How Do You Know If Your Desires Are Wrong?

Alice had slept with Celine because she was famous, because she was sexy, because she wasn’t that famous, because she wasn’t conventionally sexy. Because she was twenty years older. Because she could see the girl in her. She slept with Celine because it was absolutely forbidden. She slept with Celine because it was suddenly possible. Because Celine was there, because she had come, because Sadie had sent her. Because Alice did not know why.

Sarah Blakely-Cartwright’s recent novel Alice Sadie Celine has a porn premise without the sex. Alice is a struggling actress whose best friend’s mom, Celine, comes to see her in a play. She returns again the next night. On the third night, Celine seduces Alice and the two begin an illicit affair.

There are brief moments throughout the book that Blakely-Cartwright lets us into the pleasure of this connection, but, for the most part, the book skips past the sex like a PG-13 movie. It is all the complications of sex, all the consequences of the taboo, without even trying to convince the reader it might be worth it. Because, it seems, it was not.

It’s easy enough to understand why Celine seduces beautiful, young actress Alice. It’s less clear why Alice is seduced. We can psychoanalyze the character and say it’s because she felt insecure in her talent and wanted the validation of someone she respects. We can guess she felt lonely in her new city and was drawn to the comfort of familiarity. We can see the ways she was lost in her 20-something ennui and doing something, anything, felt better than being stuck. But as the narrator and Alice herself make these same hypotheses, the reason begins to feel simpler. Alice had a desire. And desire is not always logical.

By chance, I read this book in the gaps between screenings of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s recent series Carnal Knowledge: The Films of Catherine Breillat. On the page, desire was inscrutable. On the screen, even moreso. This controversial French filmmaker has an oeuvre centered around the ways women are often betrayed by their own urges.

Unlike Alice Sadie Celine, Breillat’s films have never shied away from showing sex. But, like this novel, she’s far more interested in feelings and repercussions than eroticism. Even when dealing with more sinister taboos than fucking your friend’s mom, Breillat lingers on sexual situations, forcing the viewer to sit in the discomfort and the vague boundaries between desire and repulsion. Her work is often named among the New French Extremity Movement alongside filmmakers like Gaspar Noé and Alexandre Aja, but she stands apart. For one, she began pushing these boundaries with her first film, A Real Young Girl, in 1976, nearly a quarter of a century before. And, while many of these other films seem to relish in their shock, Breillat presents her cruel world with the fury of truth. Her commitment to the harsh realities of sex and desire amid patriarchy holds the weight of burden. She is not filmmaker as malevolent God — she is filmmaker as pained oracle.

A Real Young Girl, her second film 36 Fillette, and, arguably her masterpiece, Fat Girl, focus on girls aged 12 to 15, as they stumble through sexual exploration. The protagonists of all three films yearn to be more mature, to explore their hormonal bodies, to keep up with the pressures of friends, siblings, and society. There is nothing wrong with the desires of these characters — there is something wrong with how adults take advantage of them.

In 36 Fillette, Lili is a 14-year-old on vacation with her family who wants to lose her virginity. While out with her brother, she meets Maurice, a much older man who dismisses her as a kid despite continuing to flirt with her. Breillat doesn’t simplify the story by presenting Maurice as immediately predatory. She doesn’t argue with a Humbert Humber framing and, indeed, does have Lili pursue Maurice. Over and over, the film shows that, of course, it doesn’t matter. It’s perfectly natural for a kid to have desires for an adult. It’s the job of the adult to not even entertain the possibility.

Throughout the film, Lili keeps approaching Maurice. He flirts, he propositions her, she panics and flees — or tries to flee. The first time this happens, it’s a relief. She’s gotten away. But then she returns to him and it starts again. Each time their physical relationship goes further. Breillat shows how Lili wants this and — at the same time — does not want it. When she first goes back to his hotel room, she says, “I shouldn’t have come here, but at least I’ll know.”

Despite its short runtime, 36 Fillette is a difficult and arduous watch. And, yet, Breillat ends on a smile. After Lili loses her virginity — to a man who is more age appropriate but who she likes even less than Maurice — she smiles. Even though the sex was obviously bad, even though afterward there was anger and cruelty, Lili still smiles.

With 36 Fillette and Breillat’s other films centered on young girls, the confused desires can be explained by age. Most kids want things when first discovering their sexuality that would be harmful if actually received. Even in these films’ complexity, there’s a neatness to this explanation that makes 36 Fillette and Fat Girl Breillat’s most perfect films. But her other work, focused on the confused desires of adults, is often more fascinating in its challenges.

Several of Breillat’s films have sexual exploration in their loglines. Nocturnal Uproar is about a filmmaker exploring her sexuality. Romance is about a school teacher exploring her sexuality. Even Perfect Love, which more specifically focuses on the slow boil of an abusive relationship, focuses on how sexuality and desire intersect with abuse. “I like sex, but I hate myself,” the protagonist of that film says in an attempt to explain her confused desires.

Of these films, Romance is the crowning achievement. However, the most puzzling and most rewarding is Anatomy of Hell. With a tone and abstraction in line with her later fairy tale adaptations, this 2004 film begins with a straight woman attempting suicide at a gay club. She’s saved by a gay man and — after giving him head — propositions him to watch her over a series of evenings in exchange for money.

The man agrees, but when he arrives at her distant home, his energy is reluctant and even hostile. The woman matches his hostility and pairs it with entitlement. It’s unclear exactly what she wants. Does she even know? He reminds her that he’s only agreed to watch, but soon enough she’s urging him to come closer, to touch her, to fuck her. Or, maybe, he is compelled to do this himself.

Anatomy of Hell has been accused by many of being homophobic. Breillat’s film seems to hold a simplicity where all women are victims of misogyny and all men are perpetrators. To be a man who does not even want to have sex with women is the ultimate manifestation of this hatred. But this read is too easy. Reducing this film to the woman’s feminist monologues is the sicko version of reducing Barbie to that one speech. There is so much texture — in form, in performance — surrounding the film’s explicit statements about misogyny that deepen and complicate its message. I believe the woman exclusively blames men for patriarchy and wants to punish this gay man through sex. The film itself does not.

If Breillat’s previous work questioned how women can understand and trust their desires amid patriarchy, Anatomy of Hell seems to broaden that question to include all people. We want to hurt, we want to feel, we want to suffer, we want to come, we want to touch, we want to fuck — or be fucked by — who or what we should not want to fuck. This is a film where a woman makes a cocktail out of her bloody tampon and has a gay man drink it, so I’m not saying Breillat can be entirely justified for her gender essentialism. But I do think, like any truly great artist, Breillat leaves room in her expression for the truth that her truth may not be the whole truth.

With her latest film, Last Summer — her first in ten years — this seems to be confirmed. For the first time, it is not men who are predatory but the woman at its center. Even in Anatomy of Hell, the woman’s desires appear to hurt herself more than anyone, and, in most of her other films, this is even more obvious. But in Last Summer, its female protagonist’s desires hurt someone else. The film is about a lawyer who defends survivors of sexual abuse who herself becomes a perpetrator when she begins an “affair” with her 15 year old stepson.

It’s a natural evolution for Catherine Breillat. She has fractured her interests in two — the confused desires of women here become the cause of the sexual abuse experienced by teenagers. And, with the gender swap, she emphasizes how tied these desires are to power and control. In 36 Fillette, we may view Maurice as simply horny and unethical because we are taught to view men as sexually hungry to their detriment and the detriment of women. But Maurice is just as desperate for power and control as the protagonist of Last Summer. We learn enough about him to observe this — we see the ways he’s frustrated by his age and the rejection he experiences from other women. With Last Summer, Breillat explicitly acknowledges that these feelings are not gendered. We live in patriarchy and, therefore, predatory men are more common, but anyone can act on errant desires born from their personal miseries.

When someone’s desires hurt people, we search for explanations. But all of our desires — harmful to others, harmful to ourselves, not harmful at all, beautiful, life-changing, rapturous — hold these same conflicting contexts. We are all impacted by patriarchy and homophobia and every other archy, phobia, and ism. We are all impacted by our families and our cultures and our childhoods and the lives we lead. The one true origin of desire is impossible to know, because there is rarely if ever just one. All we can do is try to do right by ourselves and try to do right by others, as we explore the urges in our brains and bodies. Almost all of us will at some point fall short of these goals — hopefully not too severely — because we are imperfect people in an imperfect world.

The dual mirrors reflected dozens of themselves. Such was Celine’s bottomless ego. It was in that instant, seeing herself folded in with Celine, shone back, redirected, reproduced in infinite multiples, that Alice understood she would stay. That Celine would have whatever she wanted.

Wishing she had any idea what she wanted—she must have wanted this, if she was here; if she hadn’t wanted it and had done it anyway, what hideous light did that reflect on her?—Alice left Celine contemplating her tufty hair in bed…

“What are we doing?” Alice turned to ask, catching sight of herself, disheveled in the mirrors. Suddenly feeling she had no right to be there, let alone for tens of her to. She slouched to make herself small. “Are we insane?”

Last Summer is now playing in theatres. Fat Girl is streaming on The Criterion Channel. New restorations of Catherine Breillat’s other work will soon be available to stream. 

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 566 articles for us.


    • I thought about it and it’s something I’ve grappled with as a fan of the years. Ultimately, I decided to keep the focus on the work for a few reasons.

      The quotes in the Deadline article were from a podcast that was quickly pulled, translated from French. Since I’m unable to verify it (nor understand how she felt after it was released and in the years since) I feel inclined to lead in good faith. I’m certain with even the most generous read, I disagree adamantly with Breillat on a lot. But in a film world where so many men who are themselves abusive continue to work and be celebrated, I’m reluctant to fixate on a series of statements — some valid, some very much not — said in an abrasive manner. Maybe I’m wrong! Tbh I’m always waffling on how we deal with artists who are abusive or excuse abuse.

      As for the Romance interviews, I think I have to allow the possibility that what someone said 25 years ago might not be representative of how they feel now. Maybe I’m making excuses or being too generous.

      • I definitely understand your point about the podcast being pulled. Breillat is hardly afraid to voice her opinions, so perhaps the fact she withdrew the podcast shows some regret.

        • But did you read the Romance links? I’m sorry for linking 2, the IndieWire one is the one I wanted but couldn’t find at first.
          The IndieWire article is from 2022, Ducey and Breillat were both interviewed for it. Ducey spoke foe the first time about filming the rape scene in Romance. She said that she didn’t think there would be real penetration. (She pushed the actor off and they reshot the scene simulated).
          Breillat says the original script said there would be, and that Ducey should’ve known, as Romance was very openly the first European film w real sex scenes.
          Ducey says she asked Breillat to discuss the scenes w her, but Breillat refused, saying they ‘didn’t concern’ Ducey. Ducey then says Breillat later apologised, and ‘forgave her. Breillat says that Ducey is provs traumatised bc the emotions of the rape scene felt real, not bc it initially wasn’t simulated.
          I want to believe it was a horrible misunderstanding on both sides, but it does seem disturbing Breillat refused to discuss the scenes. She says she didn’t realise how vulnerable Ducey was. It also feels, to say the least, uncomfortable, that she kept shooting the film, including the sex scenes, while Ducey became increasingly distressed.
          I stress I’m not against Breillat’s work : Ducey herself values Romance highly. She was then thinking of writing a book: if she does, it would be interesting to read.

  1. Whatever y’all are linking to Breillat doesn’t matter she’s known for being controversial that’s what attracts me to her work but honestly doesn’t seem easy to work with I mean shit even Isabelle Huppert and her briefly beefed I always side with my bella

  2. I need to try some more Breillat, I’ve only seen Last Summer. Realised a little way in that it is a remake of a Danish film I’d watched not that long before. Meant the film was a big disappointment for me, saying little the original hadn’t already, but I can see it might be an interesting choice when set against the rest of her filmography.

    • It’s not ‘whatever’, Bellaciao. If you read the Indiewire link, I hope you wouldn’t still say it ‘doesn’t matter’ and is just ‘controversial’. In 2022 Ducey spoke about Breillat’s treatment of her during Romance, in particular the filming of the rape scene. She said she thought it would be simulated, & was v upset when, on Breillat’s instruction, the first take wasn’t. Breillat stopped and reshot.

      The issue is : was it a misunderstanding, or did Breillat mislead Ducey intentionally? Breillat said in 2022 that the shooting script was explicit that all the sex scenes would be real. There is some ambiguity as Ducey says the scenes w Rocco Siffredi didn’t have full penetration, but he says they did.
      Unquestionably, though, it is disturbing that, according to Ducey, she asked to discuss the sex scenes w Breillat, and Breillat refused, saying ‘it didn’t concern’ Ducey.
      It’s also at the v least questionable that Breillat kept shooting the film as, by both accounts, Ducey got more and more distressed. Ducey says the trauma means she now finds it hard to be directed. Breillat puts the trauma down to Ducey using real emotions to act, including the rape scene. Ducey values the film, and so do I, but I don’t think the existence of numerous abusive men means we shouldn’t discuss talented female creators’ abusive behaviour.

  3. I keep coming back to the sentence early on where you describe Alice Sadie Celine as having a “porn premise”. Why does an adult woman having an affair with her friend’s mother automatically qualify as a “porn premise”? Why is porn the immediate association for you here? It’s troubling to me that sexuality between women is viewed with such a capitalistic (PornHub had a revenue of $455 million last year) and misogynistic lens. Porn clearly rots your brain if this is anything to go by.

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