Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Eroticism and death in Catherine Breillat’s À ma soeur!

Catherine Brelliat is a controversial French author/director who has focused on women’s sexuality throughout her films, plays, and novels. Her treatment of the subject matter has gained Brelliat the reputation of “the female De Sade, the new Bataille -- a purveyor of transgressive sexuality” (Price, par 3). ,À ma soeur! Breillat’s 8th film, portrays the adolescent obsession with the loss of virginity, told through two sisters, each uniquely exploring sexuality during a summer vacation. In its treatment of these themes, À ma soeur! exemplifies Georges Bataille’s theories on Eroticism, Death and Sensuality.
The film starts with credits and the voice over of a young girl singing softly to herself. The lyrics of this song, written by Breillat and performed by Anaïs Reboux (the “fat girl”) are an excellent introduction to the essence of eroticism and death in the film.
If only I could find alive or dead. A man a body. An animal. I don’t mind. Just to dream. For I get so bored. If I could find a man or woman. A body, a soul. A werewolf. I couldn’t care less. Just to dream. I get so bored. It’s not over yet. After my life and my survival. After my death I’ll still be bored. More than ever before. If only I could find a specter or a ghost. Woman or Man. (Brelliat)
The song depicts Anaïs’ desperation and loneliness due to the fact that she is not desired by someone else. According to Bataille, “ Eroticism is one aspect of inner life of a man. We fail to realize this because man is everlastingly in search of an object outside himself but this object answers to the innerness of the desire” (Bataille, 29) This search is clear in the song (If I could only find...) and her desperation clear as she sings that her search could end with man or woman -- or even a werewolf. When Anaïs sings that the reason of her search is Just to Dream , this symbolizes idealization or romantic notions, more specifically, love. She wants to feel she exists through someone else, she would like to lose herself in blind passion, or feel something else other than paternal affection. “The fervor of love may be felt more violently than physical desire. Love in spite of the bliss brings turmoil and distress.” (Bataille, 19). Anaïs would like to experience all of these feelings before she dies, hence she sings It’s not over yet. She’s still alive but at the same time dead because she hasn’t felt turmoil or bliss and doesn’t want to miss that because when she is dead, there will be no possibilities and she will be infinitely bored (After my death, I’ll still be bored. More than even before).
The conversation that takes place in the first sequence of the film provides continuity with Anaïs’ song and Bataille's explorations. The Pingot sisters, Anaïs and Elena (Anaïs Reboux and Roxane Mesquida), are having a sisterly argument while walking the grounds of vacation area where they’re staying. Elena, a beautiful 15 year old, cannot explain to herself why men disappear after she makes out with them. Anaïs, her shapely younger sister tells Elena that she doesn’t know how to behave with men. In response to that , Elena insults Anaïs by telling her that she cannot even pick up a guy because she’s fat. Anaïs, trying to show that she is not interested in sex at the moment answers “I’m just too young, but you reek of loose morals.” Later, Anaïs tells Elena that she prefers to loose her virginity to someone she doesn’t love or care about. This declaration, is a reminder of the song (A body, a soul. A werewolf. I couldn’t care less) and a reflection that demonstrates Anaïs’ lucidity, logic and precocious maturity. In an interview during the 2001 Berlinale, Breillat confirms Anaïs’ external search to connect with her innermost desires. She explains, “It’s [Anaïs’] desire for romance that makes her unromantic and complicated. I’d say. But this overwhelming desire -- to place it in a sentimental context, the very act of dramatizing it changes this simple desire. Simplicity has certain grace. But it becomes complicated and in that process something sordid occurs.”
To start their sexual explorations, Elena and Anaïs go to a cafe and sit down at the table of a handsome Italian young man named Fernando (Libero de Rienzo). Minutes after a flirtatious talk, Fernando and Elena look at each other closely, touch their hands, smell each other’s necks and begin to kiss. During this moment Elena is conscious that she is the object of Fernando’s desire. Bataille foresees lover’s anxiety by saying that “Smell, hearing, sight and even taste are objective signals distinct from the activity they incite. They are signals to announce the crisis.” (Bataille, 130) The torment they are all about to experience, however, is to be different for each of them. Fernando wants to posses this young virgin beauty and Elena wants to experience sexuality, but at the same time wants to feel loved. According to Brelliat, “ No young girl can believe she’s an object of desire. She [Elena] thinks she’s loved, when in reality she’s just prey.” And, all the while during this seduction scene, Anaïs is relegated to spectator and accomplice. Trying to compensate for her lack of attractiveness as well as her immediate solitude, she gives into gluttony by devouring a banana split. Brelliat illuminates this process for us: “So others deny her body, and to deny it herself, she turns fat. Obviously, it’s awkward being fat. You can’t say an obese girl feels good about herself, but oddly enough, it takes care of her, meaning it protects her from becoming a product of society’s norms.” Therefore, Anaïs remains untouched, but takes a bizarre comfort in her implicit understanding that “Beauty has a cardinal importance, for ugliness cannot be spoiled, and to despoil is the essence of eroticism. Humanity implies taboos, and in eroticism it and they are transgressed. Humanity is transgressed, profaned and besmirched. The greater the beauty, the more is befouled.” (Bataille, 145).
The next scene shows Anaïs swimming in the pool while her parents, family friends, her sister and Fernando sunbathe. Anaïs swims back and forth from the diving-board that’s placed over the pool, to the metal staircase as if they were two different lovers. She kisses one and then the other while talking to them. She asks if she is a good kisser, if they like her soft lips and she even declares she has not kissed anyone before. Later, the monologue turns aggressive and she asks the staircase “How can you disgust me and attract me so much”. The word “disgust” suggests fear of death according to cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s exploration of the meaning of anality. Becker explains that “The anus and it’s incomprehensible, repulsive product represents not only physical determinism and boundness, but the fate as well of all that is physical: decay and death.” (Becker, 31). To further understand this notion, Martha Nussebaum, an American philosopher, comments that disgust “shapes our intimacies and provides much of the structure of our daily routine, as we wash our bodies, seek privacy for urination and defecation, cleanse ourselves of offending odors with toothbrush and mouthwash, ...” (Nussebaum p. 72). This means that Anaïs refuses to be disgusted by being attracted, therefore, she is embracing death, because disgust is directly connected to the fear of death. Another aspect to observe, is Anaïs’ innate rebelliousness. As she floats from one “lover” to the other, she displays her rebellious personality towards a monogamist society and concludes by exclaiming “Women aren’t like bars of soap, you know? They don’t wear away. On the contrary. Each lover brings them more, and you get all the benefits.”
After Anaïs swims, everybody goes in the house to have a meal at the table. Fernando gets acquainted with Elena’s family and they start eating. This is part of his seduction plan: to make Elena feel safe, to make the pursuit a formal one. Later that night, Fernando sneaks in Elena and Anaïs’ room. They both engage in foreplay, but Elena is scared, she wants to make sure that she is not being used, she wants to know that she is special. The introduction to physical eroticism takes place and it is explained when Bataille says “Physical eroticism has in any case a heavy, sinister quality. It holds on to the separateness of the individual in a rather selfish and cynical fashion.” (Bataille, 19) After asking Fernando about “the other girls” and hearing his comforting false words like “you are the only one”, “you are special” , “you are different” and “I love you” she asks him if he is willing to marry her. This is completely necessary for Elena because it is the only way she can justify the sexual act she’s about to perform. According to Bataille, “Marriage in the first place is the framework of legitimate sensuality” (Bataille 109).
On the other hand, Elena’s behavior also echoes De Sade in the sense that “the urge towards love, pushed to its limits, is an urge towards death”. (Bataille, 42). Slowly but surely, she is losing herself, to be adored and pursued by Fernando. This merciless young casanova will obtain what he wants, knowing that she will never forget him, because he was her first lover. This actions are transgressive due to the fact that “just as killing is simultaneously forbidden and performed in sacrificial ritual, so the initial sexual act constituting marriage is a permitted violation.” (Bataille, 109)
Nevertheless, a celebration of death takes place when Fernando moans at the end of the sexual act and Elena cries with pain. Bataille accounts that “Sexuality and death are simply the culminatory points of the holiday nature celebrates with inexhaustible multitude of living beings...” (Bataille, 60) According to Brelliat, “The love scenes have a comedy sense but there is cruelty too because we laugh at what’s made us suffer. How could we have gotten into such situations? How could we have said such things? Yet everyone recognizes themselves. Everyone has experienced that stupidity, cruelty, naiveté.”
During this love scene, Anaïs watches and listens. She is confused, and disgusted. Nevertheless, she uncovers her eyes because she is attracted by the act and still wants to see. Bataille says that “Human sexual activity is not necessarily erotic but erotic it is whenever it is not rudimentary and purely animal” (Bataille, 29) Hence, Fernando is behaving like an animal following his natural instincts and desires. “Sexual reproductive activity is common to sexual animals and men, but only men appear to have turned their sexual activity into erotic activity.” (Bataille, 11).
The morning after Elena’s and Fernando’s first sexual encounter, Anaïs is visibly upset and angry at her sister. It is a mixture of jealousy, envy and melancholia. Anaïs is jealous of Fernando, and envious of Elena. She shouts at Elena that she is tired of being her ball-and-chain. Elena tries to comfort her, but Anaïs looses her appetite. To explain their sisterly relationship, its necessary to slightly explore the theme of incest in Bataille’s work as he says that “Near relations having exclusive rights over sisters and daughters would perhaps relinquish these rights to strangers who, coming from outside, had a wind of irregularity about them that qualified them to undertake the act of transgression.” (Bataille, 110). On the other hand, Brelliat comments that “two sisters exist in fusion and confusion. They share a common language, like the tree houses children build. But they are adolescents now, the time when we want to exists on our own and the other is still your sister.”
Continuing with Anaïs’ lonely sexual exploration, she stands in front of the bathroom mirror and pulls up her sleeping gown to uncover herself while she stares at her nude body. Nakedness, according to Bataille, as opposed to normal, clothed state, is certainly a kind of negation. He argues that, in Western civilization, “nakedness has become the object of a fairly general and weighty taboo” (Bataille, 50). If Anaïs strips naked she reveals the object of a man’s desire, an individual and particular object to be prized.” (Bataille, 132). It is clear that Anaïs is somewhat aware that she could be objectified, because as she stares, she calls herself “slut” and then shamefully covers up. To fully understand Anaïs’s reasoning or psychological profile, Brelliat sheds further light:
“Since she isn’t looked at and desired, she’s more intelligent about the world. She can create herself and be herself, with a kind of rebellion. Certainly, which is painful, but all the same she exists. While her sister, to her internal devastation, isn’t able to exist , she’s there. All her movements are conscious and significant. She understands things and understands what’s happening to her sister. She’s much more lucid and mature but at the same time she suffers because everyone wants to be part of seducing and being seduced. And at the same time we’re jealous of it.” (Brelliat, 2001)
After Elena and Anaïs talk and make up, their mother takes them shopping. Trying to become as attractive as her sister, Anaïs choses the same dress and Elena throws a fit deciding to get a different one. While Elena choses a red dress that anticipates the fact that she is about to be deflowered, Anaïs asks the seamstress to pull the dress length up so she can show her legs.

The shopping session is over and its time for Elena to meet with Fernando again. Anaïs accompanies them to the beach. While Elena makes out with Fernando, Anaïs is laying on the shore, allowing the sand and the water to enter her dress and wet her back as she sings another song composed by Brelliat:

I’ve set my heart to rot away on the windowsill. I trust in a future day the crows may come. I hope they will. With their beaks so fleet. They will peck away. At this lump of raw meat O’er which you thought you held sway. I’ve set my heart to rot away on the windowsill for the joyless joy of the day. My worries fall still. If you see the flock of crows fighting o’er it throw them not a rock for I am worth not a bit. (Brelliat)
The lyrics of this song talk about melancholia and death. By setting her heart to rot away, she is breaking the taboo of death. She is not burying her dead heart, she is displaying it on the window-sill. According to Bataille, this taboo has existed since Neanderthal men, because there is proof that they buried their dead. The rotting of the heart, tells that “Beyond the annihilation to come, which will fall with all its weight on the being I now am, which still waits to be called into existence, which can even be said to be about to exist rather than to exist (as if I did not exist here and now but in the future in store for me, though that is not where I am now) death will proclaim my return to seething life. Hence I can anticipate and live in expectation of that multiple putrescence that anticipates its sickening triumph in my person.” ( Bataille, 57) In this way, Anaïs wishes to exist, to live, therefore she embraces death as the key for eternal life. As she sings At this lump of raw meat O’er which you thought you held sway she displays anger for the person that seduced and possessed her. Furthermore, she sings that she is not worried about dying, because she is non-existent, or insignificant (My worries fall still. If you see the flock of crows fighting o’er it throw them not a rock for I am worth not a bit.).
The next act is the second love scene between Elena and Fernando. Before Fernando sneaks in the girls’ room, Elena shows Anaïs an expensive ring that Fernando gave her as a proof of their supposed engagement and as a token of his love. Anaïs immediately reacts by telling her sister that the ring is very expensive and that it means that she will have to give something valuable in return. Elena answers that she wouldn’t be engaged with a “piece of shit ring”. This mercantile exchange, is an example for Bataille’s object of desire and prostitution. According to Bataille, “Not every woman is a potential prostitute, but prostitution is the logical consequence of the feminine attitude. In so far as she is attractive, a woman is a prey to men’s desire.” (Bataille,131) In this case, Elena is Fernando’s prey and “virginal consumer item” (Brelliat, 2001) and the ring not only symbolizes a fake promise of marriage, but an exchange of objects. Elena started this sexual game by basically throwing herself to Fernando, therefore “Putting oneself forward is the fundamental feminine attitude, but that first movement is followed by a feigned denial. Only prostitution has made it possible for adornment to stress the erotic value of the object.” (Bataille, 132) As Elena accepts the ring, she is unconsciously accepting the erotic value of her virginity. The “breaking in” scene takes place as Fernando pushes himself into Elena with hard violent moves. She cries as he moans out of satisfaction and ecstasy. He tells her that it is better to do it “the hard way” and this violent action takes place. Fernando is expressing human violence out of desire which according to Bataille “is the result not of human calculation but of emotional states.” (Bataille, 64) This situation is observed by Anaïs who suffers as well because she is not being loved by her sister or by someone else, or perhaps because her conception of “the first time” is stained by this experience and perhaps, as Brelliat put it, “she’ll be jealous and hurt. The hurt seeing that her sister can love someone else. That’s a betrayal of their sisterly love.” This scene is slow, sloppy, and cruel, but somehow real and terrifying. Brelliat explains that Elena unconsciously understands that she is not loved but she is paralyzed by this fact. “Why are we like this?” Brelliat asks and then replies; “Because our society values sentimentality at any cost. We never say we desire someone. We say we’ve fallen in love. That’s not true. You don’t fall in love with a stranger. It’s a sexual impulse, it’s desire. But we feel so guilty that we deny it. It must be replicated with the talk of love. So this talk of love becomes a betrayal. It becomes a lie. Sure, its a sweet desire, two young people attracted to each other. It’s a holiday romance.” This denial of desire is related to the denial of death, because letting go to satisfy our desires means losing control -- in other words, losing anality.
As expected, Fernando disappears after getting what he wanted. His mother shows up the next day to ask for her ring saying that her son is to young to dispose of her fortune and implies that in order for him to give away such precious ring, the girl must have engaged in the sexual act. Love’s turmoil and disaster takes place as Elena’s mother decides to end their vacation and go back home. Elena is destroyed, her heart is broken and she wants to die because Fernando abandoned her which brings in the fact that “For the man in love, the fervor of love may be felt more violently than physical desire. Love in spite of the bliss brings turmoil and distress.” (Bataille, 19).
Elena expresses her wish to die, Anaïs tells her she, herself, doesn’t. Later on, it turns dark and the mother is having a hard time driving. While being on the edge of a car accident, they stop at a gas station and park the car in order to rest. Elena and her mother sleep soundly, but Anaïs remains awake. After a couple of hours, a man comes out of nowhere and breaks the windshield of their car, smashes Elena’s head and while trying to undress the mother, chokes her to death. Bataille cites that the taboo on murder, according to Freud, is generally countered by the desire to touch the dead (Bataille, 47) . Therefore, the murderer wanted to touch Elena and her mother, he wanted t o posses them, but couldn’t because they were asleep and attached to the car seat by a seat bealt. That is how he still decides to kill them, as an impulse to destroy beauty because, again, “Beauty is desired in order that it may be fouled; not for its own sake, but for the joy brought by the certainty of profaning it” (Bataille, 145). Anaïs observes this tremendously violent act and remains still. In this moment “Violence and death signifying violence, have a double meaning. On one hand the horror of death drives us off, for we prefer life; on the other an element at once solemn and terrifying fascinates us and disturbs us profoundly.” Anaïs stays in the car until he finishes killing her mother. This implies that she is beyond disturbance, and over fascination. She gets out of the car and runs to the woods knowing that she is followed by the man. Instead of crying for help, she orders and exclaims “You are not going to hurt me” and then she gets thrown to the ground and raped. Her face is emotionless, her body is inert; when the policemen find her, she says he didn’t rape her. The truth is that in the beginning of the film she says that she wants to be “broken in” by someone who means nothing to her, and her desire is fulfilled during the moment of rape. As she understands what the man is looking for, she provides it and provides herself with the rite of passage to sexuality and adulthood breaking the taboo on rape, hence Anaïs’ eroticism becomes “the disequilibrium in which the being consciously calls his own existence into question.”
Whether or not Cathering Brelliat was directly influenced by Georges Bataille’s Eroticism, Death, and Sensuality, À ma soeur! proves to be an incredible narrative of its ideas. À ma soeur! explores eroticism as an inner aspect of man, taboos and transgressions, the need to exist through love, crisis and desire, denial of self and denial of death, disgust and putrefaction, destruction of beauty and many other specifics that are cinematographic examples of Bataille’s philosophy.

Bataille, Georges. Eroticism: Death and Sensuality. San Francisco: City Lights, 1957.

Becker, Ernest. The denial of Death. New York: Free Press/Simon Schuster, 1973

Nussbaum, Martha C. Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the
Law. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Price, Brian. “Catherine Breillat” Senses of Cinema (2002) 16 pars. March 15, 2006.

À ma soeur! . Dir. Catherine Brelliat. Perf. Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Libero Da Rienzo. CB (Catherine Breillat) Films, Canal+, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), Flach Film, Immagine e Cinema, Urania Pictures S.r.l., arte France Cinéma, 2001. DVD. Criterion Collection, 2004.


Blogger thedancinganimal said...

didnt read the whole thing but i was happy you had put the discussion of Breillat talking about our socitey valuing sentimentality at any cost....i had been looking for that since it stuck with me as profound and insightful from when i first heard it...your the only place on the internet with thanks!

11:55 AM  

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