Catherine Breillat - The woman’s sex is “abominably frizzy,” “pernicious,” “Mephitic,” the mons pubis like a “plucked chicken” its skin “like that of frogs” yet without the decency “to be green”.

Catherine Breillat, Pornocracy, Transl. by Paul Buck and Catherine Petit, Semiotext(e), 2008.

The novel by Catherine Breillat on which her acclaimed and reviled film Anatomy of Hell is based.

Historically, the ‘pornocracy’ refers to a 60-year period when the popes were in thrall to mistresses who used their sexual dominance to rule the church. In Pornocracy, with sexual power seeming to circulate entirely between men (the novel does open in a gay club), Breillat’s female protagonist sets up the only transaction she can imagine to restore her own potency. Leaving her fiancé behind, she convinces a moderately sympathetic stranger from the club to accept a large sum of money simply to come to her home on three consecutive evenings and look at her. In this isolated house, she strips and offers her body to a “virgin” viewer of femininity, obscurely hoping thereby to attain a new freedom.
Breillat is a master at making controversial art out of sex. After an early appearance in Last Tango in Paris and successes including her first novel, written at age 16 but banned to readers under 18, she turned to screenwriting. In the 1990s she returned to directing and, with UK distribution of such ripe scandal-fodder as Romance (1999) and Fat Girl (2001), became the new focus of our obsession with the French obsession with sex. Pornocracy is in fact a first, written, version of Breillat’s 2004 film Anatomy of Hell, in somewhat delayed translation. As Chris Kraus explains in his excellent introduction, lacking a ‘poetics’ to describe her film’s minimal action, Breillat turned to the novel searching for a suitable language to tell her story.
Language, then, is paramount in Pornocracy. Sometimes we get snatches of critical jargon (“occlusion of masculine compliance” [p27]), sometimes a language of brutes and hunters (“the flesh… has to be opened, to be torn, to be bled…” [p37]), sometimes we simply read confusion, words that are reaching for something half-understood and still inarticulable. Just occasionally awkward or too medical where Breillat intended clinical, the translation is in general superb. Lighting up with Breillat’s flashes of genius in ambiguous lines like: “He feels both bad and happy to be there, as if it was the latest thing” [p31], it also captures her frequent passages of overkill: “The only possession existing is that option for sudden escape from the narrow world of the flesh…” [p87].
What unfolds here – for we too are forced to invigilate this body – is about sexual exclusion, violence, also about self-constitution through description itself, which is inextricable from observation. This book is not for the squeamish, but it is also not for the theoretically particular. (The outrageously sloppy and rambling afterword by old provocateur Peter Sotos illuminates very little.) Breillat is clearly feeling her way towards both vocabulary and a conceptual framework to justify her scenario. Her novel is provocative and sensual but also a messy, frustratingly unfinished work. It finds its completion in the film, whose title ‘anatomy’ similarly recalls an older paradigm, where observation meets dissection. - Sophie Lewis

I was initially wary of this book — Chris Kraus’s introduction claims the narrative’s discourse to be “pure Sade, minus Sade’s irony” — and so, faced with reading as masochism, I gingerly tucked into Pornocracy. I found the translation by Paul Buck and Catherine Petit viscerally beautiful — poetic prose and detached almost scientific observation commingle in a formaldehyde of precision and imagination — like a rose and a kidney sharing the same embalming jar.
The plot — what there is of it — concerns a women who visits a gay club and picks up a man to accompany her home in order to have him observe her sex. But this is no Jilly Cooper novel — this is Catherine Breillat, auteur of notorious films such as Une vraie jeune fille (A Real Young Girl), Tapage nocturne (Nocturnal Uproar), 36 Fillette (Virgin) Sale comme un ange (Dirty Like an Angel), À ma sœur! (Fat Girl), Anatomie de l’enfer (Anatomy of Hell) and Une vieille maîtresse (The Last Mistress) — films that have been labelled erotic and pornographic, artistic and trashy.
I could get all Lacanian here and talk about lack and the mirror stage or invoke Barthes’ discourse of desire but that would be moving toward the realm of the academic essay, whereas this is a book review — I’ve already fallen into the trap of playing with narrative voyeurism, textual masturbation, and critical narcissism. Did you notice? Do we really only see a text in reference to the other? I don’t want to write a dry, humourless analysis; I’ll try this as a straight review, shunning the help of structuralists, poststructuralists, and new historicists alike, and inject a hint of mirth, a sprinkling of the jocular. What you want to know is: is it any good? Let’s have a look.
The man the unnamed woman picks up in the bar is the most beautiful there, an ephebe. There is an interesting image of the men jostling for position like so many spermatozoa — the enclosed bar as the uterus, the woman as the egg. The men only recognize each other in the narcissism of similarity and difference — the woman (the egg layer) — is invisible, a means to an end: what the men are after is gemination not germination. The woman is absence incarnate — her female sex (the thing itself) infolding her like some gynaecological Möbius strip. The woman observes the men not observing her — and we have the omniscient narrator observing the first-person narrator observing the narrative. So far, so postmodern.
The dialogue reads like a conversation between students of Julia Kristeva and Michel Foucault with lines like, “It’s the result of the occlusion of masculine compliance” and “moved as you are by the play of menses on your dehiscent member,” not something you’re likely to find in an Elmore Leonard novel. The Borges quote from Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is then invoked that “mirrors and copulation are abominable, because they increase the number of men” and Breillat forces the reader to look into her menstrual mirror — the man/reader who does not see the woman/narrative is the only one who can truly see her (the woman/author) as he (as reader) is the voyeuristic other. I can hear the chuckles building.
The woman asks the man to observe her sex — look don’t touch — because he is impartial (as a gay man). At this point, I guess you’re wondering how come this “review” reads like an essay when I said it wouldn’t. Pornocracy is so full of ideas that it is hard to analyze it without assuming the language of the text — almost as if the text worked on the principle of a mirror — a two-dimensional surface (fiction) reflecting a three-dimensional world (philosophy) – the text as auto-erotic and auto-critical. I’ll try again — plot, character, theme.
The man arrives and is taken to the bedroom, the bed has white sheets and there is a large armchair. The man complains about the travel, asks for more money, sits down. The woman begins to undress. The writing here is precise, methodical, as if the words have been layered onto the page with a scalpel; then, like small bombs forming theoretical, anti-Freudian craters, come “echoless lasciviousness” “split beings” “indecency of within”. This is followed by an anti-Aristotelian negation of either/or: “[F]or all expectation is by definition always deception” and do you know why all this is, dear reader? Because “[N]o member can hope to reach the size of the son it begets”. Be patient.
The woman’s sex is “abominably frizzy,” “pernicious,” “Mephitic,” the mons pubis like a “plucked chicken” its skin “like that of frogs” yet without the decency “to be green”. I must admit to getting confused when, after “swampy” and “secretions” I saw the words “demoniac seal” and then the analogy between a woman’s sex and a bird’s beak and maggots and sperm and God and Satan. What Catherine Breillat does here is unsettle the reader into observing theory not plot, ideas not action, analysis not character; what she also does is throw idea upon idea without linking them. Without deeper analysis, the narrative becomes the mirror of her thoughts, not their crucible.
After a long preamble about penises and sight, the woman and man have a drink of whisky. OK. This has to loosen things up a tad. But, no, the woman recollects playing doctors with local boys when she was a young girl and there is talk of a “whitish unutterable serosity” a “pruritis of a perpetual unction” (sounds like an order of nuns) and a “gluey cavern” — I’m not going to be able to watch Art Attack in the same way after that image. Their first night is concluded: “The horror of the Nothing which is the imprescriptible Everything” looms before them still. The sea equals feminine sex, the buildings equal masculine sex; the man draws on the woman’s genitals with lipstick and then “takes her” while she sleeps, discharging both semen and tears. Will they both be up at the crack of dawn?
The days pass and the couple have impartial and indifferent sex, and this is where the only real form of pornography enters the narrative. The rule is one of “inexpressive professionalism,” the look one sees on the faces of porn stars when not faking cries and groans. The narrative also has that feel, as if Breillat is pretending to write fiction while all the time riffing with theories, extemporizing half-digested philosophies.
I have to ask here who the “we” are who do not talk about female genitalia or pretend it’s not there? Is it the omniscient narrator, the reader, the woman, the man, women, men, you and I? I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with the implicit Catholic guilt of the text or its seemingly explicit conservatism — strange in an avant-garde, supposedly transgressive text, but then, like the Möbius strip I mentioned earlier, you go all the way round and end up on the reverse plane to where you began — see Communism and Fascism. Then follows a passage on bodily fluids that, though reading like something D.H. Lawrence might have hidden in his top drawer, would have surely made the Nottingham miner’s son blush and run a finger around the neck of his starched collar out of embarrassment. Disgusted, confused, or intrigued by the woman’s menses, the man goes to the garden, returns with a fork handle (no Two Ronnies jokes, please) and plunges the haft into the woman’s vagina.
The third day — after being crucified on the fork handle, we are told that “Women are in God’s image” and that men try to restrain women by imposing chastity and imprisoning them. Apparently, all men fear women’s periods, we are disgusted by them, we treat the vagina as a wound. And I didn’t know this but man devised the tampon and its applicator as a symbol of our hatred of all women. Breillat argues that man has inscribed onto woman a disgust of and for her own body. Touching her own genitals, or inserting objects into her vagina, is somehow anathema to our (man’s) ideas of the feminine, and so the tampon and its application creates a false impression (for men) of virginity. A cursory scan of certain adult websites will unveil pictures and videos of women masturbating and inserting bottles, courgettes, and baseball bats into their vaginas. False impressions? You can’t have it both ways. Well, you can, but to know what I mean, you’d have to spend more time on the aforementioned websites.
A black stone is expelled from the woman’s vagina – penetration is engulfment, man’s power is an illusion — but the man is powerless and needs to penetrate and he’s lucky because the woman is “keeping the opening exactly at ninety degrees” — I’d like to see Carol Vorderman try that. The man suffers from premature ejaculation while the woman is enjoying her own more relaxed orgasm. The man goes limp and the woman “expertly” helps him regain his erection (he’s not doing too badly seeing as he’s supposed to be gay and merely an observer). Then the woman utters the words guaranteed to make any grown man’s love lie limp, “work at becoming imbued with the grace of still movements” — well, I suppose it rivals “Fuck me! Fuck me harder!” as a(n) (a)rousing call. The woman then asks all women to “free [themselves] from the arrogance of the erect member”. David Cameron, take note. The sex moves into the spiritual. None of that smelly, sweaty humping — oh, no. The purpose of sex, it appears, is not to enjoy oneself and have an orgasm (sorry, “jouissance”), to collapse exhausted onto the (delete as necessary) bed, sofa, balcony, elevator floor, but so that “(Y]our carnal envelope won’t enclose you any longer in the narrowness of its gangue”. “Carnal envelope”? What’s wrong with manila?
So, what is pornocracy? Apparently, it is the “marvelous power” that, once he’s loved and been loved by a girl, a man no longer fears. So, it’s a cure for homosexuality: man’s orgasm with man meaning nothing against that of heterosexual jouissance? The couple have solved the “fetid secret of obscenity”… well, they’ve had sex during the woman’s period — I’m not sure that is obscene, in fact, I’m not sure anything is obscene. My Merriam-Webster tells me obscene means “disgusting to the senses” or “abhorrent to morality or virtue; specifically: designed to incite to lust or depravity”. I’m neither disgusted nor incited to depravity by these passages — this is sex, it may have been “obscene” in the late 19th century, but here in the 21st it’s quotidian. Pornocracy is rule or government by prostitutes, prostitution being the trading of sex for money. In this sense, the man of the narrative is the prostitute — he’s the one who gets paid — and at the end of the “novel’ we have a sort of reversed Pretty Woman. The man is crying, he doesn’t even know the woman’s name, he’s ready to die if he can’t find her, the money wasn’t important — he left that behind, he returns to search for her, the house is empty, devoid of furniture, he sees a bloody rag, and then… Oh, you’ll have to read it: delayed gratification and all that; the cock ring of narrative progression. Sod closure, go for the opening.
Catherine Breillat’s Pornocracy tries too hard to be an important work of theoretical fiction. It reads like a postmodern parable of sexuality, desire, violence, and the politics of the body. The translation works because its language reads like a mix of the texts of Henry Gray, the poetry of Christopher Dewdney, and the writing of Deleuze and Guattari. What the book lacks is a depth. Like flashbulbs reflected in the bloody puddles of a murder scene the words have a gory sparkle, yet all they seem to signify is — damn, I knew I couldn’t help myself — lack. Here’s a tip: if you like your women’s writing transgressive in its exploration of female sexuality try Kathy Acker or Hélène Cixous.
- Steve Finbow