Jean Claude Brisseau, a rider of desire
Pornography has nothing to do with this countercultural French director’s films, whose sequences are filled with desire, seduction, naked bodies (especially female ones) and diverse sexual acts. Desire is the starting point for this cinema; an element which is absent from pornography. Thrillers of erotic elegance in appearance, his films are actually existential sexual fables, sensual essays about the absurdity of control over otherness.
Brisseau fills Robert Bresson’s maxim about the person who stands before the camera, who became nothing more than a model, a type of mannequin through which ideas were expressed —turning to Laconism to contrast the common overacting of commercial actors. Perhaps this is why his actresses remind many of sexual zombies, voluptuous automats, without considering that we stand before a critical metaphor.
Let’s take a brief journey over Brisseau’s career. In Cèline (1992), the author was still in search of his own creative identity. A 22 year old woman, who has experienced recent traumas, is placed in the care of an ascetic. The new governess imposes spiritual exercises on the beautiful girl, until she is able to get in touch with her soul. Simultaneously, however, she will open some obscure doors.
In this film, a character representing female innocence and vigor confronts the spirit she possesses. In those static-camera scenes, which focus on nature and are like metaphysical pools, Cèline practices yoga and meditation, but she also frees herself of a shadow which she cannot control. How can the individual free himself from capitalist slavery? By isolating and imprisoning himself in spiritual practices? Apparently not. These practices do not make us better citizens, and society follows its own path in a parallel way — the individual still needs something more of himself. Unlike an erotic film by David Hamilton featuring adolescent dancers, Cèline awakens inwardly, revealing that through sexuality there is much more than sexuality itself —magic exists within the human body, awaiting its escape.
Brisseau belongs to an intermediate generation between the new wave and the so-called “New French Extremity”. From the first he inherits, via Jacques Rivette, his manner of associating a couple of women in collective adventures and gradually finding a plot; the female imagination intertwines and guides. From Eric Rohmer he borrows the endless conversations between two female friends who gradually reveal the nature of what is not said. And speaking of the “New French Extremity”, it could be related in its essence to Shocking film like that by Gaspar Noé or Catherine Breillat –-but Brisseau’s images go beyond stimulating commotion.
In the explicit Secret Things (Brisseau, 2002), Nathalie (Coraline Revel) and Sandrine (Sabrina Seyvecou), using their bodies and seduction games, will try to climb the social ladder at any cost. What may seem like a soft core exploitation film made for television has become a sociological study of surrealist glimmers. Abstractly, the two girls on the bottom and their boss on top form a triangle, this triangle changes form from equilateral to isosceles to scalene, the boss, however, can only abandon the tip of the triangle violently.
Female sexual control over men is a social foundation, so that men can create economic locks which will have a social impact on populations, always leaving women in an inferior position. If Nathalie is the teacher and Sandrine the student, they will always embody the Eternal Feminine seeking paternal approval. Their competition with each other is the only salvation for the CEO, Monsieur Delacroix (Roger Mirmont), whom both saw as their victim. The metaphysical elements show us the thin walls of the story, which is a poem of reality itself: the third-party who looks at the female couple, the owl that irrupts in the night and the brick that cuts distances.
In The Exterminating Angels (2006) François (Frederic Van Den Driessche) is an erotic film director, who represents Brisseau’s identity as constructed by his critics. The director casts several girls for his next film, which obviously has explicit erotic content. A similar situation led Brisseau to a courtroom, after being accused of sexual harassment by some actresses who went to the real life casting.
Back to fiction, the two chosen girls play different sexual games based on the scenes from the film within the film. Another important element comes from beyond: the director’s dead aunt’s spiritual presence, which shares dark omens from his own fate. Unlike the threesome in Secret Things, here the male is in first person, the main character whose story is told. The film, within fiction, explores female sexuality, what may happen when this order is transgressed.
Finally, À l’aventure (2008) comprises a series of different scenarios that a woman creates for herself to experience her epidermal curiosities. This is how she plays at assuming different roles, while she slowly explores metaphysical categories that facilitate dealing with feelings which begin to take her life. The difference between sexual and mystical ecstasy, which in first instance seem to be incredibly similar, begin to set each other apart with subtle properties. All this is clear to the young woman, evinced by the way she socializes with the only man with whom she shares her bed. In corporeal existence she only shares a limited amount of time with him, a bench in the garden and phrases that try to explain existence itself. Sex scenes are not just explicit; they are often long, uncut planes, liberating human sex from the cinematic montage.
The metaphysical nature of Brisseau’s work denotes this magic which suffers so much to be able to emerge from the interior of the individual, especially of the female —the priestess is afraid of her dormant power and assumes one that does not exist, a desire which depends on man to exist.
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