Onscreen and Off-screen Flesh and Blood: Performance and Ethics in Catherine Breillat’s Films

Paper presentation at Western University’s (Re)Activating Objects, March 1 – March 3, 2013



In this paper I argue that actors and actresses’ performances are key objects of analysis in addressing the ethical challenges of New Extreme films. Breillat’s Fat Girl (2001) and its fictionalized making-of, Sex is Comedy (2002), incites an ethical engagement not merely in the sense of textual analysis, but requires a deeper investigation inherent to the filmmaking process. The reflexivity of the paired films – the latter as a staged re-enactment of the sex scene of the former, re-performed by lead actress Mesquida – motivates the development of a theory of performance following Linda Williams’ reflections, and in so doing shifting emphasis from director-auteur to the equally important actor-auteur, as Dyer argued decades ago.

Breillat places high demand on her actors to perform (physicality) as well as act (deliver dialogue), evinced by Mesquida’s reluctance and difficultly in shooting the twenty minute scene in which her character, Elena, is coerced out of her virginity in Fat Girl, and its alternate but similar re-performance in Sex is Comedy. The unnamed character-actress of the latter bursts into sobs when director Jeanne finally utters “cut” after the long take. Her tears are powerful within the narrative to be sure, but reflexivity is used here as a method of rethinking Mesquida’s earlier role in addition to films of the New Extremism generally, as Breillat is an oft-cited name for the recent cinematic tendency for flesh and blood: it poses the question of whether onscreen acts of physical and emotional violence manifest in the bodies of actors and actresses off-screen, and further, to what aesthetic and ethical end. In making the parallel between the films (hitherto unaccomplished by scholars) I sidestep theorists who label New Extremism aesthetic pornography or transgressive cinema, and instead refocus the theorizing of these films to issues of performance, the actor-auteur, and ethics.

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