that’s definitely semen

In his great concert film and return to triumph Live on the Sunset Strip, Richard Pryor observed, “Women like sex just as much as we do… but they can be cool about it.” He meant it as a loving jab at men and their immaturity about sex, but the observation can too easily be turned around in a kind of misogynistic justification of adultery. Certainly any number of awful sex comedies have been made about the man whose wife won’t give it up, forcing him almost inevitably into the arms of another, more willing woman. But Catherine Breillat, whose À Ma Soeur! challenged our prejudices about pre-adolescent sexuality and brutally posited that rape might be better than first love, has decided to flop the standard script; in Romance, it is the man who withholds sex and the woman who finds herself wandering astray.

Or does she? It’s hard to say whether the main character’s sexual adventures are real or in her head, but if she’s imagining them, she does so with the thoroughness of a pornographer. (Though I’m reminded of the nun in Hal Hartley’s Amateur who tries unsuccessfully to write porn; her editor admonishes her: “This isn’t porn — it’s poetry; don’t you deny it.”) It’s interesting how Breillat goes about filming the explicit stuff, as opposed to, say, Nagisa Oshima. She tends to be more interested in fetishes — everything from bondage to rape to gynecology to things that maybe have no name. In one scene, almost surely a fantasy, women’s lower halves stick out from hexagonal openings in a large pipe, skirts shoved up; men wander through the dark, smoky room and fuck them anonymously. In acknowledgement of one running theme of the film, they chat gleefully with one another about their cocks. The narrator, likewise, gives a running stream of commentary on cocks throughout the film, and indeed, it’s interesting to note that in almost all the scenes with any real sexual tension, the cock is given far more prominence than the vagina. Without reducing everything to one’s sex, it’s fascinating to see a female director giving a woman’s perspective on sex. It’s not surprising that the things Breillat and her main character find sexy, we find sexy; but by contrast, the things that men in the film find sexy are generally either cold or repugnant. (That includes the science of medicine, by the way.)

This doesn’t mean that men are universally reviled, and by the end, whether you read it as fantasy or reality, it would seem that the main character has at least sketched out, and possibly found, a man she can live with. True, his fetishes squeeze the life out of sex, making it dull or, at best, blandly comical — but he also seems eminently concerned with her feelings and even accompanies her during the birth of her child.

On the other hand, the sex-denying boyfriend is such a cad that it’s hard to know why she stays with him so long. The Netflix summary on the film says: “Though young schoolteacher Marie experiences emotional fulfillment in her relationship with her boyfriend, she’s sexually frustrated.” I’m not sure if the person who wrote that sentence actually watched the film, or just read the press notes, but it’s patently obvious from practically the first minute that there is no “emotional fulfillment” anywhere to be found in their cold, all-white apartment, just as it’s obvious that his refusal to sleep with her is a power trip. Since Breillat doesn’t give us much psychological background on Marie or much access to her reasons for liking him in the first place, we are put in the irritating position of having to try to sympathize with someone who puts up with abuse for no clear reason.

Still, there are some redeeming things about the film. Breillat’s observations on male viciousness, though radically without context, are not without merit, and her wry comparisons of doctors to gang-rapists are pretty funny. Her celebration of Marie’s pubic hair may not be as bracing in Europe, but in America, where among the younger generation pubes are rapidly becoming a mark of shame, it feels refreshingly freespirited. Finally, although I found much of this boring and frustrating, it can’t be denied that Breillat has a vision and a sensibility uniquely hers, putting her in a club with only a handful of women (Agnes Varda, Leni Riefenstahl, and possibly Samira Makhmalbaf are the only others I can think of immediately) trying for greatness in film.

The makers of Jackass: Number Two are certainly not trying for greatness in film, but they do use video effectively to document an attempt at greatness in life. Like the characters in Fight Club (minus the groovy leather jackets), the men of Jackass constantly spit in the face of their own fears, brazenly seeking out snakes, sharks, ass-whoopings, ingestion of the worst that nature has to offer, and good old-fashioned broken bones. Some of the stunts are clearly more silly than dangerous, but in at least a couple of cases they come wildly close to death — something not always clear until afterwards. And even when there’s no mortal risk, it’s clear that these guys are going to have to live, in their old age, with an uncomfortable assortment of chronic pains, crooked joints, and ugly scars — not to mention the immediate pain and humiliation of most of what goes on during the course of the film. This takes really considerable dedication, and although there’s no real purpose to what they do, the sheer mental fortitude it takes to keep doing it is impressive.

But more than that, the obvious joy that they get from testing each other and pushing the limits is, in its juvenile and perverse way, a testament to what’s best in human beings. At one point, Jason Taylor of the Miami Dolphins comments, “You guys are way more athletic than us,” and there’s a sense in which this is true. Real athleticism is about denying our physical limitations and demanding that the human spirit, not disgust or fear of pain or even death, define our actions. Anyone who’s ever pushed through to the end of a hard run or lifted more than he thought possible has shared in some of this joy. And so too have those who refused to let illness slow them down; it’s completely appropriate that the guys include quadraplegic rugby player Mark Zupan in one of their stunts.

Moreover, there’s a sense of young-guy goofiness and cameraderie that runs through the film; these guys clearly love each other, and the occasional involvement of Bam Margera’s family gives the proceedings an intimate, domestic feel, but at the same time they enjoy, in a friendly way, hurting and humiliating each other. This is maybe the essential dynamic among men in American society, and it’s hard to think of another film, ever, that’s captured that tension between love and aggression with such directness and depth.

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