I grew up a world where male writers and directors largely shaped the representation of female sexuality on screen. Therefore, my education on female sexuality was limited to unrealistic orgasms and voyeuristic rape scenes. What I wasn’t exposed to was anything that dug deeper than the physical action of sex. I didn’t see how women felt about sex, I didn’t see any exploration of women’s intimate relationships with their own bodies. I didn’t get any insight at all into the psyche of female sexuality.
Male filmmakers only ever seemed to show women on screen as an object of sex, a projection of their own (unrealistic) desires. The few women filmmakers I knew about avoided addressing the subject of female sexuality, at least in any depth. This was probably because they were all too aware that when a woman talks about sex, it’s shameful. I was first introduced to the films of Catherine Breillat whilst at university, aged 22. I wish it had been earlier.
Who is Catherine Breillat?
When she was just 17, Catherine Breillat published her first novel in France. It was soon ironically banned for anybody under the age of 18. She technically couldn’t read her own book.
This was just the beginning of a career in which controversy constantly followed. Her films, which explore female sexuality mostly at the age of adolescence, have been deemed ‘pornographic’, bringing plenty of negative reviews from critics.
She received plenty of backlash for being the first filmmaker to show an erect penis in mainstream cinema, and for casting porn star Rocco Siffredi in two of her films. This led to critics labelling her as a “porno auteuriste”.
When I was 17, I remember watching TV in my family living room. A typical teen, I was gravitating towards shows about parties, drugs and most of all, sex. Whenever there was a racy scene on the screen, my mum used to scold me for watching it: ‘that’s practically soft porn!’ she would gasp.
I remember thinking, why is that bad? Why is showing sex; a very natural, normal thing that we all do, bad? Can porn not be artful? Can art not be pornographic? Why do the two have to be separate?
Later critics of Breillat’s work, such the Guardian’s Cath Clarke, tried to defend her films by stating that whilst they were explicit, they were not erotic, therefore didn’t deserve to be branded as pornographic. To me, the negative connotations surrounding words like ‘erotic’ and ‘pornographic’ must be let go of.
Why not reinvent porn? Why not take pride in it? Why not make porn that explores female sexuality? To me, Breillat’s sex scenes are often erotic, they are also often uncomfortable, but they are always intimate, insightful and they actually explore female sexuality in great depth, unlike most of the sex scenes I was exposed to growing up. I believe that the negative responses to Breillat’s work stem mostly from sexism.
People don’t like to see the exploration of female sexuality unless it conforms to the male gaze. In the midst of all those fake orgasms that were constantly making me wonder, why don’t I orgasm like that? Why doesn’t my body look that way? What’s wrong with me? it would have done me a whole lot of good to be exposed to explicit films that explored women’s complicated relationship with their sexuality.
The psyche of female sexuality
‘‘Sex is inherent to humans but as women, we are taught to repress this and act as though we are not sexual beings”. These are the words of Breillat in a 1999 interview with Robert Sklar. More than twenty years later, and acceptance of female sexuality is slowly progressing. Art and culture reflects this change, with female artists talking more and more openly about sex, just two popular examples being Doja Cat in her ‘pussy power’ music and Michaela Coel in her groundbreaking TV show, I May Destroy You.
However, all too often does this art feel separated into two categories about female sexuality: good ‘girlboss’ ‘my body, my choice’ sex-positivity art that aims to empower women and then the feminist art that addresses bad done to women– talking about assaults and everyday sexism etc. Whilst all art exploring female sexuality is fantastic to see, it’s still rare to see art that delves deep into all of the internal conflicts of female sexuality; the good and the bad all at once.
When I first watched a Catherine Breillat film, I didn’t understand why I felt so emotional after watching it. I couldn’t articulate what I thought was so profound about the film. But art should first and foremost allow you to feel, understanding and analysing can come afterwards.
Three years down the line, I can see why it touched me so much. In Catherine Breillat’s films, I wasn’t just being shown acts of sexism, but I felt the sexism- the internal subconscious stuff. For me, it forced me to address the deep shame that I felt towards my own female sexuality, the desires that I barely understood myself, as they were so shaped by the male gaze.
The post-Breillat version of me is so much more comfortable in my sexuality, because I saw myself on screen, I learnt that other people felt how I felt, and I started to understand female sexuality better, politically and philosophically.
Breillat’s films on female sexuality
(Intimate films require intimate company. Watch these films alone).
Girls and Sex
A Real Young Girl (Une vraie jeune fille) 1976
Breillat’s first ever feature was made in 1976 but banned until 2000. It’s an intimate depiction of 14 year old Alice’s exploration of her budding sexuality, in the surroundings of her rural family home. A combination of dreamlike sexual imagery and themes of privacy (or lack of) as a girl experiencing puberty, shame and trauma.
36 Fillette, 1988
A semi-autobiographical story about Lili, an unhappy, self-aware 14 year old who is learning about her sexual power, and becomes determined to lose her virginity. When she meets an old, washed up playboy in a disco club, the two form a strange relationship.
Fat Girl (À ma sœur!) 2001
One of Breillat’s more positively reviewed films is about 12 year old Anais and her 15 year old sister, who have an intense love-hate bond that any woman with sisters will instantly recognise. Whilst on their family summer vacation, the girls confront their opposing opinions on female sexuality and experience the loss of their virginity in very different ways.
Women and Sex
Romance (Romance X) 1999
Marie, a young woman frustrated by her narcissistic boyfriend’s lack of sexual interest, begins a series of affairs in order to satisfy her emotional and sexual needs.
Brief Crossing (Brève traversée) 2001
An older woman and a young man meet on a boat trip crossing the channel. The one night they have together becomes a fervent exploration of sex and power.
Anatomy of Hell (Anatomie de l’enfer) 2004
Very much hated by the critics, and therefore naturally Breillat’s favourite of her work, this film follows a woman who after meeting a gay man in a nightclub, pays him to come to her home and ‘watch her’ for four days. What follows is an exploration of gender conflict and the male perception of female genitalia.
Catherine Breillat was not only talented, but brave in her plight to explore female sexuality with such rawness and nuance. At Sensuali, we too believe that there is absolutely no shame in exploring female sexuality. Sensuali is a safe and inclusive space where you can be as explicit as you wish, without worrying about censorship and hiding in the shadows.