March 7, 2007

Exterminating Angels

A director's innocence is at stake in cavalcade of onanism, hysteria and whorishness

By Michelle Orange

Let's begin with the ending, or the aftermath, I should say: the ladies’ washroom following a screening of Exterminating Angels, Jean-Claude Brisseau's rancid roman à clef, where seven or eight of us were huddled in line. By the usual standards of these kind of impromptu gatherings (broken only by the occasional yawn and some purse-fishing), we were going bananas: someone up front was calling for the extermination of the filmmakers; this was joined by cries of insulting self-indulgence from inside a stall; there was muttering behind me about why to even bother covering such a film; one woman moved to inspect her pupils in the mirror and see if she had sustained any actual brain damage; and I turned my face to the wall, against which I quietly banged my forehead. Eventually, a voice piped up by the door: "I wonder what’s going on in the men’s room right now," she said, and that shut us all up immediately.

Exterminating Angels, you see, is the story of a French director named François (Frédéric Van Den Driessche) fighting off the actresses and assorted wingnuts willing to wank it like they mean it in a series of screen tests he is conducting to cast his film about "mystical ecstasy," "female taboo" and "the grace of pleasure on (women's) faces." The resulting film operates, under these auspices, more in thrall to the woefully underserved annals of male pleasure, specifically the self-service of Brisseau, who was himself convicted of sexually harassing the actresses who went through “erotic auditions” for 2002’s Secret Things. Despite the sprinklings of high-minded symbolism (a fuzzy male voice interrupts the films several times with dire, incoherent prognostication; François' dead grandma warns of setting off "the infernal machine" as a couple of cold-eyed chicks in the corner -- Angels? Devils? -- look on, returning intermittently to speak to each other in non sequiturs about the fate of their charge) Exterminating Angels is a very straightforward, if absurdly executed, argument in favor of not just the director’s innocence, but the essential hysterical whorishness lying dormant in the modern female.

François, sporting a floppy denim button down and impassive gaze, experiences women as an endless parade of rejects from a Robert Palmer video -- slicked back and stilted -- who have apparently been waiting all their lives for the chance to drop trou in a hotel room and masturbate for a director they may have heard of once. François films these episodes for later use, and in the moment musters the sort of benign interest generally reserved for a Discovery Channel special; when his first subject -- after tendering an orgasm far less convincing than one you might see on, say, the Discovery Channel -- tells François flatly that she has just come for the first time in her life ("I’m a blueblood," she offers, by way of explanation), it seems clear that he actually believes her, or too badly wants to believe her to think better of it, and all hopes for any sophisticated pursuit of female pleasure's performative rabbit hole, or the subsuming of desire by the prize of being desired, gets flushed down the bidet.

From there we watch as poor, paunchy François is bombarded by women, both in his office and on the street, begging to be taught how to have an orgasm (a beguiling opener, to be sure), and extolling his excess of paternal charms. Be they tight-asses, floozies, or tight-asses who long to be floozies (and those are your choices, ladies), there is a shared compulsion for approval -- specifically, filmed, Francois-certified approval. One woman asks to perform a strip tease in François’ office, complaining that she can’t seem to please her boyfriend, and the dance is a contemptuous parody of female allure; he looks on with a sort of benevolent pity at the lovely girl, unable to control her own body, or marshal her own sexuality, without his guidance.

Before long young Charlotte (Maroussia Dubreuil) emerges from the sluttish, repressive ether (once word hits the street they all come running, I guess), and naturally asks François to dinner. Charlotte is more of a self-destructive dilettante than an actress, and before the plates are cleared she's got her hands down her underpants, in a scene that escalates when Julie (Lise Bellynck), a previous auditioner, is called in to join them. They are spotted by Stéphanie (Marie Allan), an annoyed/aroused waitress before retiring to the hotel next door. Walking the hardcore line, the potential charge of these scenes gets sucked into the black hole of eroticism that is the figure of François. After getting each other off times two, the three of them curl up on the bed to stroke François with ego-tastic platitudes, and he responds with giddy bonhomie, in full slumber party mode: Tell me about this "female orgasm" I’ve heard so much about. Yeah, and when you're through, fill me in on this "douchebag French dude" thing.

The existence of François' wife seems to be twofold: to get fucked rotten after he returns home from this romp, and to act as another mouthpiece for Brisseau, warning him against those daffy babes: "They will turn on you because you are a man, they will say you manipulated them if you don’t cast them." And damned if the bitch didn’t have a point: After Stéphanie finds François (and passes the test by making the truly outrageous insinuation that women actually want to act on whatever fucked up fantasies they nurture at night), the trio quickly become vengeful when the life-giving beams of François' attention stray, and Charlotte proves that her allusions to demonic possession (you heard me) were no joke. There follows an arrest for harassment, a beating, divine intervention, the loss of his wife, the return of Julie (whose confession of love brings more horseshit and he-man hokum), and one more gutter ball toss at profundity. Brisseau's curdled anger is naked as a lima bean, moreso even than his three eager beavers; though his stand-in never whips it out, it is blazingly clear that this entire film is his attempt to nail those women to the wall, smearing his ideation of pure female pleasure as somehow unsound, vindictive and out of control across an entire sex. Fuck me? Fuck you.

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Comments (1)

I know it's after the fact but for some reason this film was brought to my attention recently, causing me to look for a trailer to send to a friend as evidence that this is, in fact, the worst film ever made, which led me to this review, which made me laugh out loud and has prompted me to write to say that this is the best movie review I have ever read. When did the French become such experts at making "erotic" films that make you never want to have sex again?

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