Masochism in Michael Haneke’s La Pianiste & Catherine Breillat’s Romance

Jon Davies, 2003

    “It is the common business of sacrifice to bring life and death into harmony, to give death the upsurge of life, life the momentousness and the vertigo of death opening on to the unknown.  Here life is mingled with death, but simultaneously death is a sign of life, a way into the infinite.  Nowadays sacrifice is outside the field of our experience and imagination must do duty for the real thing” (Bataille 91).

    Romance (1999), directed by Catherine Breillat and La Pianiste (2001), directed by Michael Haneke are both recent French films by acclaimed and experienced auteurs that provoked extreme controversy by explicitly representing their female protagonists’ sexual masochism.  In this paper, I will critically examine how these two films employ different formal and narrative strategies to represent the contentious subject of female masochism, which is primarily conceptualized through the maternal.  These films use their protagonists’ masochism to critique normative female sexuality (in Breillat’s case) and urban upper-class alienation (in Haneke’s case).  In the rational Europe occupied by Haneke’s and Breillat’s characters, women’s bodies are subjected to daily indignities and traumas.  By making a spectacle of this violence through their characters’ extreme sexual masochism, the directors are engaging in a critical practice.  Deleuze sees masochism as a sexualized aggression turned upon the self (91).  He states that in masochism, “[b]y scrupulously applying the law we are able to demonstrate its absurdity and provoke the very disorder that it is intended to prevent or to conjure” (79).  He believes that masochism is a means of achieving pleasure by using punishment to not just resolve anxiety and guilt, but to distort and parody them as well (ibid.).  
    Masochism has been discussed in many different ways, though I believe that Jessica Benjamin’s interpretation, in conjunction with Deleuze’s, are the most important to keep in mind.  According to Benjamin, masochism presents “intense pain [that] causes the violent rupture of the self, a profound experience of fragmentation and chaos” (61).  She also suggests that “the violation of the body is a transgression of the boundary between life and death, even as it breaks through our discontinuity from the other” (63).  Self-willed abuse represents in masochistic narratives a “search for an elusive spiritual or psychological satisfaction” (56).  I believe like Benjamin does that masochism, and its partner sadism, are ultimately about recognition, not just of one’s partner, the Other, but of the role of power in one’s world: “[We should not] undo our ties to others but rather... disentangle them...make of them not shackles but circuits of recognition” (221).
      The protagonist of La Pianiste is Erika Kohut, a middle-age piano teacher at the Vienna Conservatory.  La Pianiste explores similar themes as Code Inconnu, as Erika’s behaviour is presented as a sort of case study into the effects of bourgeois urban isolation on an individual psyche.  Haneke presents her sexual masochism as a pathological sublimation of her repressed emotions and abusive relationship with her mother.  This is is contrast to the sex-positive point-of-view that sees masochism as simply one of many ways one can have sex, deriving pleasure from safe, sane and consensual subjection and pain.  It seems that every one of Erika’s scenes of “perversion” are represented as effects whose causation lies in the traumatic events of her personal life.  It is after she gets into an argument with her over-protective mother during a rehearsal that she goes to the peep show to watch porn and sniff soiled kleenexes.  It is after the young and adoring Walter Klemmer is accepted into her class against her will that she mutilates her vagina with a razor.  And it is after Erika jealously watches Walter console her neurotic student Anna that she puts broken glass in Anna’s coat pocket and has sex with Walter for the first time.  Despite the director’s problematic pathologizing of masochism, his film presents her wounded subjectivity and masochistic desires through interesting uses of diegetic space, colour, and intertextual sound which in some ways subvert his moralistic tone.
    One of the most notable characteristics of La Pianiste’s form is how Haneke structures diegetic space.  Doorways are used as symbols of access (or lack of access) to physical and social spaces.  There is a notably high occurrence of shots of Erika coming through doorways, including the very first shot of the film as she returns home to her enraged mother, to the very last shot in which she leaves the concert hall after her final self-mutilation.  These shots, like most shots of Erika are often centrally composed and severely symmetrical, emphasizing both her emotional and physical rigour and the rigidity of the social, familial and physical spaces that she occupies.  Also, by positioning the camera in the space before or after it is occupied by Erika, as if waiting for her arrival or left behind after her departure, Haneke creates a menacing effect by drawing our attention to how she is under surveillance by a point-of-view that is never embodied by a character.  This emphasizes our voyeuristic role.  The most effective example of this is after the vagina mutilation scene, a sequence shot, where Erika leaves the room and shuts off the light, leaving us in the dark and quite disturbed by what we have been forced to watch.  Here Erika closes us up into one of the many private spaces where she commits her transgressions.  
    Throughout the film, Haneke focuses on the fragility and tenuousness of these private spaces.  In both La Pianiste and Romance, there are virtually no shots of the female protagonists on the street or outdoors, and when there are, the characters are usually alone.  The overabundance of claustrophobic interiors in both films echoes the emotional introversion of the two protagonists.  There are many spaces in La Pianiste where both physical and visual access is limited to outsiders, though the threat of a breach is always present.  Erika’s workplace, the Conservatory, is itself an archetypal private space, where students must sacrifice everything in order to get by, and those who are allowed within its walls are carefully selected and regimented.  The private spaces where Erika’s desires manifest themselves including the drive-in theatre, the video peep show, Erika’s room, the piano studio, the coat room, the locker room and the washrooms at home and at school.  Another example occurs when Erika and her mother arrives at Walter’s home for the recital early in the film, she shuts him out of the elevator even though there was enough room for him.  As she ascends, we hear Walter rushing up the stairs, and we see him as the elevator passes each floor. The effect is humourous as he mockingly following their progress upwards, but seems more sinister in retrospect considering his later behaviour.  This scene clearly shows Erika’s coldness and cruelty in relation with others (notably those younger than her, her students) and her lack of emotions.  It also acts as a microcosm for the home space that she shares with her mother that Walter will later penetrate successfully, with violent results.  
    The elevator scene is echoed near the end of the film except it becomes mother who is locked out of the space where Walter and Erika are together.  In fact, this is Erika’s ultimate fantasy according to her letter, to be tied up and locked in her room with her mother outside.  At home, Erika’s oppressive mother is consistently trying to invade her private space, to the point that they sleep in the same bed every night.  Erika’s mother is invasive, controlling, and authoritarian.  Their relationship is fraught with power games and abuse.  We never learn the woman’s name, she is important to us only for being The Mother.  One particularly salient aspect of Erika’s fantasies is the shame and fear that they would cause her mother.  Self-abuse is a way of attacking the most precious gift her mother gave her, life, a form of sacrifice and revenge that makes spending too much money pale by comparison.  This revenge is most evident in the scene where Erika jumps on her mother in bed and begins molesting/attacking her relentlessly, proclaiming her love one moment and breaking down in tears the next, “shamelessly” stating “I saw the hairs on your sex” in order to embarrass her further.  This scene is both a complex and profoundly charged representation of the traumatic relations between parent and child, but also an act of vengeance against the mother.  Benjamin sees the question of dominance and submission as rooted in childhood, where normally one must go from complete dependence on the mother to becoming an independent entity (52).  In Erika’s case, her mother has prevented her from achieving independence, a phenomenon that Benjamin feels occurs more in mother/daughter relationships because “[t]o the extent that the mother has sacrificed her own independence, the girl’s attempt at independence would represent an assertion of power for which she has no basis in identification.  The girl’s sense of self is shaped by the realization that her mother’s source of power resides in her self-sacrifice” (78-9).  Benjamin goes on to suggest that submission is the very citation of the “maternal attitude” (79).  This would seem to be the situation in La Pianiste, where mother and daughter are trapped in a cycle of sacrifice and submission which Erika takes to their physical extreme.  It is no wonder that the sexual pleasure that she seeks offers no opportunity for procreation but instead is fixated on destroying or perverting the body of Erika, daughter.
    Erika’s relationship with her mother is echoed by that of her student Anna and her mother.  Anna’s mother mistakenly states that she has made sacrifices for Anna’s musical success, and Erika, in perhaps her most humane moment, corrects her, stating that it is her daughter who has made the sacrifices.  We get the sense that Erika’s success has been partly the result of her mother’s unrelenting domination and pressuring of her (at one point she says “no one must surpass you, my girl” and later “all those sacrifices for this?”), that her mother does not appreciate the sacrifices that Erika made to succeed, nor the sacrifices which she enacts on her own body throughout the film.  When Anna’s mother states that “she’s hardly attractive, talent is her only attribute” we get the sense that Erika’s intentions for attacking Anna were not only based in jealousy but were also an attempt to use physical pain to save her from the emotional pain of a life of sacrifices and abusive maternal pressure.  The bodies of Anna and Erika are also linked by their overabundance of bodily fluids.  Anna’s attack of diarrhea and frequent mucus-inflected crying link her with Erika’s vomiting, bleeding, coughing and urinating in the film.  Also, when Anna’s mother says “whoever did this should have his hands chopped off,” she is repeating the phrase said by Erika’s mother at the beginning, in reference to Erika hitting her.  In the film, having one’s hands chopped off is not only the punishment for maternal abuse but also for damaging the hands of another pianist, the supreme act of destruction.  As Erika is being beat up by Walter at the end, she yelps “don’t attack my hands.”  Also, it is Anna whom Erika is replacing in the final concert, and their two mothers sit together in the audience.
    Erika’s transgressions remain private; If her desires were publicly known, her career would suffer.  Whether cutting her vagina in her bathroom, pissing next to a car where kids are having sex (her voyeurism echoing her mother’s), viewing porn and sniffing soiled kleenexes, placing broken glass in Anna’s pocket, or orchestrating sex with Walter, she is closed off from the world, physically as well as emotionally.  The threat of being found remains, even when mother is away.  As the film progresses, she seems to desire public awareness of her transgressions, perhaps growing tired of being enclosed and restrained.  She states in the locker room that she doesn’t mind if she and Walter are caught, and in the final scene we are led to believe that Erika will attack Walter at the concert.  As the masses of people including Walter rush past her into the auditorium, she loses her chance for public transgression and directs the knife at her own shoulder.  Jabbing herself without witnesses, her face registers resignation and disgust, as she ultimately fails to break out of her self-enclosed world.
    Diegetic space is often fragmented during the piano performance scenes, beginning from the opening credits.  This is most apparent in the recital scene at Walter’s home where Erika and a man play but despite the many different shots we do not get a sense of the space as a whole until the end of the scene.  The audience however is shown in a single unified shot.  Later we will often see a point-of-view shot of the person playing, or a shot from behind, but less often are the hands and face of the musician in the same shot.  This emphasizes the alienating disjunction between the musician’s body and soul, a dualism ascribed to patriarchal female sexuality and explored further in Romance.  The musician’s body and mind must be subjugated and disciplined to the musical instrument for the enjoyment of others.  Erika’s cruelest master is thus her piano, which would explain why the film is named for the instrument she has mastered even though she, and not her music, is the focus of virtually every scene.  The act of performing is essentially a sacrifice of the self for the enjoyment of others, a submission.  At one point, Erika’s mother refers to the “instrument fetish” of Walter’s father even though music plays far healthier a role in the Klemmer family than in the Kohut household.  The link between music and masochism is emphasized further by Erika’s conversation with Walter about Schumann nearing the point of losing his mind, as Erika’s father had before dying in a mental institution.  She states “it’s being aware of what it means to lose oneself,” suggesting that music, like the physical pain of her masochism, can bring one to the limits of consciousness and sanity.  In Erika’s first sex scene with Walter in the school washroom, the acts occur outside of the frame, their bodies are as fragmented in this love scene as those we see performing on the piano.
    As in classical melodrama, Erika’s private desires manifest themselves through visual excess, notably colour.  While the entire film is overwhelmingly in warm tones such as brown and red (her dark blue bathroom is one notable exception), as we are witness to more and more of her masochistic activities the colour red takes on a specifically symbolic role.  While the drive-in snack bar is perhaps the first bright red space, the most jarring example occurs immediately after Erika has been chased by the kids she has spied on at the drive-in.  There is a cut to her bright red wardrobe, red dresser and her mother in her omnipresent red housecoat as she throws Erika’s clothes on the floor.  After Erika returns home and they fight - apparently father has died again? - there is a cut to an usher in bright red putting up red posters for the recital at the conservatory.  Soon after, when Anna’s hands are cut after her recital in the red auditorium, Erika states (ironically?) “the sight of blood makes me ill” and runs up a bright red staircase to the bathroom in which she and Walter will first erotically engage.  Later, in the scene where Walter is in her room, after following her and her bright red hat home, she seems to smile for the first time when they block the door - and thus mother’s access - with the large red dresser, which gets pushed into the center of the frame when Walter storms out.  Finally, when Walter breaks Erika’s nose, and the blood pours all over her white nightgown (reminding us of her vaginal blood violating the pure white bathtub), it signals the end of any relationship between them for good.    
    There are several moments where the colour white is used to signify a form of sublime escape from Erika’s life.  During her classes, Erika can’t seem to take her eyes off of the window, which we primarily see only as a glowing white screen with nothing outdoors visible, the complete opposite of the deep black of the piano.  More important is the scene when Erika runs out a door from her painful interaction with Walter in the hockey locker room onto an outdoor skating rink.  As the camera watches her fragile body stumble out onto the ice, the blinding daylight reflected on its surface has the force of divine transcendence.  This is the most beautiful shot of the film, and it occurs perhaps at the moment of Erika’s greatest debasement.    
    As in all of Haneke’s films, television and video are employed as ironic counterpoint to the feelings and words of the characters.  At one point a documentary about horses on the TV will echo the “mare in heat seeks ardent successful stallion” in the porn magazine ad Erika catches her student Fritz reading.  In the scene at the drive-in, Erika and the kids she watches are not paying attention to what plays on the big screen while at home, her mother is too distracted worrying about Erika’s whereabouts to watch her TV.  Richard Combs points out that TV is used to emphasize “the closeness, the punishing mutual dependency that holds Erika to her mother and in which she loses herself” (26.)  Also, our first overt sign of Erika’s non-normative sexuality is the grainy close-up video imagery of hardcore porn in the peep show, one of several instances of startling close-up TV shots.  
    This is one of many jarring juxtapositions of high and low culture in the film.  When we see Erika enter into a shopping mall and then into the sex shop, or when we see her at the drive-in’s snack bar surrounded by hyperactive teens as opposed to the disciplined Conservatory students, we know immediately that something significant will take place because the contrast is so great.  This is due both to Isabelle Huppert’s excellent performance as Erika which registers the disjunction through her obvious discomfort, and to the choices of music for the soundtrack.  For example, the classical music of Erika’s rehearsal with her trio continues as she walks through the shopping mall and into the sex shop, the music overlapping with that of hardcore sex when she enters the peep show, and then stopping completely.  As this scene goes on, classical music overlaps the peep show again, this time the theme that begins “the dogs are barking” which is from the scene that follows.  This song is repeated many times in the film, and it narratively represents the potential musical success or failure of Anna, Erika’s doppelganger.  If one reads this piece - entitled “In the Village,” a section of the Winter Journey with music by Schubert and text by Wilhelm Mueller - in its entirety one finds what could be called Haneke’s filmic creed.  The text is written from the point of view of a figure who is leaving his town, a place where people only seek pleasure in their dreams and not in reality, which can be seen as a phenomenon in the postmodern West.  The protagonist’s question “why should I linger among the sleepers?” could be the motto of any of Haneke’s alienated characters who either express their suffering through extreme repression, bursts of unmotivated ultraviolence, or both.    
     Haneke subtly suggests that all romantic relationships contain elements of domination and submission.  The entire relationship between Walter and Erika can be seen as a mind game.  There are many shots of Erika listening to Walter play, and remaining extremely stoic and poker-faced as he attempts over and over again to impress her.  They exchange looks repeatedly during a concert.  He seems to be able to read her almost immediately, and he toys with her mercilessly.  He is keenly aware of her problems, stating “Allow yourself feelings for once, forget your mother” and later he asks her mother why she does not allow Erika to have a lock on her door.  At the moment when Erika pulls out her box of ropes and chains and begins to open up to him about her desires, their roles switch irreversibly.  Erika becomes much more sympathetic and communicative while Walter stops being playful, energetic and enthusiastic and becomes unpredictable, damaged and abusive.  In the moment where she vomits and tells him not to look (and later after washing states that she is “clean as a baby”) she is profoundly vulnerable, and his abuse, often invoking the terms “sick” and “dirty” are very damaging to her.  His attempts to indulge Erika’s fantasies are too full of rage, bitterness and disgust to be pleasurable to her.  For Erika, being punched in the face in a controlled and consensual erotic situation is far different than being punched by Walter in a state of fury.  Erika’s masochism is ironically too active to be the passivity that Walter desires, as is evidenced by his raping her.  His childlike demeanour hides his machismo: “you can’t get a guy going and then take refuge on the ice... You can’t humiliate a man that way.”  Walter’s use of the term “ice” refers literally to the skating rink onto which Erika escaped.  Erika’s masochism seems perverse to Walter, but he also cannot understand how she can impose such instrumental rules and restrictions on a human relationship.  
    All of Erika’s transgressions are performed like cathartic rituals.  To be involved with someone else, she must impose a contract.  The ritual and the contract are both important elements of masochism according to Deleuze (58).  As he states: “The masochistic contract generates a type of law which leads straight into ritual.  The masochist is obsessed; ritualistic activity is essential to him [sic], since it epitomizes the world of phantasy” (81).  Erika’s masochism is marked by her intense degree of control and the specificity of her organization and planning, epitomized by her letter to Walter which shatters his affection for her.  This is the rational, carefully constructed contract that she would like Walter to participate in.  Walter’s reaction resembles that of someone witnessing sex for the first time as described by Georges Bataille: “He would think she was sick, just as mad dogs are sick...Sickness is not putting it strongly enough, though; for the time being the personality is dead” (106).  When Walter greets Erika pleasantly in the final scene after attacking her the night before, it shocks her, yet this is the kind of hypocritical “keeping up appearances” that Erika has made a life of as well.  The scenes where she relentlessly shames a young male student for reading a porn personal ad out loud with his friends at a store would be one example.  
    The ice that Walter refers to and the skating rink which Erika escapes to have symbolic resonance in Deleuze’s analysis of masochism:
    “Masochistic coldness represents the freezing point, the point of dialectical         transmutation, a divine latency corresponding to the catastrophe of the Ice Age.      But under the cold remains a supersensual sentimentality buried under the ice         and protected by fur; this sentimentality radiates in turn through the ice as the         generative principle of new order, a specific wrath and a specific cruelty.  The         coldness is both protective milieu and medium, cocoon and vehicle: it protects         supersensual sentimentality as inner life, and expresses it as external order, as         wrath and severity” (46).  
In Deleuze’s view, masochism refers to male masochism, and the “cold-maternal-severe, icy-sentimental-cruel” entity is the woman-torturer (37).  In La Pianiste, Erika is both masochist and sadist, she is this woman-torturer who enacts pain on herself, and in Walter’s mind, on him as well.

    In Romance, the division between the worlds of love and sex are played out in terms of mise-en-scène, narration, and editing.  In Romance, the protagonist named Marie seeks sexual satisfaction after her partner Paul stops desiring her.  Like La Pianiste, colour is used expressively, here to demarcate the world of love from the world of sex.  The apartment that Marie and Paul share is completely white, including all of the furniture, household objects, walls, and most notably, the bed sheets.  Marie’s interior monologue, which dominates the film, begins in the pristine white bathroom as she is brushing her teeth.  The white space not only represents Paul’s chastity - and an insane asylum - but also the barriers that he has constructed around himself.  The first night after their talk about sex, Paul goes to bed in a pristine white t-shirt and shorts in order to limit Marie’s access to his body, presumably for the first time.  Marie’s white outfits, like Erika’s earth tones, are notable for being fashionably cold and muted, in stark contrast to their sometimes overwhelming desires (though Marie will wear red as her journey progresses).  Paul’s body is represented as a classical male body: closed, smooth, impenetrable, a statue.  He works as a fashion model, posing as a matador with a woman who is urged to be submissive to him in the opening scene.  He is stoic, rational, and uncommunicative.  He coldly informs Marie that he has lost interest in sex and is unable to have sex with her because he would stop loving her.  At one point in the film, Marie states that she can only see absolutes, she cannot see shades of grey, which is emphasized by the colour scheme in the film.  Despite her pale, ethereal look that matches the apartment, her body is the complete opposite of Paul’s, it is represented as open and grotesque, soft, with gaping orifices.  She states: “I quite like disgusting things.”  She needs and loves sex, which Paul does not understand, thus their two bodies cannot be reconciled.  During the conversation where they fight about their sex life, they walk out to the sea, and the camera stays behind, it does not follow them anymore but watches them walk far away, establishing a distance between us and them.  In the very next scene Marie says to Paul “you only love me when there’s a table between us.”   
    As opposed to La Pianiste, the sexual transgressions of Marie are here primarily developed through her interior monologue and the dialogue, and not through the camera’s observation.  Her sexual explorations are framed more as a journey than Erika’s fragmented rituals thanks to this powerful subjective female voice.  And instead of ascribing causation to a cycle of maternal abuse and sacrifice, Marie’s developing masochism is ascribed to her belief in a fundamental divide between love and sex.  As the film progresses, this chasm will be represented by a split between her mind and her body.  In her conversation with a trick she meets at a bar late at night named Paolo, she does not respond when he confides that his girlfriend has died, she only reacts when he states that he has not had sex in four months.  She is not interested in emotion with him but wants to get straight to the physicality.  Later, when she first meets Paolo, whose name is a “foreign” translation of Paul, for sex, they are bathed in warm reddish light, a colour motif that will repeat itself in the scenes with Robert, her employer.
    The effectiveness of the film comes significantly from the editing choices.  After making out with Paolo in a car, Marie runs to work, which a straight cut reveals to be an elementary school classroom where she teaches.  I think many of us are initially surprised by the juxtaposition of casual sex and school teaching, but this is no doubt intentional on Breillat’s part.  She is challenging our internalized assumptions about sexually adventurous women, making it clear that loving sex and being nurturing/maternal are not mutually exclusive, an idea that she will develop to its extreme.  In this scene, she teaches the children the verbs “être” and “avoir,” which mean “to be” and “to have.”  She points out that you can be without having and have without being, which is the underlying philosophy of the film.  Marie’s pleasure comes from dissociating herself from her own existence and becoming an object for others.  One of the ways this manifests itself for Marie is when Paul decides to have sex with her if it will be to procreate, thereby linking in her mind pregnancy not only with sexual pleasure but with loss of subjectivity.
    Marie’s masochism is conceptualized through self-annihilation: “I disappear in proportion to the cock taking me, I hollow myself, that’s my purity.”  In Susan Griffin’s analysis of The Story of O, she sees this archetypal S/M text as an “emblem of pornographic culture” which acts to silence and destroy women (199).  The most abominable aspect of female masochistic narratives to her and other feminist critics is the negation of the self: “Inside this quest we discover only emptiness...To exist fully as a body is to cease to exist as a soul” (195).  This is the essence of Marie’s distinction between être and avoir.  Griffin believes that pornography is responsible for the body/soul - or in Marie’s terms cunt/face - split in women’s minds, and that only consciousness and the search for meaning, which masochistic narratives eliminate, can heal this rift (ibid).  I would argue that artworks do not all have to heal, but that they can represent and critique phenomena - no matter how unpleasant to some - that exist in the world.  I believe that Breillat is trying to respond to feminists who feel as Griffin does that “nonbeing is a fiction which exists only in male experience.  The self itself cannot experience nonbeing...the experience of the loss of self is insanity” (197).  Breillat’s film is working in a tradition of culture-producers who see self-annihilation as a real effect of eros taken to its extreme, and insanity as a subversive escape from our rational slaughterhouse of a world, and she is suggesting that these are as much female experiences, like it or not, as male.  Where as in La Pianiste Erika becomes fragile and vulnerable when she reveals her desires to her love-object, Marie’s desire for self-annihilation grows hungrier the more she expresses them.  Perhaps Erika’s greatest flaw is that she sought sexual satisfaction with someone who loved her, an attempt that fails in Romance, which examines how a patriarchal culture can make love and sex mutually exclusive.
    The next relationship that Marie embarks on is heralded with an almost religious annunciation by the mise-en-scène, a sort of mutation of the skating rink scene in La Pianiste.  In the form of a dictation on the school black board, she writes a text about how dull and ordinary life is in the bleak winter months (the perpetual whiteness of her home with Paul) until the light bursts forth again and spring arrives.  At this moment of joyous renewal, the unassuming school principal, Robert, enters the classroom to request her in his office.  It is immediately apparent that the red-shirted Robert will bring some sort of sinister satisfaction to Marie, as we soon cut to the two in his house, an enormous gothic cavern of dark red furnished interiors, a sensual world completely opposite to Paul’s sterile, institutional modern living.  If Paul’s world of modeling is one of skin, then the homely Robert’s is one of blood.  However, they are both performers, Robert has made his home into a stage, complete with red curtains.  Unlike Paul and Paolo (whom Marie stopped seeing because he was likable), Robert is physically ugly, as well as sexist and conceited.  One manner in which he asserts himself as master in these scenes is through voice.  Unlike the rest of the film, we hardly hear Marie’s voice when she is with him, he has taken over.  While his body is not as classical as Paul’s, Robert still represents male reason and rationality through his speech: he constantly tells her of his sexual conquests, his catalogued memories of sex with thousands of women, including noted celebrities, despite his unattractiveness.  He is like the libertines in Sade, who persistently measure everything and go on long tirades meticulously explaining their own transgressions.  As Linda Williams points out, Marie’s exploratory voice-over is reminiscent of Sade’s practice of philosophy in the bedroom as well (21-2).  Robert’s banality and carefully regimented way of having sex increases her sexual pleasure while there is never a risk of falling in love with him.  He believes that the only way to be loved by a woman is through rape, and that sex is a struggle between beauty and ugliness, the divine and the trivial.  
    He positions himself as the father and mentor, treating her and speaking to her like a child, but also reading to her the text: “As the mother begets the son, the son begets the mother...he purifies her and himself uno acto, he turns the Babylonian Whore into a Virgin.”  While Marie does not become virginal by the end, she does experience a sanctification through the desubjectifying experience of childbirth, and she is impregnated without semen, a “Virgin Mary stunt” as she calls it.  She agrees to be dominated, and the ritual begins.  In Robert’s home we hear non-diegetic music for the first time, and this gets louder as she is tied up.  Like the sex scene with Paolo, this scene’s importance is emphasized by being filmed in a long take, which is rare for Breillat.  This is Marie’s moment of communion, and she breaks down in such a way that it is impossible to separate her feelings of joy and pleasure from her feelings of violation and pain, which is a credit to Caroline Ducey’s brave performance: her experience of “slowly turn[ing] into dead flesh” is the divine that she will now continue seek.  Partly because of its dark chamber atmosphere and partly because of the distaste we feel for Robert and his misogyny, it is very difficult to tell how much time has passed.  The structuring of time is both the effect of Breillat’s and Haneke’s editing practices and a fundamental of masochism.  Deleuze states that “[w]aiting and suspense are essential characteristics of the masochistic experience.”  In La Pianiste, we are constantly held in suspense when Erika is committing her transgressions because we fear that she may be caught.  This is emphasized by the vagina-cutting scene, the broken glass scene, and the sex scenes with Walter being filmed as sequence shots or long takes.  These scenes, often recording painful activities in a graphic way, explore waiting and endurance.  Perhaps the most intensely suspenseful scene in the film is Erika’s (and our) anticipation as she watches Walter read her letter.   In Romance, while Breillat favours elliptical editing that does not make the audience wait, there is a marked contrast between the long take sex scenes, and the telescoping of time that occurs in Breillat’s typical montage style.
    After her scene with Robert, Marie’s voice-over becomes more and more extreme in articulating her feelings of subjection and self-destruction.  She sees her body as an appendage, stating that she feels like lost luggage after she has left Robert’s and Paul isn’t home.  Marie’s breakdown after being anally raped by a stranger (the first thing she yells at him is “I’m not ashamed, asshole!”) clearly contains none of the ambiguous mix of pleasure and pain of her breakdown at Robert’s dungeon.  Like in La Pianiste, the female protagonist emphasizes that masochism is not a desire for rape.  Marie seeks death, but on her own terms: “I want to be opened up all the way, when you can see that the mystique is a load of innards, the woman is dead.”  When she returns home, the TV that Paul constantly watches is playing a show called Love Affair, an ironic comment on her situation with Paul, who expresses only cold indifference towards her.
    Marie conceives her child during an act of domestic violence, where Paul throws her to the floor during sex after she says “I’ll be the man and you be the woman.”  Punishing her with rage and disgust for her suggestion of gender fluidity, Marie’s trading of her baby’s soul for Paul’s at the end of the film is her revenge.  From this point in the film onwards, Breillat overtly makes comparisons between women’s role as mother and sexual masochism or subjection.  For Bataille, birth is inextricable from death, one is both the affirmation and the negation of the other.  He believes that the feelings of horror and shame that birth and death arouse in us are due to our disgust with the generative powers and the decay of nature: “Life is a swelling tumult continuously on the verge of explosion” (59).  The act of childbearing is replete with associations with sexual activity, degradation, violence and taboo: “Is it not itself a rending process, something excessive and outside the orderly course of permitted activity?  Does it not imply the denial of the established order, a denial without which there could be no transition from nothingness to being, or from being to nothingness?” (54).  Childbirth is also a reminder of the eventual necessity of the parents’ death (61).      
    The scenes of Marie in medical environments are presented as much more dehumanizing than her masochistic encounters with Robert.  They are scenes of extreme degradation played out in a sterile room quite similar to Paul’s apartment.  Laid out in this new white room for a gynecological exam, she is mechanically penetrated by a class of medical students’ hands: “I became a case study, a piece of meat, this is what happens when you get pregnant.”  The experience of pregnancy in the medical system increases the disjunction she feels between sex and love, body and mind.  This is most overtly represented when Breillat cuts from a close-up of a cumshot on a woman’s belly to a nurse squirting a similar-looking gel onto Marie’s belly for an ultrasound.  Also, at one point Marie holds up a small mirror to her vagina, and then to her face, stating: “a cunt doesn’t go with a face.”  The effect is as surreal and disturbing as The Rape painting by Magritte, partly because we rarely see the two features isolated and juxtaposed, and also because the entire body and identity of Marie is collapsed into these two parts.  With this statement Breillat is suggesting that the entire history of patriarchal domination of women is responsible for the split that women feel between a cunt and a face, it is an effect of systemic sexual objectification.  The most outrageous and perhaps overly didactic representation of this is Marie’s fantasy of a hellish brothel where women’s top halves are indoors, treated to a pristine white heaven of chaste love and affection, while their bottom halves are outside, protruding from a red-lit hellish fortress where anonymous, dirty men fuck them without a care.  This scene emphasizes that Marie’s struggle is widespread, and not only an individual problem.  She is just one of many women here.  
    According to Barbara Creed, the womb has historically been seen as something monstrous, which due to its generative capabilities mark woman as grotesque (43).  The womb is also abject in that it dissolves the border between inside and outside, self and other (49) which is a stereotypical characteristic of the grotesque feminine that Marie embodies.  Creed sees the popularity of house settings in horror films as representations of the womb, and the overwhelmingly interior locations of both La Pianiste and Romance, as well as their themes of motherhood, would lend support to that claim (55-6).  Creed analyses David Cronenberg’s film The Brood, about a woman with an exterior uterus that produces mutant children who act as their mother’s murderous army (45).  Whether intentionally or not, Breillat is engaging with horror movie narratives such as this of the “woman as monstrous womb” in Romance, where birth is presented both as self-annihilation for the mother and as deadly for the no longer necessary father.  
    Marie’s body is transformed into an entity whose sole purpose is to act as a vessel for her child, and for Marie, this is the greatest gift she could be given.  Procreation is conceptualized as a liberation in Romance, unlike La Pianiste.  Before she gives birth she turns the gas on (note the white stove) at home and Robert picks her up in a white car - which is perhaps signaling the doom that would befall her if she formed a nuclear family with him.  This is only the second scene to have extra-diegetic music, a few seconds of electric guitars.  They go to the hospital, where she is told she must give birth without an epidural.  The first shot of her vagina is quick, and is a graphic match with that of her vagina when Robert is fingering her in their sex scene, thereby connecting the act of childbirth with her first experience of S/M.  The voice-over states “It’s incredible to create life... a woman isn’t one until she’s a mother, nothing before matters.”  This signals that she will be able to start her life over from a position of zero, a state of nothingness that is a form of purity, as Robert’s text had predicted.  
    The editing of the next sequence is perhaps the most symbolically charged in the film.  Marie’s baby is born in an extremely graphic sequence that rivals only Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving, emphasizing once more the grotesque that she claims to enjoy so much.  The baby lets out a cry and Breillat immediately cuts to a short shot of the exterior of Paul’s apartment (with him inside it) exploding, and then she cuts back to a close-up and then a medium shot of Marie in bed with her newborn surrounded by flowers, a private funeral ceremony for the two who survived him.  Robert, who was present at the birth, is no longer around.  Paul had to die in order for Marie to experience pleasure, and this pleasure was represented by Breillat as reaching its pinnacle in the act of childbirth where her “vagina...explode[d], expulsing my baby.”  She sees the sacrificial act of having a baby and naming him for Paul as making up for the fact that she murdered him, which is explained in the final line, addressing whoever keeps track of souls in heaven that her score is now even.  The final scene of the film is noteworthy in that it is the first to prioritize the colour black, only the horses, the baby, and the trim on Marie’s dress are white.  To emphasize how Paul belongs to her past, the objects in the shot are distinctly antique.  This funeral, which Breillat juxtaposes with the birth of the earlier scene, emphasizes Marie’s newfound “purity” and her liberation from Paul’s oppressive ideal of romantic love.
    Contemporary French cinema has many examples of films that explore masochism and submission, notably Breillat’s early works like Une Vraie Jeune Fille and Tapage Nocturne but also the work of Francois Ozon such as Gouttes d’Eau Sur Pierres Brûlantes and Amours Criminels, and of course such classics as Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour.  These narratives provide an opportunity to examine the extremes of human behaviour, and the consistently fascinating interconnections of sex and death.  However, as is evident from Romance and La Pianiste, masochistic characters can also be used to comment critically on the state of humanity in the West.  While I find Haneke’s tone problematic and Breillat’s themes a bit redundant, I believe they, and their actresses, ultimately succeed in these films by refusing to present the masochist protagonist as a knowable object.  Instead, the film itself becomes marked by interesting uses of colour, narration, sound, intertextuality, editing, and diegetic space that add complexity to the representations.  These formal strategies suggest that the masochist cannot be isolated and objectified, but that their very human desires and fantasies are interwoven with the systems, whether it social worlds or filmic texts, that they inhabit.   




Works Cited

Bataille, Georges.  Erotism: Death & Sensuality.  Trans. Mary Dalwood.  San Francisco:     City Lights, 1986.    
Benjamin, Jessica.  The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of         Domination.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.
Combs, Richard.  “Living in Never-Never Land: Michael Haneke Continues the Search         for a New European Cinema.”  Film Comment 38.2 (Mar.-Apr. 2002).  26-8.
Creed, Barbara.  The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis.  London         and New York: Routledge, 1993.
Deleuze, Gilles.  Masochism: An Interpretation of Coldness and Cruelty.  Trans. Jean         McNeil.  New York: G. Braziller, 1971.
Griffin, Susan.  “Sadomasochism and the Erosion of Self: A Critical Reading of Story of         O.”  Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis.  Eds., Robin Ruth         Linden et al.  San Francisco: Frog in the Well, 1982.
Williams, Linda.  “Cinema and the Sex Act.”  Cineaste 27.1 (Dec. 2001).  20-25.





Appendix

In the Village
The dogs are barking, the chains are rattling;
The people are sleeping in their beds,
Dreaming of things they don’t have,
Refreshing themselves in good and bad.

And in the morning all will have vanished.
Oh well, they had their share of pleasure
And hope that what they missed
Can be found again on their pillows.

Drive me out with your barking, you vigilant dogs,
Don’t let me rest when it’s time for slumber.
I am finished with all my dreams.
Why should I linger among the sleepers?

Winterreise / Winter Journey
Music: Franz Schubert, Op. 89 Nr. 1-24, Vienna 1827
Text: Wilhelm Mueller / Translation: Celia Sgroi


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