Sex is ComedyReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/02/04 14:16:46
Even though explicit sex scenes in movies have been around for a long time, there is still something about the notion of taking something normally done behind closed doors and placing it in front of a camera for all to see that still somehow retains the power to shock and titilate moviegoers. For actors and directors alike, putting one together can be a strange experience. On the one hand, such scenes are generally as intricately mapped out and choreographed as a dance scene or an elaborate action sequence. On the other, there is also a weirdly documentary-like aspect to the proceedings for those performing in them; whether they like it or not, most actors realize that such scenes, no matter how necessary they may be to the plot, wind up being show-stopping referendums on how sexy they, and not their characters, are. They also serve as a serious acting challenge as well; not only do the actors have have to remember their lines, keep in character and remember their blocking, they also have to create the illusion of genuine passion and excitement, even if their feelings towards their co-star are anything but. And yet, for all these efforts, the end result is almost never discussed by viewers as an organic part of the film; they are usually discussed in locker-room terms, inevitably referred to as “the sex scene” and the emphasis is not on how the scene works in the context of the film but on how “hot” the scene and the actors are.While there have been any number of movies purporting to show the behind-the-scenes madness that goes into the production of a typical movie, very few have ever dealt with the notion of putting a sex scene on film as anything other than a sniggering joke. “Sex is Comedy” is a rare and highly perceptive exception. In showing exactly what goes into the production of such a scene, it gives audiences a new perspective on an aspect of the filmmaking process that they may have never given much of a thought about. As a bonus, it also mixes gripping drama with sheer hilarity to illustrate the angst, agony and outright silliness that goes into the making of a typical movie more effectively than any fictional film in recent memory.
Jeanne (Anne Parillaud) is an acclaimed film director but her latest work seems to be spiraling out of control. There never seems to be enough time or money to get things done properly. The weather is miserable, forcing a scene that is supposed to take place on a carefree summer day at the beach to be shot in the freezing cold. Even her screenplay seems to be turning against her-the words that once seemed so perfect no longer make any sense to her. However, these obstacles are mere trifles to the major one just around the corner; she is about to shoot a graphic sex scene that is meant to be the centerpiece of her film and her two lead actors, who are supposed to be madly in lust, can’t stand each other in real life and seem to be doing everything they can to delay the inevitable.
As the proverbial hour grows near, Jeanne finds herself grappling with the problem of getting her performers to do the scene that they, by signing on for the movie, have already agreed to do. The Actor (Gregoire Colin) has decided to mask his nervousness with low-key hostility and frat-boy hijinks; he veers between bouts of petulant behavior (walking off the set and refusing to remove his socks) and goofing off in order to show off for the crew. The Actress (Roxane Mesquida) is far more professional in her attitude, though she can barely disguise her disgust towards her co-star. Jeanne winds up spending most of her time dealing with the Actor-perhaps out of guilt for having cast him more for his looks than his talent-and while this approach makes sense, it almost leads to disaster when the Actress freezes up emotionally at a critical moment and Jeanne must struggle to get her through the scene because if it doesn’t work, the entire film will fall apart. And yet, even though she may want to strangle both of them at various points, Jeanne realizes that in a strange way, there is a point behind their joint reluctance; as she points out, no one will blame them if they are in a bad restaurant scene, but in a bad sex scene, it is their butts that are literally on the line.
“Sex is Comedy” was directed by Catherine Breillat, someone who is no stranger to scenes involving graphic sexuality-witness such works as “Romance” and “Anatomy of Hell”. In 2001, she directed the acclaimed film “Fat Girl” which featured an extended scene in which a teenage girl (also played by Mesquida) loses her virginity while on vacation to a local lothario. In interviews, she spoke of the difficulties she had in putting the scene together and this film has clearly been made as an attempt to come to terms with the experience-to the extent that she has Mesquida essentially play herself and relive what she went through during the production of that earlier film. As a result, “Sex is Comedy” has a strangely intimate feel to it-even if you haven’t seen “Fat Girl” (which you should, especially now that it has been released on DVD) and don’t recognize the specific parallels, you still come away with the sense that this is a far more realistic representation of the filmmaking experience than most other attempts, which tend to be obvious exaggerations.
What may comes as a surprise to those familiar with Catherine Breillat’s previous work, which usually blends shocking imagery with obtuse profundities (such as “Anatomy of Hell” and “Fat Girl”, whose central sex scene, featuring Mesquida, was the obvious inspiration for this film), is how light and funny “Sex is Comedy” really is. There is a lot of self-deprecating humor in Anne Parillaud’s performance-having met Breillat, I can assure you that Parillaud’s impersonation is spot-on the decision to make her look vaguely like Joan of Arc is particularly inspired. A running gag about a certain prosthetic device needed for the scene (you know what I mean) also gets a lot of laughs. And yet, these lighter moments develop gradually out of the material instead of being jammed in for easy laughs and they never take away from the more serious aspects of the story. (The final image of the film, with Jeanne comforting her actress, and vice-versa, is particularly moving.)For film fans, the kind who know all of the backstage details, “Sex is Comedy” is a must-see film that is more fun and informative than a year’s subscription to “Entertainment Weekly”. For others, it will serve as an eye-opening look at the sheer effort that goes into producing what will eventually become an evening’s entertainment for complete strangers. For anyone who has ever sat through one of those self-congratulatory “making-of” featurettes on a DVD, the kind where everyone talks about what a joy it was to make a film behind gritted teeth, this film will serve as a much-needed corrective.
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