MGM // 2002 // 92 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // April 12th, 2005
Faking it has never been like this.
Does Catherine Breillat -- the notorious hackle raiser who puts worms and vaginas, rapists and axe murders, despondent women and sex with minors, and other delightful pairings into her films -- have a sense of humor? Let's find out.
Jeanne (Anne Parillaud, La Femme Nikita), an outspoken and ambitious director, has a problem. Her film will sink or swim based on one crucial scene, a sex scene between her young actor (Grégoire Colin, Sade) and young actress (Roxane Mesquida, Marie Baie des Anges). The problem is, the two don't seem to like each other very much, and each subtly subverts Jeanne's efforts to film the picture. Jeanne deals with the stress by leaning heavily on her assistant director, Leo (Ashley Wanninger, Romance), and by cajoling her actors in any way possible. Meanwhile, Willy (Dominique Colladant) creates a handful of latex phalluses, which he pokes sticks into and leaves to dry.
When Catherine Breillat directed Fat Girl, she filmed an uncomfortable scene. Two actors, both minors, shed their clothes and simulated anal sex while a younger actress lay in the next bed. There was pubic hair, an erect phallus, graphic sounds...all sorts of things to incense prudes, and maybe even affect the more jaded among us. Well, whether she was trying to achieve a realistic scene that said something ineffable about the loss of sexual innocence or just stir up a big ruckus, it worked. Getting the scene filmed was apparently quite taxing for Breillat, and we might wonder whether the public outcry was sufficient reward for her efforts.
Some, myself included, found shades of autobiography in Fat Girl, but the case is pretty clear for Sex Is Comedy. The sex scene is staged in the same way as the notorious scene from Fat Girl. The lines the young cad uses to coax the girl into giving up her backside are the same. Heck, even the actress is the same. It is not much of a stretch to gather that Breillat is deconstructing the events around that scene while poking fun at herself, the actors, and even the audience.
Indeed, much of Sex Is Comedy seems like a love/hate letter directly from Breillat to the viewer. Jeanne often looks right past the camera and describes why she shoots a scene in a particular way, and what she wants to get out of the scene. She handles lighting issues, tricky shoots, weather, and reticent actors within our earshot. Sex Is Comedy is a film about making film, but more specifically it is about how Breillat makes films, and how she filmed this particular, notorious scene. Having reviewed Fat Girl and the scene in question, I can say that it works. This film makes a clear, reasonable argument for what is going on, and also sheds much light on the possible mood of the set. It was like déjà vu when the scene arrived in Sex Is Comedy; it took me immediately to the sister scene in Fat Girl, as though I had stepped out of that film for a moment and jumped behind the scenes.
Parillaud does a fantastic job as the harassed director, but it is not difficult to image Breillat just off camera, telling Parillaud what to do and say. That is what directors do, but this adds another layer to it. The pair of actors (unnamed, which is not surprising at all given comments that Breillat has made about actors in past interviews) have a bit of a paradoxical role, acting like actors offscreen, becoming characters when the camera rolls, but doing it all for the real camera. I'd like to see a behind-the-scenes featurette of this movie that showed what the actors who cut up when Parillaud called for a cut did when Breillat called for a cut. Roxane Mesquida is as ethereal and beguiling as ever, even more so because I get the sense that she's acting like herself in many of the scenes. That is either a compliment to her acting or a completely misplaced assumption, but either way her performance feels natural. Grégoire Colin was a fine choice for the actor because he reminded me of Gilles Guillain from Brief Crossing. The best chemistry is between Parillaud and Wanninger; Jeanne flirts with and rails against her assistant Leo, and the actors create layers of tension between them.
It takes time to realize that Sex Is Comedy is a comedy, because it masquerades as a drama about making a difficult film. But it soon becomes unmistakable that you're watching a comedy. For me, that moment was when Willy pulled out a latex penis on a stick.
Let's talk about that for a moment, because it is one of the damn funniest things I've seen in a while. Willy is portrayed by Dominique Colladant, who has exactly two acting credits to his name. The rest of his considerable resumé is in makeup and special effects. In fact, Colladant was the makeup and special effects guy for Fat Girl. I'm gonna go out on a limb here and hypothesize that the collection of fake penises (peni?) that Willy is carrying are the same fake penises that Colladant used for Fat Girl. I'll bet he just re-enacted his behind-the-scenes experiences for the camera. We'll never know for sure. The point is, fake penises are funny, especially in the hands of an observant, fiery director. I don't want to spoil the fun, but trust me, you should get a laugh out of this film.
The rest of the humor is subtler. It combines the politics of filmmaking with camera tricks to make wry statements. For example, Breillat shoots certain scenes with keen intimacy, only to show us a crowd of crew members at the last moment. Such revelations immediately recast the scene; it isn't hysterically funny, but comical. There is also a subtheme of pornography, such as when Jeanne kneels down in front of the actor to verify the naturalism of his erect latex penis. In between these funny moments we have Breillat's trademark introspective dialogue, which is all directed toward filmmaking. This is a refreshing change from monologues about sexual politics and despondency. It may be funny, but Sex Is Comedy still hints at the philosophical wallop behind many of Breillat's films.
If you enjoy movies about filmmaking, this one is worth watching. But if you've never seen Catherine Breillat's other work, Fat Girl in particular, you're not going to get much out of this movie. Its appeal is constrained to those who have seen her work and want to observe the thought processes behind it. On the other hand, this is a decent way to get into Breillat if you want a gentle introduction.
One issue that will probably vex some viewers is that the film has a loose structure; it's more like a string of scenes about moviemaking than a directed narrative. Because I know the back story, I could sense when the climax of the film was arriving, but I suspect the ending will creep up on many viewers and leave them feeling left out at the last moment.
The image quality is passable, free from major artifacts, but it isn't stunning. The image is overly dark, with dull colors that fluctuate, and has poor contrast. There is significant horizontal and vertical edge enhancement, and detail is not very precise.
Aside from a song or two to establish mood, the sound is primarily naturalistic. I heard everything clearly, and even noticed some decent bass, but it is not an audio extravaganza. The audio contributes to the realistic environment Breillat is aiming for, and thus does its job.
The only extra is an amusing trailer and a handful of other promotional trailers.
Yes, Breillat does possess a sense of humor; it is wicked and not for the prudish. Sex Is Comedy is a comparatively easygoing film with much insight into filmmaking. It also made me feel better about Fat Girl, which is a bonus. Sex Is Comedy is a specific film with a specific message, targeted to a specific audience, and thus does not have wide appeal. But those who appreciate the occasional sight gag will not leave this film empty-handed.
This court finds in favor of the defendant. Willy, you are free to come out now.
Review content copyright © 2005 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R