1 widescreen and French 2.0 Dolby Surround. It also includes the film's original censored poster art, and a poorly dubbed English dialogue track, also in 2.0 Dolby Surround.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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