MUBI is a streaming service catering to cinephiles who believe in quality over quantity. Each day, MUBI adds a new film to its library, where it will stay for 30 days, after which it circulates out and gives room for another new entry. Throughout 2019, we will highlight one MUBI movie per month to help illustrate the catalog’s breadth and importance.
Self-critique is maddeningly difficult. For a creator, the ability to take a step back and look at yourself with anything approaching objective nuance will always be tempered by narcissistic impulses and/or harshness to oneself. However - and maybe this is the film critic in me - I am always fascinated when film auteurs attempt to deconstruct their own processes, partially because it gives me greater insight into their other works, but mostly because I’m just a big nerd who likes absorbing as much as possible about the creative culture of filmmaking. French filmmaker Catherine Breillat attempted to engage in this sort of self-critique with Sex Is Comedy, a film centered around a director convincing difficult actors to perform a sex scene up to her auteur standards.
Based on her experiences filming her previous film, Fat Girl, Breillat uses Sex Is Comedy as a canvas for frustrations with and admirations of herself, her crew, and her actors. Though the plot is ostensibly about how her unnamed Actor (Grégoire Colin) is generally being an uncooperative pest with regards to his romantic chemistry with the similarly unnamed Actress (Roxane Mesquida, symbolically reprising her role from Fat Girl), the film is structurally much more an examination of the ways in which clashing personalities create collaborative art through filmmaking. Breillat’s self-insert protagonist Jeanne (Anne Parillaud) is a pushy egotist when it comes to her actors, but she treats her crew with love and admiration, and Breillat’s cinematography lingers long on the constructive process of set design and scene preparation. The film shows a duality in filmmaking, where the most visible aspects in performance are the most difficult to coax out, while the more invisible aspects are arguably the more painstaking and arduous for little credit.
This cynicism bleeds into the tense dynamic between Jeanne and the Actor, though interestingly Breillat leans more heavily on these interactions as comedic or farcical. There’s a repetitive cycle to their interactions where the Actor makes excuses for how he is unable to instill romance into a shared performance with a woman who doesn’t like him, yet the Actor continually shows himself to be petulant and self-excusing, preferring to goof off for the crew rather than make an effort to do his job well. This leads Jeanne to take on a multitude of tactics, from sternness to persuasion to faux subservience, but as she continually tells her assistant, she is simply doing whatever it takes to elicit the necessary emotion from the Actor for the scene she needs to make this film work.
And it’s in that where we see Breillat’s self-critique. Jeanne is constantly told by others that she is something of an egotist and prone to temperamental shifts herself, and we’re told that her experience with this Actor is no different from other actors she’s hired in the past: hired for their looks but ultimately reviled by Jeanne for their personalities. Jeanne has made the process of making her film harder by chasing after the boy she found most aesthetically pleasing, and the constant war with herself is over whether she can justify that difficulty for the sake of art. This expresses itself in silly ways, such as an extended diversion into the humiliating process of fitting the Actor with a prosthetic erection, but it’s also a diversion that proves actively harmful to the more professional Actress.
When Sex Is Comedy finally reaches its climax in a recreation of the sex scene from Fat Girl, the emotional weight of that scene comes into full focus, and the sex carries a tone that we as the audience were unprepared for by the light dramedy of a film that preceded it. And because Jeanne spent all of her time managing the Actor, she expended almost no energy in preparing the Actress for the part she would have to play in it. It’s a haunting bit of self-awareness on Breillat’s part, and one gets the feeling that Sex Is Comedy is something of a penance for her, an artistic expression of her regrets over having failed Mesquida in their previous collaboration. Maybe that in itself is another form of narcissism on Breillat’s part, but it still remains a fascinating look into the mind of an auteur who wants to improve herself through her craft.