Catherine Breillat doesn’t make porn. Anyone familiar with the 73-year-old French auteur knows her frank portraits of female sexuality are complex, often transcendent explorations of desire through a metaphysical lens. That impulse extends back to Brelliat’s first film in 1976, “A Real Young Girl,” in which she adapted her own controversial novel about a 14-year-old’s sexual awakening. It has stayed with her through the decades in everything from “Fat Girl” to “Sex Is Comedy,” which fictionalizes the discomfort of shooting a sex scene.
Many of those movies are included in a new 11-film Breillat retrospective at New York’s IFC Center, but none epitomize Breillat’s daring aesthetic more than 1999’s “Romance,” the absorbing story of a young woman named Marie who finds catharsis from her sexless relationship with her boyfriend in a series of ambitious trysts. One of these leads to her rape; another inspires her revenge. Kafka by way of Marquis de Sade, with direct inspiration from Nagisa Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses,” the movie positions nascent actress Caroline Ducey — who was 23 at the time — as a remarkable enigma of sensuality and simmering feminine rage.
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But the radicalism of Breillat’s technique is also the reason why “Romance,” which has been newly restored by Strand Releasing for the U.S., created an insurmountable rift between the actress and her director that lingers to this day.
“What happened with Caroline was quite upsetting,” Breillat told me over Zoom in a recent interview. “She’s an incredible actress, but she was absolutely devastated with the film and unable to come to grips to it. She was destabilized, too fragile, and she wasn’t able to live with it.”
In interviews at the time of its release, Ducey said that she was surprised to find that the actor who plays a man her character picks up at a bar was a porn star — Rocco Sifredi, known back then as “The Italian Stallion” — and found it paradoxical. “She pulled this stunt with a commercial porn star, when ‘Romance’ was supposed to be fighting against that kind of thing,” she told The Independent at the time. “It wasn’t the love story I thought it was.”
Years later, Ducey cites a much more troubling moment in the production that still haunts her: When they shot the rape scene that arrives late in the movie, Ducey alleges that Breillat told the male actor — a non-professional man cast shortly beforehand — to actually try to penetrate the actress on camera. “Catherine asked me to take my pants off like five minutes before we were rolling,” Ducey said in a phone interview this week. “I was getting ready to act. I didn’t think it could happen for real. This guy, I was about to kill him.”
Ducey said she pushed him off and Breillat stopped rolling; they completed the scene, with no penetration, in the second take. That’s the one in the movie. “I was really angry at Catherine, because she didn’t need to organize the scene like that at all,” Ducey said. “It was not a snuff movie. But I still respect it, because I know what I put into it, so I don’t want to throw it all in the trash. I think the movie is important, and Catherine is a real director.”
Asked about Ducey’s allegations, Breillat pushed back, sharing an original shooting script of the production that she said laid out the specifics of the scene in detail. “Caroline’s accusation is extremely serious, but I deny it completely,” she said in an emailed statement after our interview. “From the beginning, ‘Romance’ was announced as the first European film with non-simulated sex scenes. The script itself was very explicit, with abundant details that left no doubt as to the nature of the scenes that were going to be shot. I wrote the script long before I cast Caroline, and it clearly described all the scenes — including the rape scene — so there could have been no surprises or traps for her.”
Over Zoom, Breillat addressed the situation in broader terms. “Actors are always asked about their opinions and perhaps they are not best placed to do so,” she said. “She was the last actress I auditioned, and for me, she was like Joan of Arc. She has this purity that was essential. I didn’t want anything in the film to stain her.