Sex is absolutely serious business for a French director whose young stars are as frigid as the weather and threatening to ruin the entire movie by refusing to do a crucial sex scene.
It sounds like the stuff of bedroom farces, or those raunchy one-star films that bank on box-office lust to see them through. Yet, "Sex is Comedy" is actually a dry and witty cinema verite-style film that has the feel of an unscripted behind-the-scenes documentary about movie-making. Yes, there's full nudity (if you count a penis prosthetic as long as Don Quixote's lance), but there's also a lot of humor and insight into what it takes to film those quasi-torrid love scenes.
Anne Parillaud, from "La Femme Nikita," is utterly charming as Jeanne, the frazzled filmmaker who has to coddle and cozy up to her baby-faced and tantrum-prone stars. She has to deal with telegrams from her 18-year-old female lead's mother and the pouty young actress herself (Roxane Mesquida), who complains that the actor she's supposed to make love to is pawing her, biting her, and just plain icky. Her male star, meanwhile, has an ego as big as the Atlantic beach in Spain where they're trying to film this virginal girl's first sexual experience. The gay/bi- fellow can't stand her either, and clowning around with the crew and flirting with the grips comes more naturally to him than taking her into his arms and kissing her. And the young actor (Gregoire Colin) couldn't be more of a prima donna, even if he wore a dress and sang at the Met. Although the actress has to expose her breasts and pubic area, this fellow balks at having to remove his socks. "I am a fetishist," he argues, adding that he believes that something bad will happen to him if he removes his socks.
The director, of course, is tempted to warn that something bad will happen to him if he doesn't. But she bites her tongue after sounding off to her assistant, Leo (Ashley Wanninger), with whom she's so close that the entire crew thinks they're sleeping together. Much of the sexual tension in the film, in fact, comes from our not knowing a whole lot about the circumstances surrounding the actors and crew, and the ambiguous potential that the characters have to "couple." Is Jeanne sleeping with Leo? Well, it's hard to tell. On the one hand, she positions him on the bed and says "You be the girl" and they act out a love scene, but on the other hand this could just be one serious, serious director. Is the young actor gay? That too is hard to say for sure, because their body language almost leads you to believe that he and the director might have a thing going on. Is the young actress as much of a virgin as her character? Again, that's hard to say, ultimately because "Sex is Comedy" features more backlash than it does backstory. Everything is in the moment, with constant resistance and snafus jeopardizing the film that Jeanne wants to make.
All the while, the audience is put in the position of being virtual voyeurs who watch behind-the-scenes and behind closed doors—something that's established in the opening shot as the director and her assistant, silhouetted against the ocean, talk about possibilities. We watch Jeanne as she thinks aloud, talks intimately with her assistant, catches flak from her crew, and cajoles her temperamental stars one by one—all of which, again, is in keeping with the idea of cinema verite filmmaking, which implies a documentary style where cameras are trained on subjects who have no direction or script to follow. That also means, of course, that when viewers are given a virtual director's eye view, the antics of the lead actor can become as tiresome to us as they are to the director. If there's a flaw in this film, it's that a mainstream film would make the point that the young man was a pain in the ass and then move on to other things. But cinema verite style calls for honesty, and we get the feeling that there haven't been any cuts whatsoever. What we see is what is suggested really happened, from the time that we glimpsed the director and her assistant talking about the location to the final moment after the final exasperating shot.
Colin is downright annoying and Mesquida isn't terribly charismatic, but then again that's all in keeping with the feel of this film. We're totally in the corner of the director, and Parillaud rises to the occasion. We see her frustration and experience the emotional conniving she has to live by in order to get those actors to do one simple, yet crucial, thing. And her running commentary is, we suspect, intended to serve as a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the minds of all directors having to deal with such situations. The more frustrating her experience, the more hilarious her lines. Looking at the dailies she's exasperated about what she sees, angry that her young actor isn't rising to the occasion: "Then this dummy speaks. Speech is the best chastity belt." "Sex is what people do most and admit least," she says. "It's the body movements" that betray people. "Words are lies. Bodies are truth." And when she hobbles onto the set one day and is asked about her condition, Jeanne drolly replies, "I put my foot down. It broke itself . . . a perfect metaphor for this film. Director Catherine Breillat exorcises the demons of, we might guess, countless filmmakers with this one, and has a deviously fun time doing so.
The video is 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, with a color palette that's as muted as the wintry conditions under which the crew tries to film. Though there isn't a hyper-relistic sheen to the film, the picture is sharp and the colors certainly reflective of the mood of the film.
The soundtrack is in French Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, with English, French, and Spanish subtitles. It's all talk, so the 2.0 is more than enough to handle the dialogue, in any language.
Sorry—no extras on this one.
"Sex is Comedy" is a surprisingly honest film, though, of course, how many of us know enough about behind-the-scenes filmmaking to judge? The dialogue is crisp, the script is witty, the performances are right on (albeit, in the case of the young stars, annoying), and Parillaud displays a range of emotions and personality facets that puts her young actors to shame. It's her film, as much as the director's, and she pulls it off.