- Visage/ConCatherine Breillat and the Antinomies of Sex
C’est qu’on est dans une énorme contradiction, quand on est dans un corps de femme.Agnès Varda, Réponse de femmes (1975)
“Je ne peux pas admettre la proximité de mon visage et de mon vagin” (I cannot accept the proximity of my face and my vagina). So says Alice (Charlotte Alexandra), the troubled teenaged protagonist of Catherine Breillat’s 1976 feature-film debut, Une vraie jeune fille (US release title A Real Young Girl).1 As we hear these words in voice-over, Alice sits in her bedroom examining her reflection in a foggy mirror. The frame of the mirror, doubling the frame of the screen, isolates her face in close-up. Moments earlier, Alice had applied red ink to the lips of her vulva in a close-up that retrospectively appears to be the counterpoint to this one. Though Alice can’t accept their proximity, face and sex are constantly made proximate in the montage and camerawork of Une vraie jeune fille, which oscillates between the two as if trying to enframe their incommensurability, to distill it into visual terms. In the movement from the one to the other, the film formally renders a conundrum that will preoccupy the filmmaker throughout her career.
Twenty-three years later, in Romance (1999), the film that first [End Page 45] brought her international attention, Breillat reprised the scene from her directorial début. The young protagonist of that film, Marie, sits in her room and angles a mirror up from her sex organs to her face. As in the earlier film, the two regions of the body are kept visually distinct by the frame of the mirror, which transforms each into a discrete close-up. “Paul [her husband] is right,” she tells us in voice-over as she contemplates the two images, “you can’t love this face if this cunt goes with it. This cunt can’t belong to this face” (“On ne peut pas aimer ce visage s’il a ce con. Ce con ne peut pas appartenir à ce visage”).
Why do Alice and Marie experience face and sex as incompatible? Is it simply that the first is the bodily site of publicness, whereas the second is referred to, in English, as “privates”? The public status of the face corresponds to its normative visibility; the sex organs, by contrast, must be kept out of view. This opposition has a special relation to the film apparatus, as we will see, but it is also inscribed in a political discourse. In banning the niqab from French public spaces in 2011, Prime Minister François Fillon asserted that a covered face “is incompatible with the principles of liberty, equality and human dignity affirmed by the French Republic.”2 These principles apparently find their bodily expression in the face, whose visibility is now mandated as a condition of citizenship. What Fillon ostensibly objects to is the inscribing of sexual difference at the level of the face, in the distinction between its covering and uncovering. Sex as a system of categorization is at odds with what Fillon and the republican tradition for which he speaks take to be the universalizing abstraction of the face. The public subject in the rhetoric of the French republic—the subject with a face—is categorically unmarked.3 We will see how the opposition between face and sex in Breillat’s films is shaped by this tension between categorical difference and the social and ethical norm of universalizing personhood.
For classical film theorists like Béla Balázs, the cinematic close-up of the face opened up the possibility of a universal language (here is another context in which the visibility of the face is associated with a discourse of universality).4 Commenting on the “fundamental link which unites the cinema, the face and the close-up,” Deleuze, in Cinema 1, quotes Ingmar Bergman: “Our work begins with the human face. . . . The possibility of drawing near to the human face is the [End Page 46] primary originality and the distinctive quality of the cinema.”5 The close-up is the cinematic technique that...