The Reeler


March 8, 2007

Angels at My Table

Chatting with Brisseau and Co. about sex, violence and ... Tinto Brass?

The ghost is clear: Raphaële Godin and Frédéric van den Driessche in Exterminating Angels(Photo: IFC Films)

It came at the end of our long-ish conversation, and the day after his latest film, the meta-troublemaker drama Exterminating Angels (opening this week in New York), made its stateside debut at the Film Comment Selects series. The discussion had been civil enough, but director Jean-Claude Brisseau did it anyway: He played the Tinto Brass card.

"I don't know if you remember," Brisseau said through his translator, "but in the complete version of Caligula, if the exact same film using the exact same scenes and the exact same actors had been filmed by a director of the quality of Fellini as opposed to the director it had, it would have been a better film -- even a great film, even with all of the sex -- because it would have dealt with the philosophical aspects."

The resulting collision of inferences -- that Angels is a legitimate entry in the canon exploring the vagaries of power; that Brisseau should have courted Bob Guccione in the late '70s instead of teaching in France; that a filmmaker's intellect is inextricable from his or her self-indulgence -- was consistent with Brisseau's status as one of cinema's reigning provocateurs, as is Exterminating Angels itself. Ostensibly a feature-length treatise on the appeal and elusiveness of "women's sexual pleasure" (its sardonic pronouncement in the film virtually demands those quotation marks), Angels chronicles middle-aged director François (Frédéric van den Driessche), struggling to cast the leads in his upcoming work exploring the "taboo" of female pleasure. In a process mirroring the one Brisseau himself exercised while casting his horny 2002 opus Secret Things, François auditions scores of actresses for a trio of roles whose primary functions are to symbolize the ecstatic nexus of creative and sexual freedom -- by frigging themselves to orgasmic oblivion on camera.

The last time Brisseau tried this, he wound up convicted on a sexual harassment rap in 2005, the aggressor against two actresses who auditioned for Secret Things yet were not cast. And while it's impossible to know whether or not the philosophical depths that proved so problematic for, say, Tinto Brass gave Brisseau's accusers similar troubles, audiences are apparently catching up with critics (well, most critics; The Reeler's Michelle Orange mildly disapproved) in their appreciation of the filmmaker's signature blend of pretense, exploitation and fearlessness.

"This is a film that is both simple and complex at the same time; it's really a mixture of elements that deal with sex," he told me, sipping Peroni and leaning his hulking torso on one arm at our table. He was accompanied by two-thirds of his (hard)core trio, Marie Allan and Lise Bellynck, who also joined Brisseau after the Valentine's Day screening the night before at Lincoln Center. "We have dramatic elements, we have comedic elements, we have poetic elements and it's very rare when I've shown this film at screenings when people ask questions about the construction of the film. Mostly they just ask about the sex. But people in New York asked about the construction, which I was very happy about. Philosophy --"

"Metaphysics," Bellynck said.

"Metaphysics," Brisseau nodded.

"We were expecting more violent reactions," Bellynck continued, "because in France sometimes people were just more aggressive."

Director Jean-Claude Brisseau

"I was expecting something else," Brisseau said. "I have been told that here in America, people are more puritans than in France. So I was expecting a violent reaction against the film. And there was none. Or maybe people were violent against the film, but they never told anybody."

I brought up his 1988 film The Sound and the Fury, a brutally violent class drama reviled at the time of its release yet cited today for its prescience in depicting epidemic youth delinquency. It, too, approaches the fantasy and deadpan humor in its characters' respective nightmares, just as Exterminating Angels emphasizes the influence of everything from ghosts of dead grandmothers to the mysterious feminine apparitions commanding Francois' fate to the devastation of -- wait for it -- demonic possession.

"It was only 10 years later that people were able to look at (Sound and the Fury) and actually see what the film was about," Brisseau said. "I'm wondering if this is the same phenomenon that's happening now, where some of the people who are seeing it are blinded by the sex and this idea of the absence of any treatment onscreen of women's sexual pleasure -- that maybe it's because sex is a taboo. In this way, there is that similarity between this and that earlier film: I'm always dealing with something that's a taboo, and maybe it's not being recognized at the time for what it is -- only later."

Except, of course, that with a film so graphically addressing sex, it achieves an enduring infamy among some as a pornographic exercise. Brisseau bristled. "Someone once said to me that pornography is best described as the eroticism of others," he said. "Considering that whole question, what I think is that if you look at people making love on a daily basis -- in reality, the way people really do it -- sometimes there are relationships that would perhaps be considered pornographic relationships. But this is a reflection of reality. One of the whole reasons for making this and previous film was that I really wanted to bring the idea of sex to a serious film."

Well, sure, but it's three women masturbating each other.

"I don't know what your sexual orientation is, but let's just say it's heterosexual," Brisseau replied. "If I myself am a heterosexual and enjoy women, you see three women making love, and for many men, this gives them a great deal of pleasure. The women, too. If it's one woman or two women or three women in that situation, it doesn't mater. What I'm trying to emphasize in my work is the idea of the prohibited -- what is forbidden and what is pleasure."

Allan agreed, noting that being familiar with the director's previous work, she and her colleagues knew what he was going for and worked to help him achieve it -- transgression as pleasure. They choreographed the "erotic scenes" in four sessions running two hours each, eschewing the types of close-ups they admit they would traditionally associate with porn. Nevertheless, Brisseau said he added the scenes' dramatic score as a means of "removing the violence" in the scenario.

At any rate, the filmmaker said, the sex in Exterminating Angels is just everyday stuff to which he expects his audience to relate. "There are people in life who live this every day, whether it's one, two or three," he told me. "And for the most part, they don't admit it. So what I'm trying to show here is something that happens to everyone -- or hopefully it happens to everyone." Ah, yes. Tinto Brass would approve.

Advertise on The Reeler

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Search The Reeler
Join the Mailing List

RSS Feed


Send a Tip