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Catherine Breillat - Biography

Catherine Breillat, born in Bressuire, France on July 13, 1948, is a Paris-based filmmaker and writer, and Professor of Auteur Cinema at the European Graduate School EGS. She became famous not only for her distinctively personal films on sexuality, gender trouble and sibling rivalry, but also for her best-selling novels. In her films, she takes sexuality as a subject, and not merely as an object, confronting the viewer with a female's understanding of her own sexuality. The topics range from the adolescent obsession with the loss of virginity (Une vraie jeune fille, 1975; 36 Fillette, 1988), female masochism (Romance, 1999), the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between an older woman and a younger man (Parfait amour!, 1996; Brève traversée, 2001), and female sexuality as a potent force that is being repressed and made obscene by its patriarchal bedmate. The sexual acts in Catherine Breillat's films are not only sexually explicit but very often unsimulated, earning her the unfortunate label of being the auteur of porn, obscuring the much more important reading of her work within the history of modernist filmmaking. Although much of her work focuses on women's relationship to desire, Catherine Breillat also believes that men must re-examine their own sexuality and the way it has been affected by women's social advancement.

In addition to acting and directing, Catherine Breillat has written screenplays for directors such as Maurice Pialat (Police, 1985), Federico Fellini (And the Ship Sails On, 1983), Liliana Cavani (The Skin, 1981) and many others.

Catherine Breillat has encountered controversy since her career began. When she was 17, she published her first novel, the erotic L'Homme facile, which was forbidden to be sold to anyone under 18 years of age in France. She was baptized into cinema as an actress in 1972 with her supporting role in Bernando Bertolucci's groundbreaking film Last Tango in Paris alongside her sister Marie-Helene. In 1975, Catherine Breillat transitioned to filmmaking with an adaptation of her fourth novel Le Soupirail, retitled Une vraie jeune fille. Nevertheless, due to a combination of bankruptcy of her producers and its shocking content that caused the film to be banned, it was first released in 2000, twenty-five years later. According to some authors, this film represents Catherine Breillat at her most Bataillesque in its transgressive look at the sexual awakening of an adolescent girl. Through combining abstract images of female genitalia, mud, and rodents with a realist account of a young girl's sexual awakening, this film does not offer the expected visual pleasure it anticipates, thereby escaping a commodity driven system of distribution.

Catherine Breillat's refusal to make conventionally erotic images or films has led to a myriad of censorship problems during her whole career. Her second film, Tapage Nocturne (1979), again detailing the sexual longing of a young woman, was also met with censorship. The film was released, but it was forbidden to anyone under 18.

With her third film, 36 Fillette (1988), Catherine Breillat gained a measure of international attention. Lili, a voluptuous 14-year-old French girl literally bursting out of her children's dress size 36 fillete, discovers her sexuality while on vacation with her family. She is self-aware and rebellious and gets involved in an emotionally charged and mutually manipulative relationship with an aging playboy.

It was with the release of her sixth feature Romance in 1999 that Catherine Breillat faced censorship internationally when the film was either banned or given an X rating. Commenting on it by declaring ironically that the X certificate was linked to the X chromosome, her statement was echoed in the French poster featuring a naked woman with her hand between her legs. According to this, the source of trouble was in a woman in touch with her own sense of sexual pleasure. The film is about a woman, Marie, whose partner refuses to have sex with her. Her frustration takes her through a series of affairs as an attempt to not only find pleasure, but to get a better understanding of her own desire. Casting Rocco Siffredi, a famous Italian porn star acting as one of Marie's lovers, Catherine Breillat not only provoked a world-wide discussion on pornography, but at the same time extended the language of mainstream movies.

In À ma soeur! (2001), Catherine Breillat tells the story of the rivalry and sexual awakening of two teenage sisters. The older sister, Elena, is fifteen, thin and attractive, while the other sister, Anaïs, is twelve, overweight, and subject to Elena's hostility. We see Anaïs being confronted with the awakening sexuality of her sister and the power of seduction that she does not posses. The film ends with a scene in which both sisters and their mother are driving on the highway. A man suddenly jumps through the windshield, killing both Elena and her mother. The killer takes Anaïs into the woods and rapes her. The scene is horrifying in itself, though it is rendered even more shocking by the apparent lack of signs of resistance on the part of Anaïs. As she is escorted out of the woods by the police, we hear them say that Anaïs claims that no rape took place.

In one of her recent films, Anatomie de l'enfer (2004), Catherine Breillat probes deeper into the uncharted possibilities of representing sex and sexuality, masterfully crafting a terrifying tableaux vivant of the female body. An unnamed woman searching for her sexual identity becomes involved with an unnamed, misogynistic man (played again by the Italian porn-star, Rocco Siffredi). She makes a contractual deal with him, enacted across a series of nocturnal meetings: she puts her body on display for the man, in the center of a clinically lit room, carrying the reminiscence of both the classical Renaissance nude and the sanitized image of the body in western medicine and pornographic vision. Loaded with religious references, Catherine Breillat also strikes at the Judeo-Christian roots of perversion and obscenity, resurrecting the body from the hell to which it has been banished.

Catherine Breillat's latest film, Une vieille maîtresse (2007), resulted in unanimous praise from both audiences and critics across the world. Casting one of the most fearless actors of our generation, Asia Argento, the film is based on a controversial novel by 19th century French writer, Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly. Before getting married to a young and innocent bride-to-be, Ryno de Marigny makes his last visit to his Spanish mistress La Vellini, as a way to bid goodbye. As lurid speculations of Ryno's ten-year affair with the carnal Vellini manifest, a supremely erotic and wickedly humorous depiction of human lust is revealed, overriding the brittle facade of nobility and reverence. As seen in this film, Catherine Breillat's unusual way of casting multiplies the complexity of her characters even more, and this is to be continued in her current project based on her most recent novel Bad Love (2007). The story is narrated in a mixture of English and Chinese, and for both lead roles first-time actors were cast: the British supermodel Naomi Campbell, and the master criminal Christophe Rocancourt.

Perhaps the largest influence on Catherine Breillat's work is to be found in Italian neorealism, or at least in the idea of neorealism. She prefers long takes with few camera set-ups. She is very interested in documenting the quotidian, more fond of watching a young girl walking down the street than she is in setting that same character before an easily resolved conflict to keep the narrative moving. The key to Catherine Breillat's films is in her resistance to simple and limited character development. Exposing the viewer to sexual encounters, she does not judge her characters or their desires, or tell us what to think about them. Her female characters are represented in highly complex terms. We do not have an easy access to the mind of women as is usually found in mainstream films where a woman's consciousness is always externalized, and this opacity of her characters only makes her films more meaningful.

Believing that artists have an imperative to show images that are not 'showable', Catherine Breillat's main aim is not to satisfy expectations, but to confound them. And exactly this act sets the possibility for new ideas and new ways of seeing to emerge.

Catherine Breillat is a Professor of Auteur Cinema at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where she conducts an Intensive Summer Workshop.