In 2005, director Jean-Claude Brisseau was charged with sexual harassment, assault and fraud by a French court after he was accused by two actresses of forcing them to masturbate for him over over a 5 year period in tests (some on camera, some not) for his 2002 film Secret Things, a film for which they were ultimately not cast. Brisseau maintained the tests were an attempt to ensure he had the right actresses for his sexually provocative film, but the court believed they were also intended to “satisfy the sexual impulses of the director.” Brisseau was found guilty of the harassment charge, fined €15,000 and given a 1 year suspended jail sentence while the charges of assault and fraud were dismissed. (Information from articles in the UK newspapers The Independent and The Guardian)
Exterminating Angels, Brisseau’s most recent film, appears to be drawn from these experiences. In it, Frédéric van den Driessche plays François, a director who decides his next film will be an exploration of female sexuality. In order to find actresses who are comfortable with sex and willing to perform it realistically and naturally on camera, he begins by interviewing them about their sex lives. If the interviews go well and the actresses are willing, François takes them to a hotel room where he films them masturbating. Eventually, as his cast grows (and François’s wife grows nervous), he begins filming the actresses pleasuring each other as well as themselves. Throughout it all, he remains a supposedly objective observer, but as it did for Brisseau in real life, this scenario inevitably leads to trouble.
Ultimately, the film seems to be telling us that even if your intentions are innocent or pure, you can’t tap into the mysterious wellspring of human sexuality without unleashing powerful emotional forces – jealousy and obsession and anger (oh my!) – that we can’t always control. This revelation will hardly come as a shock to anyone who has ever been intimate with another human being and, frankly, I was left feeling a little cheated. I expected erotica in the service of something greater and more profound, but instead I got a more explicit version of Cinemax After Dark, an excuse to show attractive young women in fairly graphic sexual situations trumped up by some psychosexual hand wringing.
I admit, I enjoy seeing attractive women engaging in sexual acts as much as the next person and to that end the film mostly succeeds. While stronger than late-night cable, Exterminating Angels is tamer than, say, an Andrew Blake film. There is no penetration shown, the fleeting oral sex is artfully photographed to avoid anything that might get the censors too upset and the only scene of male/female sex is mostly clothed. Nevertheless, the film will probably entertain anyone who enjoys seeing women having sex alone or with other women. Some may also find a thrill in the exhibitionism or a certain prurient charge in knowing the women are regular actors instead of paid porn stars. However, without a strong overlying message, you can get more extreme versions of the same thing on the Internet. I mean, that’s what it was invented for anyway…right? Ok, porn and e-mail. Ok, ok, porn, e-mail and YouTube.
Anyway, this is fine, but I think the film would’ve been better off had it delivered on the message it promised. Instead, the message is shallow and it’s not altogether successfully executed. Some of the dialogue and situations seem awkward and artificial. At one point, after bringing herself to orgasm in front of the director, one girl announces she’s never masturbated before and never had an orgasm, not even with her boyfriend. It seems unlikely a woman that seemingly out of touch with her own sexuality would be comfortable suddenly performing a sex act for a stranger with a camera. The point I suppose is to show that the director has a talent for evincing such performances and that the presence of the camera adds to the stimulus for the actresses. Fair enough, but there’s also the disturbing insinuation that the director (and by extension Brisseau) is somehow doing these girls a favor.
With porn, I can’t help but worry that the women are being taken advantage of in some way. Maybe I’ve got some latent puritanical attitudes about sex instilled by a Roman Catholic mother who misled me to believe that sex was not supposed to be pleasurable. Maybe the actresses really are being taken advantage of. I don’t know, but Brisseau employs a neat trick in balancing the art and the erotica. By portraying his surrogate (and the audience’s) as largely a curious innocent who never forces or coerces his actresses to do anything, whose interest in them is born purely of intellectual curiosity, who actually goes to great lengths to protect them from outside dangers, and who is never even unfaithful to his skeptical wife despite ample invitation and temptation, the audience is allowed to be titillated without getting their hands dirty. However, once the heavy breathing is over, we realize that the character in the film is not really Brisseau himself. He is perhaps Brisseau as he wants to be or wants to be perceived, but the knowledge of what Brisseau was accused of and found guilty of in real life continues to nag.
I didn’t know about Brisseau’s conviction before I saw Exterminating Angels, but now I wonder: is Brisseau ultimately taking advantage of his actresses for his (and our) sexual gratification? Is the film some kind of defense or an attempt to set the record straight? Or is it an attempt to understand his own actions, an apology perhaps or even an admission of culpability? I don’t know and in retrospect I’m still not sure whether to be titillated, intrigued, horrified or some mixture of the three.
Exterminating Angels (Les Anges exterminateurs): France 2006 (US release 2007). Directed by Jean-Claude Brisseau. Starring Frédéric van den Driessche, Maroussia Dubreuil, Lisa Bellynck and Marie Allan. 1 hour 44 minutes. In French with English subtitles. MPAA rating: Unrated. 2.5 stars (out of 5)