Leave it to the French to take the joy back out of sex. The high-minded erotic drama "Exterminating Angels" has heat but little light; it speaks of pleasure while treating it as a dirty word. The cast huffs and puffs but the exercise, sadly, remains academic.
It's still a pretty effective date movie, preferably with someone you've already seen naked. As written and directed by Jean-Claude Brisseau, "Exterminating Angels" concerns the efforts of a handsome middle-aged filmmaker named François (Frédéric van den Driessche) to capture female bliss on celluloid while maintaining his aesthetic distance.
This is a foolhardy notion at worst, at best a way to get one's rocks off while calling it auteurism, and, to his credit, Brisseau has a notion of how pompous his hero is. There's a farce here that's just under the surface, referred to but rarely seen.
François auditions a number of actresses, all unbearably lissome, and explains he's at a loss as to why sex on film is so often accompanied by violence. Can the human mystery, revealed at the moment of orgasm, register on film? Would it help, ma'am, if I asked you to pleasure yourself under this restaurant table?
After a montage of women saying "non," François finds three who say "oui": Julie (Lise Bellynck), a blond hoyden who does things with a large glass marble I can't describe in a family paper; Charlotte (Maroussia Dubreuil), who's emotionally built on sand and is partial to father figures; and Stéphanie (Marie Allan), a waitress more into giving orders than taking them. The three intermingle limbs, lips, and other parts while François watches somberly and occasionally films, resisting their invitations to join in. He wants to maintain his objectivity. That's what he calls it, at least.
François's long-suffering wife (Sophie Bonnet) warns him he's playing with fire -- and he is -- but not once does she call him on the most obvious part of this whole deal: That for all the aesthetic foofaraw, he's rearranging classic male fantasies to suit himself. Is Brisseau reinforcing the patriarchal gaze under the guise of feminist taboo-busting? Maybe. Certain guy friends of mine would just call it girl-on-girl action.
Not that there's anything wrong with that, and "Angels" is occasionally as erotic as it thinks it is. To remind us he has a higher calling, though, Brisseau throws in surrealist sound-bites on the soundtrack and gives us two "fallen angels" (Raphaële Godin and Margaret Zenou) who whisper in the cast's ears while remaining invisible. They're babes, of course -- extras from a Robert Palmer video who've wandered into a "Wings of Desire" knock-off.
So "Angels" is porn with dialectics, subtitles, and better lighting: middlebrow intellectual trappings that sit atop the kink like a hat on a hooker. Brisseau's 2002 "Secret Things" was less of the same; after filming it, the director was arrested and charged with sexually harassing actresses during auditions. (He was fined and received a suspended one-year sentence.)
That experience informs "Exterminating Angels" without illuminating it: The movie presents François as a gentle aesthetic fool victimized by predatory women. For all their pretentiousness, the films of Catherine Breillat ("Fat Girl," "Anatomy of Hell") dig deeper into the dirt of sexual representation on film than Brisseau does here, and without the rationalizing. His film's subject -- the eternal disconnect between mind and body -- is its biggest flaw.