Virtually every actor will say that sex scenes are the most difficult ones to shoot, for the obvious reason that they leave performers literally exposed, subject to embarrassment, awkwardness, and the confusions of faking intimacy. No one is a greater authority on the subject than French director Catherine Breillat, whose films deal obsessively with the power struggle between men and women, which usually manifests itself in the bedroom. Breillat's incisive movie-movie Sex Is Comedy revisits the centerpiece of her powerful 2001 coming-of-age film Fat Girl, which turns on a long sexual negotiation between a predatory young hustler and a virginal teenager. The scene is essential, not gratuitous: If it doesn't play convincingly, the entire movie crumbles around it.
Making a movie about one of your own movies sounds like an unforgivable indulgence, but in Sex Is Comedy, Breillat examines the filmmaking process with brutal honesty, saving many of her most pointed barbs for herself. Uncannily good as the Breillat surrogate, Anne Parillaud (best known as the title character from La Femme Nikita) portrays the director as a raving tyrant who has a strong vision, but doesn't always know how best to communicate it to her actors. While shooting Fat Girl, Breillat reportedly had bitter disputes with the film's handsome lothario, Libero De Rienzo, played here by Grégoire Colin as a smug, inexperienced actor who burns all his natural charisma clowning with the crew offscreen. Roxane Mesquida, who reprises her experience making Fat Girl, seems more willing to take direction, but her seething animosity toward Colin turns her into a cold fish during kissing scenes.
"Look at those two idiots," Parillaud hisses during one particularly lifeless take. "She's like a corpse." With a heavy dose of self-deprecating humor, Breillat acknowledges those moments when she behaves like a petulant child, screaming directions that no actor could be expected to follow. But Sex Is Comedy triumphs mostly in laying out the specific mechanics of a love scene: Under Breillat's exacting eye, the minute choreography of the actors' body language can convey aggression, resistance, and ecstasy without a word being spoken. Her films can be exasperating, tainted by an irredeemably cynical view of human relations, but her strongest scenes go to daring lengths to unearth raw emotional truths. When she succeeds, as she does in Fat Girl and in the final minutes of Sex Is Comedy, the impact can be overwhelming for filmmaker and audience alike.