Thursday, January 27, 2005

Screenings: Secret Things and Sex Is Comedy

If you've been struggling with the recent low temperatures, thank goodness there's always French cinema to warm things up. Who needs a fireplace when you can hold your hands up to the TV?

Both of these films were produced and released in France in 2002 but just made it to urban American screens last year. Both manage to be about a variety of things at once, though sex is never far from their minds—and in the case of Secret Things, sex occasionally clouds its mind. After beginning with the most authentically erotic stripshow performance I've ever seen a film, Secret Things continues to pursue its sociological and primarily sexual theses about power, capital, and curiosity. Basically, two down-and-out women devise a LaBute-like plan to use their own sexual wiles and the whole bewildering complex of confusion around female sexuality as strategies for grabbing high-powered jobs at a French bank. The film's conviction is both its strength and its folly; serpentine plot-twists and elaborately concocted sex scenes occasionally maroon the viewer and compromise the seriousness of the film's ideas. But that seriousness is sharply achieved elsewhere, and the film manages some surprising laughs and some real heat on its way to what we'll call its memorable climax. Performances are sharp, especially from Coralie Revel as a humbled provocateur and Roger Mirmont as a victim of the women's plans. Any film with a "victim of women's plans" is bound to raise some eyebrows, but Secret Things is smart, sexy, and serious enough to answer back.

Sex Is Comedy gives off much less erotic charge, primarily because it's about the remarkably unsexy process by which a film director has to coax two young, mulish, and uncomfortable young actors through a key sex scene in her film. When the film in question is an undisguised reprise of the centerpiece deflowering in Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl, and when Anne Parillaud, the original femme Nikita, is giving a fussy, mercurial, and perversely passionate characterization of Breillat herself, the stakes go even higher. Miraculously, though Sex Is Comedy is itself directed by Breillat, the film is stylistically and intellectually distinctive: it's actually about what it's about, and nervily so, instead of just self-indulgently returning to the scene of Breillat's own cinematic crimes. Unexpected doses of humor, as in Secret Things, do a great deal to enrich the tone, and again the performances win the day—not just Parillaud's but the casually reptilian work of Grégoire Colin as the inflexible actor giving Jeanne so many headaches. Secret Things is available now on DVD; Sex Is Comedy will be on Feb. 22. Rent them both. Smoke a cigarette after.

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