By Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Jean-Claude Brisseau, France, IFC
â€śOne step above the sublime makes the ridiculous, and one step above the ridiculous makes the sublime again.â€ť
The abovementioned describes the spectrum over which Jean-Claude Brisseauâ€™s filmmaking hopscotches, and itâ€™s the tension in that risk-taking that makes him essentialâ€”even (especially?) when he produces a frustration like â€śExterminating Angels.â€ť FranĂ§ois (FrĂ©dĂ©ric van den Driessche), a middle-aged filmmaker, burrows into a vaguely defined new project that aims to excavate mysteries of intimacy: generally, the feminine sexual imagination; specifically, the female orgasm. Such a film being necessarily a collaboration, he begins an unusually rigorous audition process: actresses masturbate in front of him and, inhibition uncorked, encouraged by their directorâ€™s stoical receptivity, reveal intimate details of their sexual history.
Aside from Driessche, men appear in Exterminating Angels only peripherally, but the film is stocked with a panoply of women, corporealâ€”the auditions narrow to three twentysomethings, Charlotte (Maroussia Dubreuil), Julie (Lise Bellynck), and StĂ©phanie (Marie Allan)â€”and otherwise: overseeing FranĂ§oisâ€™s undoing, invisible to him, are a pair of angels (RaphaĂ«le Godin and Margaret Zenou), clad in black getups that make them resemble cosmic stagehands. FranĂ§ois has a steady, age-appropriate partner to come home to, but heâ€™s drawn ever closer to the tempestuous sexuality of his actresses, orchestrating their erotic explorations in public places and rented rooms, intent and worshipful.
Suffusing the film are the facts of Brisseauâ€™s own life: after the casting of his 2002 baroque-noir Secret Things (his only film currently available on Region 1 DVD), during which he required the sexual complicity of his would-be starlets, four hopeful actresses, none of whom appeared in the final film, accused the director of harassment. He was charged, fined, let off with a suspended sentence.
Brisseauâ€™s a heap-like man, nobodyâ€™s idea of a lady-killerâ€”thatâ€™s him, briefly onscreen, helping to subdue an on-set tantrumâ€”but though his dashing alter-ego in Exterminating Angels enjoys attention from a buffet of young, tantalizing women, I never got the queasy feeling that comes from, say, watching Woody Allen surround himself with willing lovelies. Thatâ€™s thanks to this directorâ€™s unsparing curiosity in defining the dynamic between this established older man with a modicum of authority and these women, variously wracked by the tidal emotions of youth (his extraordinary â€śNoce Blache,â€ť about a schoolteacherâ€™s affair with a suicidal student, explores similar territory). Questions of ethics are broached, of the potential for abuse inherent in the position of mentor/ director, of the line between empathy and pederasty, of the perilous fragility of these girls willing to spread their legs on the alter of Art (or Fame? or just Recognition?). Is Exterminating Angels an apologia? A mea culpa? Are the confessions we hear, some of them seemingly from the pages of a Penthouse Forum, getting at some sort of truthâ€”or are they the eager-to-please buncombe of unimaginative auditioners? Whatever the case, the film is a poetic, provocative response to an era of facile psychology that encourages the packaging of every sexual fear and insecurity into convenient traumas to be â€śovercomeâ€ť (with litigation, when necessary).
In Brisseauâ€™s hands, sex is dangerous and wonderfully incomprehensible. FranĂ§ois expresses confidence that his work will explore â€śalmost virgin territory,â€ť which seems unsupportable on the surface, film culture having systematically violated its taboos for decades, but Brisseau/ FranĂ§ois are questing after that Holy Grail of pornography, conjuring the internality of feminine pleasure into visibility. The religious language isnâ€™t accidental; Brisseau is an artist attuned to the spiritual, looking for transcendence in orgasm, that place where the â€śgrace of the pleasure on their facesâ€ť intersects with the gratitude and surrender of Berniniâ€™s St. Theresa (the syllogism isnâ€™t a fresh one, but this doesnâ€™t damper the beauty). The autocritique ends in a practical admission of failure, of â€śchasing the wind,â€ť as the further FranĂ§ois pushes, the further that last frontier retreatsâ€¦ But it should be noted that Brisseauâ€™s failures outdo many a masterpiece.