Sex and Power: The Provocative Explorations of Catherine Breillat

Sex and Power: The Provocative Explorations of Catherine Breillat

There has often been a recognizable streak of fantasy in Ms. Breillat’s work, and in recent years she has given her tendencies in that direction freer rein by making films of well-known fairy tales. Her perspectives on “Bluebeard” (2010) and “Sleeping Beauty” (2011) are more than fractured; they are radical. Lola Créton, known in the United States mostly for her work in Mia Hansen-Love’s “Goodbye First Love” (2012) and Olivier Assayas’ “Something in the Air” (2013), gives a fierce performance in “Bluebeard” as Marie-Catherine, the title character’s clever young wife who is confounded by the temptation of a secret chamber in their shared castle.

The collection is completed by “Abuse of Weakness” (2014), Ms. Breillat’s most recent film, and possibly her greatest, so far. It’s a largely autobiographical account of catastrophic events after Ms. Breillat’s brain hemorrhage in 2004. (She also wrote a novel based on her experiences.)

In that film, Isabelle Huppert, in an even more astonishing performance than what she usually serves up, plays Maud, a writer and director we first see sliding out of her bed, half-paralyzed. Ms. Huppert portrays her suffering character, who remains partly paralyzed throughout, with incredible physicality. At times, Maud seems to masochistically luxuriate in her incapacitation. Watching television one evening, Maud is entranced by the bragging of a ruggedly handsome con man, recently released from prison and promoting a book about his swindles. She asks him to star in her next film; he agrees, and he almost immediately starts a psychological game with her.

“I don’t meet with my actors until I start filming,” Maud says, her left hand still crabbed from her stroke. Slumped in a chair opposite her, the con man, played by the French rapper Kool Shen, responds, “You are going to see a lot of me.” Soon Maud is writing him enormous checks and imperiously insisting to herself that she understands what’s going on and has some control over it. This is a subtle but unflinching psychological horror picture with a devastating finale.

If you’re in the mood to do more cinematic exploring, this month the cinephile site Filmatique, which specializes in international movies that normally get scant attention in the United States, focuses on North African directors and films. So far it has posted Mohcine Besri’s 2011 kidnapping drama, “The Miscreants”; Nadine Khan’s “Chaos, Disorder” (2013), a scrappy love triangle set in Cairo; and a female character study from 2012, “Coming Forth by Day,” from the Egyptian filmmaker Hala Lotfy.

On Dec. 22, the Tunisian picture “Challat of Tunis” debuts on the site. Directed by and featuring Kaouther Ben Hania, this mockumentary posits the existence of a criminal in prerevolutionary Tunisia called the Challat. (The word means blade in a Tunisian dialect.) In 2003, the movie tells us, he rampaged through Tunis on a motorbike, hunting down provocatively dressed women and slashing their buttocks with a straight razor.

The movie begins 10 years after, with Ms. Ben Hania trying to visit the prison where the Challat was supposedly held. Stymied, she goes to neighborhoods where he was reputed to have struck. Interviewing local residents, she finds men disparaging the Challat’s supposed victims and their scanty wear. They say things like “One must dress correctly. In a respectful fashion.” The movie teems with such upsetting, but not surprising, instances of victim-blaming. The filmmaker also interviews the maker of a “devout” video game in which the player is the Challat, and gains points for slashing inappropriately dressed women. If the player attacks a hijab-wearing woman, points are deducted. Ms. Ben Hania also explores the home life of a creepy braggart who claims to be the “real” Challat.

This is a satire that stings. The misogyny and threatened masculinity on display half a world away is no different from what exists in the United States; the only distinction is in the pretext. (Many of the men in this movie claim that their retrograde views are endorsed by Islam.) Like the films of Ms. Breillat, “Challat of Tunis” is uncomfortably timely.

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