Sex is Comedy (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
Because the lead actors (Grégoire Colin, Roxane Mesquida) of the film cannot stand to be around one another for long, the director, Jeanne (Anne Parillaud), finds it a great struggle to shoot them. It does not help that the most important scene in the picture involves simulated sex; chemistry is required. The unnamed performers must be sensual, vulnerable and, most importantly, convincing. When the two share a passionate kiss, the feelings they invoke reflects that of a person practicing on a CPR dummy—detached, awkward, and cold.
I found “Sex is Comedy,” written and directed by Catherine Breillat, to be very funny even though many people, I imagine, may not necessarily find the humor in it. Although the plot is mostly about working with difficult actors, it also about Jeanne: how she is as a director when the camera is nearby, whether it is on or off, what she thinks is at stake if the project did not turn out as successfully as she had anticipated, her relationship with the cast and crew, and her passion for the job. The material gives us a chance to evaluate her as a director with her back against the wall.
In some ways, it is like hanging out on set. There is no music on the background to guide us what to feel or think. We hear footsteps and equipment being lugged around, we see people chatting on the side, and we feel the exhaustion emanating from just about everyone after a long day. Movies do not make themselves and I enjoyed that the material has enough insight to acknowledge the effort put into creating art.
The movie functions as an anatomy of a scene. The latter half mostly involves a bed, two cardboard walls, a pair of nervous actors, and the crew watching their every move. It is most entertaining when a take does not work because Jeanne is very hands-on. She is not afraid to jump on the bed, wrap her limbs around the leads, explain why certain body angles work better than others, and really push them to work. Actors get paid handsomely to bare not just their bodies when necessary but also—and more often—their souls, or at the very least their characters’ souls.
Viewers who enjoy honing in on faces and expressions, like myself, will find this picture a pleasure to sit through. For instance, a good amount of time is on the male lead’s reluctance, perhaps embarrassment as well, to wear a prosthetic penis during the all-important sex scene. It is decided without the actor’s consent that he will wear one because everybody knows he cannot stand his co-star. To the crew, it is an act of helping him out so that he has one less thing to worry about. It is not necessary that he be informed of their decision—after all, it is their job to save time and money—but it would have been nice so he feels included in the process. On the other hand, his response to the discovery is, in my eyes, unprofessional and childish. He constantly needs to be cajoled by the director to continue to do what he should be motivated to do in the first place.
This and similar scenes are worth thinking about because every character on screen acts like a real person. Sometimes people act difficult on purpose. Other times, they may not even be aware of it. A common thread is that there is always a reason. Since there is a marriage of two major elements, the stresses of the job and the clashing personalities, “Sex is Comedy” is an effective look at show business. Part of the challenge is to find the humor underneath the increasingly miserable characters.