A Good Touch or a Bad Touch?
by Adam Nayman
Dir. Jean-Claude Brisseau, France, IFC
“I can’t imagine that Jean-Claude Brisseau will find himself among the critically coddled members of the art-house canon, or that his American premieres will someday be greeted with polite, eager reviews in hip city papers,” wrote Reverse Shot’s Nick Pinkerton in his assessment of 2005’s Secret Things. And while Nick—whose stalwart advocacy for this perviest of all contemporary French directors (edging out countryman Benoît Jacquot by several hairs) inspired me to look through his back catalogue—is probably right, there’s something to be said for the fact that Brisseau’s À l’aventure is being showcased in the Film Comment Selects programme alongside such art movies of the moment as Gotz Spiellman’s Revanche and Philippe Garel’s Frontier of Dawn.
Sadly, I haven’t yet caught up with either of those acclaimed titles, but I’m guessing that neither of them will challenge À l’aventure’s claim to the series’—and probably the year’s—best levitation scene. Not since Emmanuel Schotte started inexplicably hovering while tending his allotment in Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanité has French auteur cinema provided a comparable moment of liftoff. The difference, of course, is that while Dumont’s miracle is an exercise in audience-goosing ambiguity (i.e., if you think he’s really flying it says more about you than anything else), Brisseau’s magic moment is rendered objectively. Having been regressed back in time (and seemingly to a previous life) by an ambitious young hypnotherapist (Arnaud Birnard), the eminently suggestible Mina (Nadia Chibani)—a woman who has previously described, in detail, the liberating effect that a submissive worldview has had on her daily life—winds up in mid-air, on the brink of an ecstasy that transcends corporeal reality.
So, yeah, À l’aventure is sort of ridiculous. It should be said that this scene, which serves as a sort of false climax, takes place in a converted castle and is preceded by, among other things, an extended set piece in which Mina and two other gorgeous young women (Lise Bellynck and star Carole Brana, about whom there will be more to say later) have been hypnotically induced into a fugue of mutual masturbation (a conceit, which, like the plot of Exterminating Angels, may be a wry commentary on Brisseau’s controversial casting-couch tactics). But to simply call the film ridiculous (which, again, is not a mischaracterization) is to avoid wrestling with its contents, which are all kinds of slippery. For all of its talk—and talking is the only thing Brisseau’s characters do with as much gusto as they copulate—about adventurous sexuality and the intersection of divine and erotic ecstasy, À l’aventure is finally, and perhaps problematically, a film about a young woman who meets her limitations while attempting to surpass them.
That woman is not Mina—whose character’s guided excavation of buried memories recalls the young lead of Julio Medem’s similarly themed and less rewardingly gonzo Chaotic Ana—but Sandrine (Brana), who, as the film opens, is feeling stifled by her job and her long-term boyfriend. She steals away from their bed in the middle of the night to get herself off after sex, and doesn’t spare his feelings when he indicates that this makes him feel inadequate. He’s even madder when Sandrine comes home after some casual midday sex with a guy she picked up at a café, Greg (Birnaud), and states plainly that she’s going to sleep with whomever she likes, when she likes. With that, he’s out the door, and Sandrine’s on her own. Or rather she’s with Greg, a smooth operator who excites her with his talk about female hysteria and unlocking the mind’s potential, especially when they run into one of his former clients (Bellnyck), whose proclivities have turned towards the sadomasochistic—and who hints that there’s nothing sexier than a good mindfuck.
Greg isn’t the only guru in Sandrine’s life, however: the scenes detailing her eager immersion into a world of urbane depravities—faintly Gothic living-room slap-and-tickle followed by civilized dinner conversation—are punctuated by her park-bench encounters with an older man (Etienne Chicot) whose eager discourse on the grand mysteries of the universe reduces her to little more than an appreciative sounding board. Tellingly, Sandrine is eventually taken further—literally and figuratively—by the words of this gentle, unassuming stranger than by her psychoanalyst boyfriend. When Greg tells a tranced Sandrine that she’ll bring herself closer to ecstasy, her response is no doubt impressive—hey, Brisseau sure likes filming female masturbation!—but it’s also ultimately earthbound. The flesh is supple, and the spirit is willing, but all she gets out of the experience is a little old orgasm—hardly spectacular compared to Mina’s Linda Blair experience.
It’s implied that Sandrine is jealous, and not just because Greg rejects her under-the-influence advances and hooks up instead with the indefatigable Mina. Sandrine’s desire to move beyond her staid existence into a realm of pure sensual fulfillment has bumped up against the relative conventionality of her desires. It is either a sly joke on eternal recurrence or evidence of Brisseau’s essentially retrograde sexual politics (or both) that Mina’s response to her moment of transcendence is to get herself to a nunnery.
Sandrine, meanwhile, gets taken to the country by the park-bench philosophizer—a journey represented in a gorgeous, accelerated tracking shot that disrupts the film’s static formal construction (Brisseau’s sensuality doesn’t often extend to his actual shot-reverse-shot aesthetics), its headlong rush matched to Chiccot’s galumphing existential voice-over. Nothing untoward occurs upon their arrival—the film ends with Sandrine meekly placing her head on his shoulder, like a child—and yet the implication that her adventure has reached its end is, like many of the film’s other suggestions, double (or maybe triple) edged. Is Brisseau saying that all a woman looking for herself really needs is a worldly older gentleman to guide her? (And is this an optimistic self-projection?) Is he enshrining his would-be libertine’s essential timidity, placing her at the low end of a creepy/tender sage/pupil dynamic? Or is he just looking for a way to end a high-toned exploitation film that blew its wad several solemn orgies ago?
This last question is the most nagging one: I’ve seen three Brisseau films now and I’m still not convinced that his work reveals much more than a desire to provoke melded to a kinda-brave, kinda-foolish willingness to expose and exalt his own fetishes. That said, there are many filmmakers who give us less, both in terms of onscreen enjoyment—because, rather than in spite of its stilted performances and solemn tone, À l’aventure is campy fun—and also in terms of self-expression. Brisseau is not a vanguard artist, but on the basis of his latest unfiltered folly, he may have less to hide than any other director currently trawling the festival circuit.