on September 17, 1999 by Luisa F. Ribeiro
   Brimming with rage and graphic, raw sexuality, the latest film from France's controversial director Catherine Breillat breaks cinematic ground in its unflinching scrutiny by a woman of a woman exploring the essence of her sexuality. By turns enthralling and disturbing, "Romance," for all its determined frankness, surprises most for its unexpectedly conventional undercurrents.
   Young grammar school teacher Marie finds herself deeply in love with Paul, a self-absorbed prima donna model. Three months have passed and so, to Marie's despair, has Paul's ardor. As Marie's agitation rises, Paul refuses sex with her, admitting that he never believed they would stay together so long, much less that she would move in with him. Unable to understand Paul's aloofness, Marie only knows she is consumed with unquenchable desire.
   Gradually Paul's cold rejection wears Marie down and she begins seeking out other men to quell her lust. Her adventures take her from an attractive bar pickup (portrayed by France's top porno star) to a co-worker whose bland appearance masks his expertise in S&M to denigrating encounters that culminate in a startling, if not unexpected, turn of events.
   Breillat uses distinctive color and lighting in photographing Marie's audacious couplings, which despite their explicitness never feel gratuitous or exploitative. Even in the most uncomfortable scenes, Breillat still hammers home a distinctively female point of view of the war between the sexes, questioning whether love and desire are remotely compatible.
   At some point, however, the boldness with which Breillat presents Marie disintegrates into unpleasant degradation and the love Marie declares so passionately for Paul reveals itself as more of a stereotyped female masochism and victimization, a concept more disturbing than any of the rough, graphic scenes. By the film's surprising conclusion (which may or may not be taken literally), Breillat ends up at the same place so many diatribes on women and men and sex do: outrage over the conflicted nature of desire, which somehow makes the sturm und drang an exercise in petulance.    Starring Caroline Ducey, Sagamore Stevenin, Francois Berleand and Rocco Siffredi. Directed and written by Catherine Breillat. Produced by Jean-Francois Lepetit. A Trimark release. Drama, French language; subtitled. Not yet rated. Running time: 96 min.
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