Burning Like Ice: The Cinema of Catherine Breillat

Burning Like IceSummary: Catherine Breillat wrote her first novel in 1968 at the age of 19: L’homme facile. She made her first film, Une vraie jeune fille, in 1976 and it was re-released after the success of Romance (1999). In 1999 the International Film Festival Rotterdam dedicated a retrospective to her work.

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Burning Like Ice: The Cinema of Catherine Breillat, by various authors 8.0

By now you may have realized that I am a Catherine Breillat fan. While I’ve long been intrigued by her films, in recent years I’ve made a point of seeing anything she has a hand in and have even picked up documentaries solely because she was featured in them. With one exception (‘Une vieille maitresse‘, although I suspect that I may have to revisit it), I pretty much like what I see and what she has to say.

While I was trying to find some of her hard-to-find DVDs, I found a listing for ‘Burning Like Ice’, a publication from the 1999 International Film Festival Rotterdam. When I read up on it and discovered that, not only were there pieces on Breillat’s work, not only was there an interview with her, not only did she contribute to the publication, but that her contribution was a piece on ‘Ai no Korīda‘, one my all-time favourite films…I just had to get my hands on it.

And so it was that I ordered this from France with the intention of learning more about Catherine Breillat.

‘Burning Like Ice’ begins with an introduction by Simon Field, then-Director of the festival. In it he explains that the IFFR presents three maverick filmmakers each year. In 1999, they were Abolfazl Jallili, Ciprì e Maresco and Catherine Breillat. Breillat’s ‘Romance‘ received its world premiere at the festival that year. For a few paragraphs, Fields talks about Breillat’s reputation and about the festival itself.

Then, in “The Heart of the Iceberg”, Jacques Déniel writes a brief overview of Catherine Breillat’s career thus far. Déniel, who created the Les Rencontres Cinématographiques de Dunkerque series of movie screenings, is the one who proposed that Breillat be featured at the IFFR that year. The festival’s retrospective of her work took place at the Le Fresnoy cinema in Tourcoing, where he held Rencontres.

What I found interesting about his brief was that I discovered that Breillat had written scripts before ‘Bilitis‘ and ‘Une vraie jeune fille’ – for Liliana Cavani, Federico Fellini, Maurice Pialat and Christine Pascal, no less. He also compares ‘Romance’ to Cronenberg’s ‘Crash’ and to Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway’, which is quite the compliment. It makes me want to watch all three films in close succession to see what he means.

‘A Talk with Catherine Breillat’ is basically a transcript of an interview that Camille Nevers did with the auteur. It’s only a few pages long, but they covered a fair bit of ground. At first they discuss her beginnings. It was amusing to note that she considers herself a puritan, and that because of that she gets upsets when puritans are scandalized by her films. She talks about her unpredictable shooting style, which is why she keeps her script 40 to 50 pages long: because, although her films are dialogue-based, she says, there is a lot silence too.

She discusses how she finds being a director an almost a mystical experience: you can’t control anything, the film just seems to happen by itself. By that token, she says that she was surprised by the end result in ‘Romance’; she could barely believe it was her film. Naturally, she ends up discussing the nature of sexuality, in particular female sexuality, and how that ties into religion. And she discusses the impact that her films have had on French cinema – how the way women are portrayed has changed, even in the films of male filmmakers.

There is the essay that Breillat wrote on ‘Ai no Korīda’ for Cahier du Cinéma in 1993, naturally. She begins by establishing that, for her, “it’s the most beautiful film about love that exist”. She discusses the notion that women are subjects of men’s desire, but that it’s a trap because the moment that a man enters a woman he becomes the prey. She puts in perspective men and woman’s sexuality, how man’s is ephemeral whereas a woman’s can be eternally demanding, unquenchable.

Hence the risk for men.

She goes on about how this pertains to the film, how Kichi-San is reduced  to his penis, that he as an individual no longer exists in the end. The way she discusses it, I can’t help but wonder how she finds this beautiful. It seems grim, nihilistic, not beautiful. But perhaps there is beauty in that too. In any case, she and I see different things in the picture and obviously love it for entirely different reasons. Gosh I would love to discuss it with her.

“Hello, My friend…” is a letter to Breillat by Olivier Séguret, a writer who knows her personally, having interviewed her many times, reviewed her work, hung out with her, discussed cinema and life with her – and who is an absolute fan of her oeuvre. I loved his candidness when he expresses how impotent he felt sitting down to write, incapable of producing a piece in her honor.

He eventually found inspiration and started to discuss the sexuality of her characters, suggesting that the women were more akin to gay males than heterosexual women, and that the men had an ambiguous heterosexuality themselves. He completed his piece by gushing about the various virtues of her cinema in short, unsatisfying bursts. But you could feel the love.

In ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, Chris Dark discusses Breillat’s oeuvre as a whole, spending an inordinate amount of time on ‘Une vraie jeune fille’ and ‘36 fillette‘ but only touching briefly on the others, including ‘Romance’, the film that was being presented at the IFFR. It’s as good an analysis as one might expect, however, despite its lack of balance: it flows well and the threads are properly connected.

My only issue was that, in a few instances, Dark referred to Breillat’s work as pornographic, and I wondered if he used the term properly. After all, Breillat’s work is anything but pornographic. It is graphic, absolutely, but it’s certainly not designed to titillate. As he himself would say, in her films sex is “something uncontrollable yet banal”.

I would have to agree that the way she treats sex is with a detachment that renders it unstimulating, but the fact is that it’s neither: sex is at the root of her characters’ behaviour, making it anything but banal, and it is used for control, making it in effect controllable. Breillat discusses the power of sex in women’s lives but strips it of passion.

The publication wraps up with a brief one-paragraph bio on Breillat along with a summary of each of her films. Naturally. It left me curious, though: I understand why the synopses were after the essays, but the bio seemed out of place at the end: festival goers might have wanted to know her a bit more, even in brief, before reading about her at length.

But, all in all, ‘Burning Like Ice’ is an excellent primer on Catherine Breillat. It hardly covers everything or analyzes her work in depth, but I’m sure that festival goers came out of their screenings with a much better understanding of who she is as a filmmakers and as a person. Between the films they screened and this book, one can easily understand why she’s one to watch.

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