French cult novelist and filmmaker Catherine Breillat (b. 1948) has released a new feature film, Last Summer (2023), a decade after the previous one. The taboo-breaker keeps exploring human emotions and asserting sexual hypocrisy. From her origins as an actress in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris and Édouard Molinaro’s Dracula, her admiration for Ingman Bergman, to her work with porn legend Rocco Siffredi, at seventy-five years old she’s been honoured with the Stockholm Visionary Award at this year’s Stockholm Film Festival. We have the pleasure to speak with her and review her career from its origins till today’s new feature film, with a score made by ex-Sonic Youth, Kim Gordon.
Ingmar Bergman’s films are not for everyone, known for their exploration of human emotions and behaviours. I read you were just twelve years old when you started watching his work. How did you know about him so early, and why were you even attracted to watch that type of cinema at such a young age?
When you’re young you have ideas. In my time, we read and watched things that were mostly for adults, and it was very good. It’s better than seeing nonsense for children (laughs). I watched a lot of films when I was very young. In fact, at that time I discovered Robert Mulligan’s The Other (1972) and The Room of Chains, (1970), which are very, very violent, quite pornographic, with magnificent language. At that time, I also watched Bergman at the cinema, Sawdust and Tinsel. Yes, I discovered it at the age of twelve, and as a result, I decided to become a filmmaker because he represented me. Things for children did not represent me at all. Children are not children, at least at twelve or thirteen you’re not a child anymore; you are an adolescent, you become human.
You published your first novel, L’homme Facile (A Man for the Asking) being quite young, which was considered as more adult or explicit content. How would you explain this sort of primal artistry?
Exactly because I had read The Other, I had their vocabulary. I had no experience at all but I knew that words had power in a way. You could throw them around without restraint and there was a kind of flame, a kind of violence, a kind of beauty. Adolescence is violent, but not violent in the sense of suburban adolescence that ends up in trouble at the police station. Violent in its foundation: it’s boiling. And I had to be an adolescent like that in turmoil. I wanted everything to be forbidden, but nothing was forbidden. For a girl, there were only prohibitions. So they had to be transgressed, at least in writing.
You started off as an actress during that time, your first film appearance was in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972). How did that opportunity come about?
My sister was already an actress. They were looking for two twins, and we were officially twins. I was already a writer. Bertolucci saw us like that, so it happened. I loved him even if it was a very small role. My sister, who was still a little star, didn’t want to do it. But I absolutely wanted to meet Bertolucci! (Laughs)
Your film Romance X
When I finished the film, I realized it was not a romance, so I said, we have to destroy it (laughs).
Oh, really?
That’s why I titled it X. I wanted to cross out Romance but some people suggested calling it Romance X instead of just X. Then I thought of the man and the woman, and X is related to a feminine chromosome. So when you want to do something, you just do it. I thought of species and the graphic designer reproduced my gesture (she made the cross-out with her hand).
In this film, you chose to work with porn star Rocco Siffredi, who had never done this type of acting. How did he react when you asked him to work with you?
He is a really great actor. But for Romance X, it was very difficult because he didn’t understand what I wanted. And he just wanted to fuck, fuck, fuck – or make love (laughs). Not to do anything bad to anyone, but we were very disturbed on set because it was the first time for him in a traditional film. I had to direct Rocco, of course.
Were you happy with his performance?
Yes, of course, but it was a drama on set because the director of photography was Greek and he had this team of all Greeks working with the camera, and they all were very Christian. When they found out they were going to film Rocco Siffredi – because by then, he was still a star –, they were horrified. Rocco didn’t want to be seen erect anyway, so he just masturbated for two hours while we were shooting the scene.
The scene is very precise. He believed he had to be erect all the time while on set. I remember Caroline Ducey, who was doing this scene with him, left. Rocco also left upset and told me deeply hurt, you can think whatever you want of me, Catherine, but I’ve never made love to a woman who didn’t desire it.
That’s wild!
I said, listen, Caroline will never want to make love to you. It’s Marie, her character, who will sleep with you; and you shouldn’t confuse one with the other. Rocco had already made like 364 porn films, I didn’t want to make his 365th one! It interests me, but it’s not at all what I wanted to do.
I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for [when making a film]. I want something that surprises me. So he said, do you want the real Rocco, the one I am with my wife? I said yes, I want the emotion. There’s no emotion in porn films, we have the material view, but why do I want this?
It’s been a ten-year gap between Romance X and your new film, Last Summer. How did you face making a new film at this stage of your life and career?
It was very challenging and also very exciting, But it wasn’t that exciting in advance because I wondered how I was going to do it. I felt a bit like a high-level athlete going to the Olympics but who hasn’t trained for years (laughs). But once on set, I wasn’t longer afraid and knew how to do everything. I am a director in the soul, it possesses me, it’s really becoming myself. It’s me.
Is there anything in the new film that you never dared to do before or some sort of evolution in the way you approached it?
Every movie is different. You can’t really say but I still have a signature, which means that all the films resemble each other; they always revolve around the same subject – sex – but also how it is perceived in the world. Especially in the new world there, with the #MeToo movement, which is a significant feminist movement. On the other hand, the backlash that comes after is a pretext for rigourism, an ideology about sex that I find terrifying and that I think is totalitarianism, especially against artists or actresses.
Do you mean the morality factor in explicit sex or desire?
It’s terrifying moralism and McCarthyism. We’re talking about emotion, transcendence, art. We believe in a love scene, and if we do it, it’s for it to be beautiful and make sense. What we seek is meaning; what he seeks is moralistic guidelines. Morality is not that. I hate moralism. Morality is something else. Cinema is a moral art.
Ex-Sonic Youth and current Body/Head, Kim Gordon, has made the music of Last Summer. Why did you choose her music for the film?
First and fundamentally because she loves my films. I knew there was an affinity, so I asked her. She declared her love for my work on the internet. Curiously, somebody asked her, if you were to go to a desert island, what would you take? She answered: “The book that David Kizer wrote about Catherine Breillart, 36 Fillette. In fact, it’s a cult movie. Moreover, the new group is called Baudiède in reference to a line from the book where he tells her ‘you are dying to have it’. Then he shows his sex and says, you are dripping with desire. It’s in reference to that.
I love what Kim does, she does what she likes. But I didn’t know her at all before that. If I hadn’t discovered that on the internet… You see, sometimes the internet serves some purpose and can be useful (laughs).
Did Gordon write specific music for the film or were there selected tracks for the album?
She did both. Sonic Youth is her old group, so obviously what I’ve used from them she didn’t do for the film; the new Body/Head work, that’s for the film. It’s not a specific score but she made infra basses sounds for me, but as they are infra basses, you feel them but you don’t hear them.
Last Summer is a remake of May el-Toukhy’s Queen of Hearts. Is there anything you wanted to change, something in your vision done in a different way?
I changed the three main actors profoundly, and even the supporting actors. By changing them internally, what do you see? In cinema, there is no real remake possible because cinema is already an incarnation. Actress Léa Drucker, who is truly brilliant and fantastic, is a different character from the original film. I also essentially kept the structure of lies, which I found masterful. I kept the focal point, the lost key, even the lake, but I changed the sensibilities of the three main actors, which also affected the supporting actors.
There is Lea as you have never seen her before. That is the Lea seen by me. I estimate the gaze that constitutes it and it ends with me, there is no remake. Even the same scenes don’t have the same meaning. I always point out one scene where I was so lazy, I didn’t even change the dialogues. But as I had changed the characters, inevitably the scene changed completely.
Which one?
When he comes to pick her up in her office, he tells her: ‘I want my father to know the truth’. And we first have the impression that it’s that, but we quickly realise it’s not. In the Danish film it is that, he threatens her. But in mine it’s a love story. It’s so different and that’s very French, you see? Because France has a character.
That is to say, when you are in love, you first hide it from yourself, there is some sort of denial – you tell lies to yourself, you lie to others. And at the same time, in cinema, we see that these pitiful lies hide the fact that they are very much in love. They want to hurt each other as much as possible because they are in love. And that’s how love is.
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