A not terribly creative movie about the creative process, Catherine Breillat’s “Sex Is Comedy” introduces a fresh subset of navel-gazing nobody had been clamoring to see. Semi-autobiographical film, embroidered around the shooting of a sex scene in Breillat’s previous feature, “Fat Girl,” has its fleeting moments of humor and insight, but stalls too often in the service of pontification. Since premise sounds juicy and title is crafty, pic is sure to be a hot ticket as the Directors Fortnight co-opener at Cannes. But even after allowing for Breillat’s small but devoted following, and factoring in moviegoers of both sexes who are always up for seeing lead actor Gregoire Colin in the buff, commercial prospects would appear to be only semi-tumescent for this film a clef that needs a better locksmith.
Venture endeavors to expose the ins and outs of lensing a scene in which a 15-year-old girl is deflowered by a guy whose member is encased in an erect prosthetic penis. There’s a proud tradition of movies but “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Irma Vep” this is not.
Watchable but incredibly self-indulgent exercise, presumably mocking as well as dissecting Breillat’s own capricious behavior, portrays her alter ego, Jeanne (Anne Parillaud), as a filmmaker by fiat.
Here’s at least one potentially interesting topic lying on the floor: Is it more difficult for a woman than a man to exert her authority on a set and get what she wants on film, particularly if what she’s aiming for requires both actual nakedness and a convincing simulation of emotional nakedness from her cast? Especially when the young Actor (Colin) and Actress (Roxane Mesquida) can’t stand each other but have to project overwhelming desire.
Male directors have been known to sleep with their leading ladies; here, Jeanne is sexually involved with her young and studly leading man. Does that make it easier or more difficult for him to strut around with his manhood — or an enhanced replica of same — jutting out?
The film being shot is called “Intimate Scenes” (Scenes intimes) and the sequence Jeanne is struggling to get in the can is identical to one in “Fat Girl,” but with the younger sister cut out. As the older, flirtatious sister, pouty looker Mesquida is the only cast member of original pic to reprise her role.
The Actor grew up on film sets, doesn’t like Jeanne’s tyrannical approach and doesn’t want to be discarded from her life when the shoot is over. But in Breillat’s script, he seems to be more a collection of personality traits in a pleasing body than a real character.
Parillaud works too hard to appear directorially decisive between being flighty and didactic. Only thesp with a fully written part resembling real human behavior is Ashley Wanninger, as Jeanne’s assistant director, Leo.
Dialogue is littered with aphorisms and faux-profundities that sound self-conscious or ponderous even in French and are unlikely to be improved by subtitles. Choice examples include: “When you’re afraid of being obscure, you are obscure”; “You can only really love people you detest”; and “Words are lies, bodies are truth — I have to show the truth.”
At one point, Jeanne even proclaims, “Words are the best chastity belt there is.” Breillat’s style is a comparable barrier to the rapture a more accomplished treatment of the same topic might have offered.