Neither sexy nor particularly comedic, writer/director Catherine Breillat’s Sex Is Comedy is a sometimes-intriguing look at the difficulties in making a sexually explicit movie, especially when it involves an antagonistic female director and an uncooperative leading man. Those familiar with Breillat’s earlier work, especially Romance and Fat Girl, will know that she’s an envelope-pusher when it comes to graphic depictions of screen sex. Thus, it’s fair to assume that this fictional film is semiautobiographical, especially since the key scene in the movie-within-the-movie here is similar to one in Fat Girl and even features the same actress, Roxane Mesquida, as a young girl on the verge of losing her virginity.
If the character of the female director is meant as a self-portrait, then Breillat deserves credit for not sparing herself. Jeanne, played with a certain prickly charm by Anne Parillaud (best remembered stateside for La Femme Nikita), comes across as a bit of a self-absorbed twit, given to tossing out dubious aphorisms like “Speech is the best chastity belt,” “Words are lies, bodies are truth” and “Sex is what people do most and admit least.” Her male lead, played by Gregoire Colin (Beau Travail, The Dreamlife of Angels), suffers Jeanne’s verbal abuse in surly silence, though their mutual distrust doesn’t prevent a viable working relationship from evolving.
This is easily Briellat’s most accessible film; there are no shock scenes, and the usual feel-bad vibe that permeates her movies is notably absent. There’s even some humor, especially when Colin has to don a fake erect phallus, which he insists on wearing even between takes, much to the amusement of the crew and the disdain of Jeanne, who has made it clear that she won’t tolerate jokes on set. This may be Briellat’s joke on herself. Although we’re meant to take her little Godardian pearls of wisdom as, well, pearls of wisdom, she also seems aware of what an absurd person she can sometimes seem to be. If her generally good-natured and even humoring crew only serves to point out what a mirthless tyrant she can be, it helps to keep in mind that, as the film’s writer, she created them too.
In French with English subtitles. Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak). Call 248-263-2111.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.