Several contrasting colors are at work on the screen during Catherine Breillat’s Romance. There is white for purity, red for lust, black for violence, and fleshtone, which stands for itself. And the waifish Marie (Caroline Ducey) – a French elementary school teacher in her 20s – wears them all.

Sexually rejected by her live-in boyfriend, a self-absorbed model named Paul (Sagamore Stévenin), Marie wanders lost in frustration, nymphomania and self-destruction, then into the arms of two very different lovers. She meets Paolo (read: Paul with an "O"), played by Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi, in a bar, then dumps him as soon as signs of attachment threaten the bad purity of their sexual affair.

"I cannot love a man who fucks me," she says. Even after Robert (François Berléand), a middle-aged school principal, introduces her to his prosthetic warehouse of bondage gear, Marie is still afflicted or, as she puts it, "madly in love with Paul." She’s at least half right; she is mad to love a man who’d rather sit in the café reading Bukowski’s Love is a Dog from Hell in French than come home, slip between the cool white sheets and make love to her.

Veteran actress-filmmaker Catherine Breillat’s Romance is all show-don’t-tell, mercilessly tearing down any illusions that hide the dual meanings behind its deceptive title. Romance could be about two lovers basking in the sexual ecstasy of one another. Instead, it leaves Marie to her raw, naked search for self through sex – fantasy sex, rape sex, sex with men, sex with self and ugly sex. Even in the absence of sex there is plenty of it, if only sex that must be recognized for what it is: a steamy ring around a mirror that reflects obsession, deception and death, especially in Marie’s dark, introspective thoughts delivered in voice-overs and italicized subtitles.

With little elbow room for imagination and many demands on the viewer, each movement in Breillat’s uncompromising and brutally honest tale is like another Tarot card being turned up, a symbol that wants to tell the future. But it can’t and, instead, leaves more uneasiness.

As Marie allows herself to be assaulted by whatever comes along – gagged and tied or fucked by a stranger – so are we invaded by our own need to see and hear, to be stunned by, the sex that real porn – and this definitely isn’t that – serves the purpose of hiding.

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