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Romance and the Senses

November 2001 | Though Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses (Japan, 1976) and Catherine Breillat's Romance (France, 1998) were released in two different countries in two different decades, they are often talked about in the same breath by critics and art-film aficionados. Both are commonly regarded as art films, but as art films, they are uncommon in that they display an explicitness usually attributed to pornography. Both films were made for an international audience by cosmopolitan filmmakers. Both films were extremely controversial and even banned in certain countries (Bennett). Though the films are culturally and personally different, they are closely related by their makers' intent. Both filmmakers wanted to make an honest examination of sex, and felt that this could only come about by filming the act explicitly and directly.

In the Realm of the Senses is based on the true story of Sada Abe, who was put on trial in 1936. In the film, Sada Abe is a former prostitute now working as a maid at an inn owned by Toku and her husband Kichi. One night Sada and other maids spy on Toku and Kichi having sex, and Sada develops a crush on Kichi. Later, Toku insults Sada, so Sada unsuccessfully attacks Toku with a knife. As a result Kichi becomes fascinated with her and later sexually assaults her. Kichi and Sada become more and more obsessed with each other and eventually flee the inn so they can "get married" in a geisha house. As their sexual relationship becomes more intense, the dominant role gradually shifts away from Kichi to Sada. In the final scenes of the movie, Kichi's submission and Sada's dominance are so complete that with Kichi is asking Sada to strangle him to increase their sexual excitement. Sada kills Kichi and cuts off his genitals, holding them to her as a keepsake.

Romance is the modern-day story of Marie, a schoolteacher in a three- month relationship with Paul, a male model. When Paul callously tells Marie that he wants to stop having sex, Marie is angry, but her neediness keeps her from breaking up with him. Instead, she aggressively seeks to cheat on Paul. At a bar outside of Paul's apartment, Marie hooks up with Paolo, a virile widower. Marie likes Paolo so much that she becomes afraid and she dumps him. Later, Robert, the headmaster at Marie's school, starts a non-violent sado-masochistic relationship with Marie. Though being tied and chained traumatizes Marie at first, she begins to enjoy it, especially as she and Robert become better friends. Marie's sexual independence from Paul (who suspects nothing) intrigues Paul to the point where he wants to have sex again. Marie gets pregnant and stops having sex with anyone-- she remarks that her only sexual encounters are repetitive examinations by her obstetrician and his bevy of interns. When Marie finally gives birth in a strange dream sequence, she seems to have found fulfillment.

Catherine Breillat, who as a youth had a small role in another adult art film, Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, is a great admirer of Oshima and was actually inspired to make Romance after seeing In the Realm of the Senses (Sawhill). The Japanese touches in Romance are an homage to Oshima's film: Paul's favorite restaurant is a sushi bar near his apartment, and Robert's home looks much like the inn from Senses. Paul's own apartment is decorated in the high minimalist style first made popular in Japan. The bizarre final scene of Romance, where Marie is covered in black scarves, holding her child, and watching an ox-drawn carriage, brings to mind the travelling scene in Senses where Kichi tastes Sada's menstrual blood. The cinematic construction of Romance is also similar to Senses in that there is no soundtrack and the camera use is mainly limited to static shots peppered with close-ups of faces and genitals.

Though Romance owes a debt to Senses in its crafting, Senses owes a debt to Romance in overturning Australian censors. When Romance was released, Australia banned the film, but after the Film Critics' Circle of Australia protested and Romance's distributors appealed, the ban was overturned and the uncut film was released. Three years later, Austrialia's allowance of the re-release of Senses occurred "in direct correlation" to the case of Romance (Bennett).

Even upon its initial release, Senses was banned in many countries. Even in countries that did not ban the film, versions that were severely cut were the only ones allowed to be shown. Japan's response was among the most virulent: Oshima was put on trial and held there for several years. Oshima's training as a lawyer and activist not only able to helped him obtain acquittal in 1982, it also informs the political themes in of many of his films. In Death by Hanging. (1968), Oshima explores racial discrimination and capital punishment, and in Boy (1969), Oshima explores the effect of the Japanese state on the Japanese family. These films, like Senses, are all based on true events (Freiberg).

As for Breillat, her background as a writer and feminist informs the sexual themes in all of her six films, which have incurred some kind of censorship from some country. 36 Fillette (1988) is her only other film to be released in America, while her film A True Young Girl (1975) was recently re-released in France after a twenty three-year ban (Anton). Breillat has said that she is interested in exploring female sexuality from the feminine perspective, and while none of her films have gained the same level of notoriety as Senses, the release of a Breillat film usually causes a stir among critics. This is true of her newest film, Fat Girl (2001), which explores the sexual awakenings of a thirteen-year-old girl and her fifteen-year- old sister.

One of the reasons that Senses and Romance are still so unusual is that the female dominates in both films, albeit in different ways. In Senses, Sada starts out with a submissive manner, though the knife she wields at Kichi's wife foreshadows her evolution. (Another foreshadowing element is that Sada's sexual position is always 'on top.') By the time Sada and Kichi "marry," Sada has become insatiable, and by the end of the film, Sada not only dominates, but she has fetishized Kichi's penis by her constant handling of it and even her referral to it as "him." In an earlier scene, Sada playfully threatens to cut "him" off so she'll always have the most important part of Kichi inside her all of the time; by the film's end, Sada has brought this threat to reality.

Sada's dominance and fetishism goes against the trend of the vast majority of films where the male dominates and fetishizes the female form. In Romance, Breillat acknowledges the patriarchal state of the world by making Marie a masochist-- even though Marie aggressively seeks out sex, she is never sexually dominant. Instead, she enjoys being dominated-- first mentally by Paul, then sexually by Robert. But even though Marie does not dominate situationally, she does dominate narratively. The audience is constantly with Marie and constantly hearing her through dialogue and voice-overs, so she is ultimately the only fully drawn character in the film. Not only is the audience constantly in Marie's presence, they are constantly exposed to Marie's physicality-- by the film's end, the audience is intimately aware of the appearance of her genitals as they are of her face. Marie's vagina visually dominates one of the final shots-- it fills the screen as baby's head is squeezing through in birth. Not surprisingly, this scene was the one that received the most screams at the Melbourne Film Festival (Brown).

Romance and Senses have filmic roots in both France and Japan. Romance's birthing shot starts a concluding sequence of jump cuts, one of the techniques that tie the film back to the era of 1960s French New Wave. Breillat and Oshima both have cinematic roots in this movement that emphasized the individual over industry. In the 1960s and 1970s, Oshima was actually the leader of his own country's New Wave movement against the Japanese filmmaking conventions of the 1940s and 1950s (Mellen 254). Nevertheless the camera's "static aestheticism" (Buruma 15) in both films evoke the films Oshima's predecessor Kenji Mizoguchi, widely acknowledged as one of Japan's greatest filmmakers (Buehrer 163).

Both Oshima and Breillat have also professed an admiration of the sexual absurdism that the Spanish director Luis Bunuel depicted in his film Belle du Jour. Oshima and Breillat aim to be auteurs in the tradition of Godard and Bunuel. Consequently, their films are individualistic visions and are not necessarily reflections of national culture. If there is a specific cultural climate to be reflected in these films, it might be the international taboo of sex, for both Romance and especially Senses showed that censorship is not limited to any country or culture.

Nevertheless, Breillat and Oshima are both children of their culture, and both are devoted to examining sex from within that culture. Oshima refuses to make a film outside of Japan: "Completely involved as I am with being Japanese, I have no way to make films except by examining the Japanese and endeavoring to discover who they are" (Mellen 254). In Senses, Oshima examines the politics of sex in Japan. Oshima said in making Senses he "thought only from the viewpoint of 'suffering' women like Sada" (Buruma 15), but while Senses has overtones of feminism, the film does not really focus on the feminine condition.

Instead, Oshima concentrates on both Sada and Kichi as deviants. This interest in deviance and criminality, underdogs and antiheroes, runs through many of Oshima's films, and indeed through many of the films made in the protest climate of the 1960s (Buruma 15). In Senses, Kichi stands outside of traditional masculine duties: in one of the few scenes outside of the bedroom, he walks past a large military parade. But he is so absorbed in his personal problems that he is oblivious to the public sphere. In the meantime, Sada is dominating that sphere and becoming more and more demonic. She fetishizes Kichi's severed penis in the same way that large stone phalluses where fetishized as symbols of fertility and prosperity in old rural Japan (Freiberg). Together, Sada and Kichi are filmed in a way that evokes shunga, or the tradition of sexually explicit woodblock printmaking common in Japan from the 17th-19th centuries. The film pays homage to shunga in its close ups of genitals, its variety of sexual positions, its array of colorful kimonos and silks, and its continual intrusion of onlookers and voyeurs (Freiberg).

In depicting the story of Sada and Kichi and filming them so explicitly, Oshima makes a case for both himself and the couple as outsiders in a society where harmony is prized above all. In Japan, sex is certainly not taboo in a religious sense-- unlike in Western countries, there is no dominant religion to tear down deviant morality. But in Japan, the concept of "harmony" is used in a similar manner to religion-- to continue the status quo, to resist change, to perpetuate deference to those in power-- and this is what Oshima fights against, both in his filmmaking and in his obscenity trial (Buruma 22). Cinematically, Oshima introduces elements of antiquated Japan to show that this fight between individual and institutional "harmony" existed even before he was born.

Breillat follows in the French tradition of making a cerebral examination of sexuality. This tradition stretches from Sade to Beauvoir, Bataille, and Foucault. Breillat is more interested than Oshima in the personal, metaphysical aspects of sex. Breillat views sex as a set of paradoxes-- sacred and profane, subjugating and liberating. Implying the eroticism of Senses, Breillat remarks that sex is both regarded as an obscene taboo and as a gateway to existential understanding. Because of sex's complexity in reality, it is Breillat's mission to explore the complexity of sex in her art. She is angered that in a world where sex is still so obscure and repressed, the porn industry is the only film industry to show explicit representations of sex-- and those representations are "extremely narrow, circumscribed representations." Breillat feels that it is the artist's task to shed light on what is obscured, and sex is one of the most obscure realms of all (Sawhill).

Even among the French tradition, Breillat is unique in that she is a feminist filmmaker who deals with the explicitly sexual. That being said, Marie is hardly a feminist heroine-- she is needy, unhappy, and lacks self-confidence in her body. She has learned to be complacent with and even find satisfaction in her submissive role. Marie is not an admirable character, and yet the film is still a feminist film, for it is a subjective examination of sex from the female perspective. It says much of the feminine condition that as despicable as the female might be, many women will identify with her perspective:

It's better to try to represent feminine sexuality in the ways it actually plays out in the world, rather than creating an ideal of what its should be and finding the reality too often coming up short. Again, I think that deprives it of its dignity. But that's not to say one shouldn't seek changes either (Anton).

Like Sada and Kichi, Marie only begins to come to some sort of existential understanding when she breaks past her own taboos and engages in behavior that is generally regarded as 'deviant.' Marie is already submissive in her relationship with Paul, so when she begins to play the submissive role to the fullest in her S&M relationship with Robert, she begins to finally understand the role and the reason she has been so complacent in it. She gains a new sense of confidence, and by the time she is raped in a later scene, she is strong enough to not blame herself or be scarred by the act. Still, Breillat refuses to turn Marie into a squeaky-clean feminist hero-- Marie's behaviors are too ingrained to transform, and she doesn't leave Paul, she marries him for the wrong reasons, and one might even argue that she has a child for the wrong reasons (to keep Paul).

Nevertheless, Breillat's objective ambiguity regarding Marie and her actions does not keep Breillat from bringing Marie to the forefront as a subjective character. The production of both Romance and Senses places them squarely in their time and country. Senses caused an international storm of scandal that Oshima predicted, for after he finished shooting in almost total secrecy, he shipped his film from Japan to France (also in secrecy) to develop and edit it. On the other hand, Breillat's film was made entirely in France and experienced problems with the censorship boards of only a few countries. This might indicate that international culture is more open to exploring sexuality on film, or it might indicate the opposite-- that since the 1970s, film has lost its power to propel intellectual thought. As a result, Romance and the re-released version of Senses were easier to distribute because people just don't care as much.

Regardless of its intellectual trendiness though, sex is still one of the most mysterious areas of human existence. Though Romance and Senses deal with different aspects of sex, their broad intentions are identical-- to explore complexity through explicitness. Writing about his obscenity trial, Oshima asked, "What's wrong with obscenity? (Oshima 267). Both Oshima and Breillat have argued that the obscene is only something that is not seen (Brown). Only by bringing the obscene into the open can we dispel its myths and misconceptions and look at it honestly.

Works Cited

Anton, Saul. "Interview with Catherine Breillat." Feedmag Online. visited 7 November 2001.

Bennett, Shaun. DVD Net's Review of In the Realm of the Senses.
Brown, Rhiannon. Radio National's Arts Today: Interview with Catherine Breillat [Transcript]. visited 7 November 2001.

Buehrer, Beverly. Japanese Films: A Filmography and Commentary, 1921-1989. London: McFarland, 1990.

Bururma, Ian. The Missionary and the Libertine. New York: Random House, 2000.

Freiberg, Frieda. "The Unkindest Cut of All: Some Reflections on the Recent Cinematic Release of the Uncut Version of Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses." Senses of Cinema. January 2001. visited 7 November2001.

Mellen, Joan. Voices From the Japanese Cinema. New York: Livewright, 1975.

Oshima, Nagisa. Cinema, Censorship, and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima, 1956-1978. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.

Sawhill, Ray. "Romance." Salon Online. Romance/print.html> visited 7 November 2001.

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