Catherine Breillat’s (Fat Girl, Romance) realistic and disturbing story follows the relationship between Frederique and Christophe. 37 years-old and twice divorced, Frederique meets 28 year-old Christophe at a wedding. What starts off as a happy relationship quickly turns tumultuous, as both give in to jealousy and fighting. Ultimately, their relationship goes tragically awry ending in a final crime of passion.
Parfait amour! 7.75
eyelights: the performances. the realistic (but unfortunate) dynamic between the protagonists.
eyesores: the conventional plot. the disturbing outcome.
“I love sex, but I hate myself.”
‘Parfait amour!’ is Catherine Breillat’s fifth full-length feature film. Released in 1996, it seems to have been her first commercially successful picture, having been more of a critical darling until that point – and, even then, mostly outside of her native country. It also garnered favourable attention for the performances of its two leads, Isabelle Renauld and Francis Renaud.
Honestly, I’m not 100% sure what to think of film. On the one hand, it’s anchored by solid dialogues and performances. However it’s far less challenging than Breillat’s other works, and it suffers from a few technical liabilities. It’s an engrossing picture, but it’s absolutely imperfect – much like the so-called “perfect love” of our story.
‘Parfait amour!’ takes us to Dunkerque in September of 1995. Filmed in a documentary fashion, we are witness to the re-enactment of a brutal attack at the scene of a crime by police inspectors and the perpetrator. Then there is an interview with the victim’s daughter, who surprisingly doesn’t resent the culprit, feeling pity for him instead.
Although she doesn’t narrate the story, it is contextualized by her. Through these opening sequences we know that, while this is a doomed love affair, it is perceived from the outside as having had some positive effect on Frédérique, perhaps even on Christophe. In some ways it diffuses the tragic outcome that we now know is inevitable.
‘Parfait amour!’ returns to the past then, recounting linearly the way the lovebirds met and how their relationship developed. And, ultimately, how it disintegrated.
It’s a fairly dialogue-intensive picture, with much of the character development taking place in bed, post-tryst. In fact, those were probably my favourite moments because they were true of many relationships: in the afterglow, couples frequently share their secrets and tell each other their stories. Breillat was unafraid to linger in bed with them.
Frédérique is a surgeon who has a daughter and a son, both from different marriages. She feels that she is like a 14-year-old girl in a woman’s body and is able to lose herself in the moment. However she doesn’t forget her responsibilities: although she is passionate about Christophe, she insists on coming home for her kids, not missing work, …etc.
Her age isn’t established, but she is at least 10-15 years older than Christophe. There are some discussions about age in the picture, but Breillat’s opinions are ambiguous: on the one hand everyone seems to be accepting of this disparity (as well they should be) but, on the other, Christophe’s awkward attempts to be a father figure to her kids are slightly mocked.
Still, I quite like that age is technically considered a non-issue here, that it doesn’t shock anyone in the picture: it’s something that is still considered taboo in our society for some reason, and it’s something that must change. In fact, it’s established that her daughter is seeing a 40 year-old and that Christophe had a similar relationship when he was younger.
Christophe has a troubled history. His father left when he was young, leaving him with his suicidal mother. She is clearly unstable and Christophe has also been hospitalized, which he blames on his home life. He left home at 15 and has become a successful entrepreneur, but he continues to live with -yet keep an emotionally distant- relationship with his mother.
Despite his past and the outcome of the picture, the pair’s love affair seems idyllic right from the onset: they take long walks on the beach, are consumed with each other, and have feverish lovemaking. It is hard to imagine that their relationship would devolve in the way that we know it will: for all intents and purposes this looks like a Hollywood love story.
But there are signs of hairline fractures in this seemingly perfect love. After first making love, Christophe tells Frédérique that he immediately knew she was the one. However, when she says she thought it would be a tosser, he agrees, adding that he knew it was the real thing when he couldn’t sleep at night. Honesty isn’t going to be a building block of this relationship.
Not only do we soon realize that they subtly lie to each other for convenience’s sake, but they will grow to be verbally abusive to one another: she calls him a f*gg*t (her term, not mine) and laughs at his sexual abilities, while he keeps telling her that he’s on a leash and needs to be with other women – all the while flirting with other girls in her presence. It’s not healthy stuff.
Their relationship also begins to fragment after they meet each other’s closest ties: in her case her children, and, in his case his best friend Philippe. He is critical of the way she raises her children, but also flirts with her daughter, whereas she is contemptuous of Philippe’s philandering ways, which leave her feeling very insecure about Christophe’s time alone with him.
The only ounce of hope in this whole sordid mess is that Frédérique has enough self-awareness and self-respect to try to break it off: she manages to avoid him for a whole week, but he inadvertently shows up at her work. She tells him that her love for him is like a drug addiction and that he’s her pusher. She knows it’s not healthy and wants out.
But now it’s too late.
The strength of the picture clearly comes from the dialogues, which feel realistic if perhaps slightly harsh at times. However, Breillat makes no blatant attempt at philosophizing on heterosexual dynamics here, something she usually excels at. For some reason, she seemed content to simply flesh out themes that were already very familiar to most audiences.
Having said this, she does it quite well. But I wonder what her intention was in serving up such a provocative ending first and then showing us the relationship start strong and fritter away over time. Was she cynically tearing apart the illusions that fuel all nascent relationships? Did she relish dragging its carcass behind her like roadkill? I wish I knew.
From a technical standpoint, ‘Parfait amour!’ is a confounding mixture of successes and failures – and from that perspective, is probably the Breillat picture that I am the most disappointed with. One gets the impression that Breillat attempted to push herself here, to make her film more poetic or more masterful, but that she didn’t achieve what she had intended.
On the plus side, there is that long, static shot of a mountain which slowly gets engulfed in fog; it was beautiful in a Herzog sort of way, and it may have been foreshadowing, given that it took place at about the halfway mark, and right before Frédérique and Christophe’s relationship falls apart. Until then, their love was omnipresent, immovable, like a mountain.
On the down side, Breillat’s attempt at cutting together long sweeping dialogue scenes is commendable, but frequently unsuccessful: you can clearly tell that these were patched together from completely different takes, and not with the use of multiple cameras. It’s a serious distraction in those moments, which I’m sure was never her intention.
Still, all in all, ‘Parfait amour!’ is a solid film, even if it’s not Breillat’s most proficient. It’s certainly not a lovely romantic picture with a Hollywood ending, but fans of gritty drama and strong performances would likely relish this – if they can get beyond its gruesome outcome. Fans of Breillat, however, have dealt with much coarser material than this.
Date of viewing: September 3, 2014