This is one of the year’s best movies.
TORONTO -- "Romance," from France, and "Lies," from Korea, are the two most sexually explicit films in this year's Toronto Film Festival, providing details even a gynecologist would find educational. Both are pitiless in their scrutiny of the obsessions.
I viewed them one right after the other, and found myself listening to the laughter in the audience. Mostly it seemed to be the women who were laughing - disbelievingly during the Korean film, with recognition during the French one. The men sat in silence, not amused as the heroines reduced their partners to mindless service providers.
If pornography is about the objectification of the sex object, here is revenge for movies that treat women that way.
It is said that women are less concerned with outward physical beauty than men, and more concerned with the ability of their partners to provide security and stability. Both films (one directed by a man, both told from the female point of view) show us women who view their partners as a source of precisely what they want in bed. Physical appeal is beside the point. The men in the French film are a foppish male model, a middle-aged businessman, and a guy who gets to tag along when his awesome equipment is required on a date. The hero of the Korean film is a scrawny 38-year-old college professor who looks vaguely like John Lennon.
The heroines of both films are attractive, although the Korean film is indifferent to its schoolgirl heroine's beauty. We only rarely get a good look at her face, which is never lingered upon in appreciation. The French film does take care to portray its heroine as beautiful and desirable. Can you guess which was directed by a man? Maybe.
The titles could be reversed. "Romance" contains only lies, and "Lies" is the story of a romance in which the lovers are brutally honest. Both are narrated by one of the characters; both narrations are flat and factual, like descriptions of a traffic accident by a dazed survivor.
"Romance," by Catherine Breillat (whose "36 Fillette" was about a young girl whose large breasts led her prematurely into sexuality), is about a woman who finds no satisfaction from her abstentious boyfriend, or from anybody else, seek as she does, until she encounters a polite, attentive middle-aged expert in bondage. "Lies," by Jang Sun Woo, is about an 18-year-old schoolgirl and a 38-year-old professor who are drawn into an escalating spiral of sadomasochism.
Neither of these films is erotic in any conventional way. There is not a single scene that seems intended to be arousing, except perhaps to specialized tastes. The directors seem more fascinated by the pathology of the characters than by their libidos.
"Romance" at least sets its story in the conventional French world of apartments, cafes and meeting places, and its characters talk about their desires and problems. "Lies" is about two people who have nothing in common except their overwhelming need to beat each other, and be beaten. There is some doubt whether the girl enjoys the pain ("I like it because you like it," she tells the professor). There is no doubt that he does. The French woman (Caroline Ducey) seems bemused by her own behavior, which she analyzes like an outsider. She doesn't connect easily with anyone, and perhaps has chosen her boyfriend because of his passivity. She likes the bondage enthusiast because "he ties me up but doesn't tie me down." After sessions, they chat over caviar and vodka, and at last we see pleasure reflected on her face.
There is graphic detail in the film, including a scene where she is examined first by the gynecologist, then by several interns. She sort of enjoys that, and also a fantasy in which her body is stuck through a hole in a wall; on one side, she is vulnerable to the patrons in a brothel, while on the other she is giving birth. (Don't worry if you can't picture this; it's the idea that counts - perhaps, I fear, as a metaphor of woman's lot.) In one quick edit, Breillat cuts from sperm to the ointment used before an ultrasound picture of the womb - the slickest flash-forward since "Citizen Kane" cut from "Merry Christmas" to "Happy New Year."
The heroine in "Romance" is seen basically in a social setting, as a modern woman with needs and feelings that not many men can understand. Even her bondage friend is valued more for the care he takes than for the results he gets.
In "Lies," on the other hand, we get an almost documentary look at two people so single-minded that a walk in the woods is just an opportunity to search for promising switches. Late in the film, homeless and wandering from one cheap love hotel to another, they pass a construction site and experimentally heft some of the boards. "Take the one with the nail in it," the man says. He is not joking.
"Lies" is not pornographic, because it does not seek to arouse, but it shares the directness of the porno film. The characters exist primarily in terms of their sexual identity, there are few conversations of note, and even the director seems slightly impatient during the interludes between sex. I was reminded of the late Brendan Gill's perceptive definition of a porno film: Any film in which we grow restless because of the time the characters are taking to get in and out of cars and walk in and out of rooms.
Watching these two films with packed houses of Toronto film festival patrons added a curious overlay to the experience. The moviegoers were the usual cross-section of ages and backgrounds; some no doubt were not even at their first choice of film, and got their tickets as second prize in the festival lottery system.
There were some walkouts, but not many. Scenes of the most striking brutality, of closeup explicitness, were witnessed by audiences that seemed interested, if not fascinated. The MPAA of course would slap both of these films with an instant and horrified NC-17 if they were ever submitted (they will go out unrated). But the audiences I joined took them in stride.
These are simply stories of people seeking happiness in their own desperate ways. In the French film, the heroine thinks she will find it, which makes it a comedy. In the Korean film, the heroine thinks she will lose it, which makes it a tragedy.
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