“rape creates the best hookers… once opened by force, they sometimes retain a sort of skin-level burnished quality that men like”
A new movement of hardcore feminism has gripped French culture, uniting writers and filmmakers in a bid to subvert culture’s age-old treatment of women. Is this liberation, or just porn in another guise?
The Observer, Sunday 18 January 2009
Most people expect Virginie Despentes to be angry. Perhaps they have seen the film she directed nine years ago, Baise-moi, a highly explicit rampage of sex and violence where a man gets beaten to death by two women simply for wanting to wear a condom.
Perhaps they have read the 1994 novel it was based on, also called Baise-moi, in which the two rage-fuelled anti-heroines shoot dead a three-year-old child in a sweet shop. Perhaps they know from interviews that Despentes was raped at 17 and that, for a brief time afterwards, she earned her living as a prostitute. “Rape creates the best hookers,” she writes in her new book, King Kong Theory. “Once opened by force, they sometimes retain a sort of skin-level burnished quality that men like.”
Whatever the reason, people expect the 39-year-old Despentes to be wild-eyed and furious. But the woman who buzzes me into her flat on the outskirts of Barcelona speaks in hesitations and half-smiles. She seems nervous, almost girlish, twirling strands of her shoulder-length dirty blond hair as she talks. She smokes a constant stream of Chesterfields, but not before asking if I mind. An excitable pitbull terrier called Pepa skitters around the parquet floor. I thought you were going to be terrifying, I say. “I know,” she replies. “I get that a lot. But I can be conflicted. Most of the time, I am quite calm and shy.” Is she less angry than she used to be? “No,” she says, with a short, dry chuckle. “Anger must be my essential component.”
Baise-moi (translation: Fuck Me) lit the touchpaper for a new movement of French extremism in cinema and literature. The movie, which starred two former porn actresses, proved so shocking that it became the first film in France to be banned for 28 years and was only released after an outcry from anti-censorship campaigners.
With its depictions of graphic sex and nihilistic violence, the film has become the visual mascot of a new wave of hardcore feminism in France that seeks to subvert traditionally male boundaries with a savage and frequently uncomfortable honesty. Just as French women have begun to emerge in the political arena – Ségolène Royal was the first female presidential candidate in 2007; almost half the members of Sarkozy’s cabinet are women – so they have also started to demolish cultural stereotypes.
In her 2002 memoir, The Sexual Life of Catherine M, the author Catherine Millet details with unflinching precision her childhood experiences of masturbation and her adult predilection for group sex. Her new book, Jealousy: The Other Life of Catherine M, examines the debilitating nature of her own envy when she discovered her husband was also having affairs. It, too, describes her masturbation fantasies, but neither work was written to titillate amale audience. “For me, a pornographic book is functional, written to help you to get excited,” she explains. “If you want to speak about sex in a novel or any ‘ambitious’ writing, today, in the 21st century, you must be explicit. You cannot be metaphorical any longer.”
Similarly, Catherine Breillat’s 1999 film Romance blurs the line between porn and erotic provocation, taking sexual images out of their usual context and making them deliberately unappealing – a woman’s genitalia, for instance, is filmed as she gives birth. “People asked why I filmed the birth face-on,” said Breillat. “I say: ‘Because you’re asking me that question.'” Despentes puts it another way: “The point is not to be shocking but to change the shape of things.”
France has a long tradition of writers and artists who have propagated their own challenging visions of sexuality – from the Marquis de Sade’s sadomasochistic reveries to Georges Bataille’s explorations of the ambiguity of sex as a subversive force in Blue of Noon. More recently, Michel Houellebecq’s work has included unsparing descriptions of sexual conquest.
But it is only relatively recently that women have felt able to tackle these same themes in public. As late as 1954, Story of O, an erotic novel of dominance and submission written by Anne Desclos, was published under a pseudonym. In 1968, while students were shouting Marxist slogans from the barricades, French women were still not allowed to wear trousers to work, and wives required their husband’s permission to open a bank account.
The paradoxical relationship between misogyny and liberality in France meant that when Despentes broke through the gender divide, she did so in spectacular style. Baise-moi blazed the trail for other female artists who sought to shatter cultural and sexual taboos, including the director Claire Denis, whose 2001 film Trouble Every Day depicts a female cannibal sated only when she consumes the bodies of her ill-fated lovers. Less brutal, and yet equally revealing in its own muted fashion, Christine Jordis’s 2005 novel Rapture was a candid account of erotic love and sexual abandon. The intention of these women, it seems, is to reappropriate the traditionally male preserves of sex, pornography and aggression by bringing them firmly into the female sphere.
Despentes’s new book, King Kong Theory, gives them a manifesto. Part memoir, part political pamphlet, it is a furious condemnation of the “servility” of enforced femininity and was a bestseller in France – the title refers to her contention that she is “more King Kong than Kate Moss”. Superficial femininity, she argues, must be challenged so that women become free to act as they really are, rather than how their menfolk most want them to appear. It also deals with Despentes’s experience of rape. In 1986, when she and a female friend were hitch-hiking back from Paris to their home town of Nancy, the two girls were picked up by three men who attacked them. Despentes explains that while many rape victims respond by feeling misplaced guilt – as though they brought the attack on themselves by being too conspicuously female; as though their mere survival indicated they somehow “wanted it” – her conscious response was anger. She chose fury. That was how she coped.
It is no coincidence that Manu, one of the two female protagonists in Baise-moi, is brutally raped by three men before embarking on her indiscriminate killing spree. Her reaction is the traditionally male response of undiluted aggression. “Girls are never, never taught to be violent,” says Despentes. “We are accustomed to seeing women being killed [in films], being really afraid, covered in blood. I think it’s good to see the counterpoint.”
Femininity, she says, has had to become harmless in order to reassure a 21st-century masculinity that finds itself in crisis. So that “ugly women” or threatening women, women who are too aggressive or ambitious, violent women who kill on a whim, women who choose to sell sex for a living, are deliberately sidelined and ignored. According to Despentes, they are not part of the socially acceptable face of femaleness. “There should be dozens of movies showing lots of violent, angry, sexually active women getting really wild,” she says, taking a languid drag on her cigarette.
Not everyone agrees. When the film of Baise-moi was released, it was almost universally denounced as crude, profane and “tediously bleak”. One reviewer described it as “Thelma & Louise as scripted by Lorena Bobbitt”. In 2005 the critic James Quandt wrote an influential article for Artforum in which he coined the term “New French Extremity” and described the current vogue for French hardcore cinema as a determination “to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation and defilement”.
Although Breillat, Despentes, Denis, Millet and their peers might claim their work has a philosophical or artistic rationale, how far can one intellectualise exploitation? Is pornographic content any more acceptable for being played out in the guise of the political? Is indiscriminate violence on film or in books any more justified for supposedly being a comment on female empowerment? “These women are operating in a traditionally male milieu,” says Ginette Vincendeau, a professor of film studies at King’s College, London, “and the price they have to pay is to tone their feminism down, so they make films that explore sexuality and sexual difference but are not threatening to the male establishment. There is something in there for the men to enjoy too, if you like.”
The killing in Baise-moi is depicted as a cartoonish, randomised cruelty that makes minimal narrative sense. The sex scenes, too, often seem to sail rather too close to the pornographic objectification they are meant to be challenging. “The comparison is surprising to me,” says Despentes when I put this to her. “I didn’t meet many men who told me how excited they were by Baise-moi. Excitement is not the point of it.”
And yet, in King Kong Theory, she derides the trend for “hooker chic” – for adolescents to dress in provocatively adult clothes. Does she acknowledge that her own work, with its gun-toting females in G-strings and leopard print, has its part to play in glamorising precisely this sort of teenage behaviour? Her reply is unequivocal. “If young people were really influenced by movies, we would be in real trouble. You don’t go out of a movie and do what you’ve just seen.”
Despentes insists her work is a challenge to the unquestioned supremacy of the male viewpoint in both film and literature. As opposed to using female porn stars as wordless vehicles of male lust – their faces out of shot, their dialogue restricted to orgasmic grunts – both Despentes and Breillat deliberately put them at the centre of their work. They become active participants: in charge of the action, rather than subjected to it. In the literary sphere, Millet and Jordis choose to explore the female sexual experience rather than the male – inpart, their work is shocking because we are so unused to hearing a woman speak about sex like a man.
In this respect, the new French feminists have been influenced by the existentialist philosophies of Simone de Beauvoir. “Man today represents the positive and the neutral,” de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex, “whereas woman is only the negative, the female.” The Belgian-born philosopher Luce Irigaray carries this one step further: “One must assume the feminine role deliberately, which means already to convert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus to thwart it.”
Beyond the theorising, however, there lies the simpler goal of showing things as they really are. After centuries of concealment within the dark folds of patriarchy, these women seek to reclaim their space and illuminate their experience. Just as Despentes decries the social pressure for “ugly women” to prettify themselves in King Kong Theory, so Baise-moi deliberately set out to depict the sexual act in its myriad forms. It might disturb rather than arouse, and it might challenge rather than comfort, but at least it does not patronise us with the soft-focus romantic myth peddled by the mainstream. In Intimacy, the 2001 movie adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel, the French director Patrice Chéreau filmed several explicit sex scenes, including one that depicts the heroine, Claire, fellating her lover. Kerry Fox, the actress who played Claire, said she was drawn to the part precisely because “I felt the way that sex was represented [in traditional cinema] was very false. It is not an artist’s duty to shock. Shock might be a by-product but it is an artist’s duty to portray reality. It’s about encouraging people to understand others in a way they haven’t before.”
Back in Barcelona, the ashtray on Virginie Despentes’s living room table is half full of crumpled cigarette butts. As I leave, she is powdering her face with a small mirrored compact in preparation for the photograph. Despentes is, as she admits, a contradictory mass of different characteristics. She can be angry and yet she can be sweet; tough yet fragile; she can decry enforced femininity and yet she can care enough to put on make-up for a photograph. She is, like her characters, a woman of multiple facets. For all the controversy generated by the new wave of French feminism, maybe this is what lies at its heart: the permission for women to be themselves, however conflicted they might be and however uneasily it sits with conventional notions of what it is to be female. It is the permission, perhaps, for a woman to be more King Kong than Kate Moss.
• King Kong Theory is published by Serpent’s Tail
Paris intellectuals make case for porn
Film festival’s X-rated action is ‘by and for women’
Lizzy Davies in Paris
The Observer, Sunday 12 October 2008
It could only happen in the country that gave us Emmanuelle, Monica Bellucci in an anal rape scene and twoyoung actresses romping through a hyper-violent bad-girl road movie with real-life sex and a title so rude it could not be advertised on buses.
A group of French intellectuals has now gone one step further in the quest to integrate hardcore erotica into mainstream cinema by holding Paris’s first alternative pornographic film festival: a no-holds-barred celebration of X-rated action that organisers say showcases a new wave of progressive porn that not only titillates but empowers.
Gone, for the most part, are mechanical character portrayals and cringe-worthy storylines; gone, too, are films made by – and solely for – men. On show at the Brady cinema for the past three days have been dozens of productions catering to both genders and every sexual preference. With names such as Deep, Strap-on Motel and Post-Apocalyptic Cowgirls they may sound like the same old material, but those in the know claim they are revolutionary.
‘There’s a new culture of pornography emerging,’ said Maxime Cervulle, the academic who is co-organising the festival in between lecturing at the University of Paris. ‘It’s not only about breaking away from the clichés of porn – of macho sexuality, bad plots and zero aesthetic appeal – but also changing the way people are portrayed in pornography: straight women, black women, lesbians, transsexuals and gay men.’
The most striking change ushered in by the new movement is its feminisation – almost half the films on show in Paris were made by and for women. Directors such as Catherine Corringer and Maria Beatty say they are responding to a rising interest among female audiences who are growing more aware of their own sexuality but are frustrated by the patriarchal world of erotica.
Marie-Hélène Bourcier, the other organiser of the festival, who is also a university lecturer, sees the festival as an important moment in the redressing of that gender imbalance. ‘I consider myself to be a feminist, but a pro-sex feminist,’ she said. ‘I don’t see any contradiction between certain kinds of pornography and feminism. For women it can be a sort of empowerment.’
With films such as Catherine Breillat’s Romance, an explicit study of female desire, Virginie Despentes’s notorious Baise-moi and Gaspar Noé’s disturbing Irréversible, critics claim mainstream French directors have been instrumental in pornography’s evolution, for better or worse.
The movies produced howls of outrage from many observers, both on account of their graphic content and questionable cinematic merit, but their influence has been undeniable. Even the more orthodox bastion of the small screen is getting in on the act, with television channel Canal+ teaming up with several French women actors and directors for a night of raunchy courts métrages later this month. It is all part of a desire, say the festival’s supporters, to nurture a pornography that reflects contemporary society more accurately.
‘I wanted to make films that would let women see themselves as they are,’ said Sophie Bramly, founder of website SecondSexe.com, which is co-ordinating the night. ‘Most women don’t recognise themselves in porn films – they’re too vulgar. And real feminine sexual pleasure is usually totally absent.’ While acknowledging the X-rated nature of the work, she refuses to describe them as ‘pornographic’. ‘These films are explicit. I don’t call them pornographic because pornography belongs to men,’ she said.
Bourcier, buoyant from the success of the festival, has no such linguistic qualms. For her the words do not matter as much as their socio-political purpose – to ‘reaffirm the populist character’ of the genre and to make it something people can identify with.
‘Pornography is a marginalised but populist genre and in this sense it is a reflection of social tensions,’ said Cervulle. ‘When minorities take part in this socially popular form of expression, they have the chance to break free of the dominant cultural force.’