Exterminating Angels

2006, Movie, NR, 100 mins


When French provocateuse Catherine Breillat started mulling over the discomforts and absurdities of filming explicit erotic sequences for her astringently nonpornographic FAT GIRL (2001), the result was SEX IS COMEDY (2002). Compatriot Jean-Claude Brisseau's fictionalized look at the making of his SECRET THINGS (2002), a brimstone-tinged fable about economics and eros, finds only tragedy. Brisseau's fictional stand-in — successful, married Francois (Frederic van den Driessche) — is in the middle of auditioning actresses for an erotic thriller; they must, among other things, demonstrate their "potential for exhibitionism" by masturbating on camera. A post-audition conversation with one young hopeful convinces him to devote his next film to simultaneously capturing the visual "grace of pleasure" and exploring the complicated emotions that underlie women's experience and expression of sexual desire. Francois again conducts auditions that require young women to bare their bodies, but this time also asks that they expose their souls — their fantasies, experiences and feelings will form the basis of his script. He shuns porn actresses, who embody cliches shaped by men's voyeuristic desires; Francois wants to parse the hypocrisy surrounding cultural depictions of sex and the way those depictions color ordinary women's experience of their own pleasure. Oo, la la — it's hard not to imagine that Francois is actually arty soft-core entrepreneur Zalman King with a French intellectual overlay. But if EXTERMINATING ANGELS is Brisseau's exculpatory version of the sordid events that stained his reputation — he was convicted of harassing and defrauding actresses who auditioned for SECRET THINGS — Francois is a slippery fellow on whom to hang a defense. Three uninhibited lovelies — straightforward and forthright Julie (Lise Bellynck); unstable Charlotte (Maroussia Dubreuil), a survivor of sexual abuse and crazy parents; and fresh-faced Stephanie (Marie Allan) — emerge from Francois' tryouts, but he cluelessly ignores the volatility of their chemistry until it blows up in his face. Is the lesson that women are unfathomable bitches whose basic instincts are best kept under lock and key? Or is it that pompous auteurs who callously exploit vulnerable actresses and then abandon them to their demons get what they deserve? Hard to say, and that's a good thing. Does Brisseau mean us to take Charlotte's belief that she's possessed by the devil at face value? Perhaps: the titular "angels" (Raphaele Godin, Margaret Zenou) — black-clad women who whisper questionable advice in the ears of Francois and his collaborators and then vanish — seem real, and Francois' dead grandma (Jeanne Cellard) is lurking in the shadows, trying to advise and protect him. Like SECRET THINGS, the film is ultimately infuriating, subtle, self-indulgent, astute and disingenuous, which makes for great — if divisive — conversation. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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