“Sex is Metaphysical:” Catherine Breillat’s Non-Pornographic Pornography

Paper Presentation: November 16th, Cine-Excess VII: European Erotic Cinema: Identity, Desire and Disgust, Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham, U.K.

Paper Presentation: December 4th, Symons Seminar Series, Trent University, Peterborough, ON

Pornographic genre codes are appropriated by Breillat and twisted to produce a particular message, meaning, or truth: the shame of feminine sexuality under patriarchy. In this paper I argue she must be pornographic, and explicit, if some element of truth in obscenity is to be recovered. I situate Breillat within a style of cinematic pornography, recuperating the term from otherwise hostile definitions.

I first consider how her pornography is unlike the erotic. Sexual encounters within her films are ripe with dissatisfaction, distaste, and misery and therefore far from the classical definition of viewing erotic art as a composed spectator’s aesthetic appreciation. Secondly, I articulate the difference between Breillat’s films and a pornography designed to titillate a specifically male viewer. True, Breillat falls in with pornography defined by Williams (1991) as a body genre, producing intense sensations in the spectator; pornography, in some manner, should move the viewer, often to a state of arousal or if shared in a theatre amongst friends, in bursts of nervous laughter. Breillat greatly separates herself from hard core in her efforts to move spectators. The sensation Breillat is able to produce in spectators is a cinematic displeasure of both narrative and images. According to Brinkema (2006), Grønstad (2006), and Horeck and Kendall (2011), among others, Breillat transmits her message with this method of provocation by engaging the spectator’s senses, therefore calling the viewer to ethically and immediately respond to the work. She accomplishes this cinematic brilliance – treading a line which is pornographic yet not erotic and causing a sensation in the viewer which is not arousal – by frustrating habituated viewing, challenging the common film-experience of identifying with characters, or symbolically recognizing the genre.

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