Exterminating Angels

Marie Allan in <em>Exterminating Angels</em>

Well, what did you expect him to call it? Crazy Bitches?

In this erection-inducing but borderline-gynophobic softcore romp, Frederic Van Den Driessche stars as Francois, a director who’s auditioning actresses for a new film that he hopes will penetrate the private realms of female sexual fantasies. Agreeing to a screen-test for Francois means stripping down, pointing your tits in the air, and rubbing your clit (or the clit of the girl next to you) while the director rolls tape. Francois is so virile that he doesn’t even unbutton his jeans and still the girls are making I’ve-never-felt-this-way-before declarations of their intense pleasure, the director’s kindly impassive gaze operating as a surpassingly powerful aphrodisiac. (His wife is concerned that he’s going too far with his experiment, as is, apparently, his dead grandmother, who makes a cameo as a kindly spirit fretting over him. A couple of black-clad spirit women hang around in the shadows of different scenes, seemingly unimpressed by the director’s project.) Francois eventually settles on three actresses who ably pleasure themselves, and one another, for his Handycam — the big rip-roaring climax comes as the trio of nude women take to a single bed and caress each other into a frenzy to the strains of Jean Musy’s feverish, increasingly stentorian score, as Francois watches politely from across the room.

But it’s tough to be the director. The girls grow jealous, concerned that Francois may be considering replacements for the actual film shoot. And after one of them goes completely apeshit on the set, Francois’ life becomes much more complicated. The general thrust of the picture seems to be that sexy young women will try to destroy you, which may seem a rather odd thing to make a movie about unless you’re aware of the actual circumstances surrounding director Jean-Claude Brisseau’s life at the time of its making. In 2005, Brisseau had to defend himself against charges by four actresses who were considered for but not cast in his recent opus, Secret Things, that the “erotic audition” process he employed for that film constituted sexual harassment. (The process depicted in Exterminating Angels seems to hew closely to the events described in court documents, except for the part about the filmmaker allegedly masturbating in front and/or of his actresses, a possibility the film primly dismisses.)

In press notes for the film, Brisseau claims that he had started writing and casting Exterminating Angels before his legal troubles began, and disclaims any one-to-one relationship between characters in the new film and his real-life antagonists. But Exterminating Angels clearly functions as a defensive gesture, depicting its sensitive director as a curious artist and faithful husband whose only undoing is his single-minded dedication to reaching a truthful understanding of female eroticism. (If only he had settled for making a phony sex film, Brisseau seems to suggest, he would have endured less persecution.) As a bold, no-regrets apologia, it’s almost charming in its chutzpah. It insists that we believe in a director so naïve and earnest, so interested only in the fulfillment of the sexual needs of others that he has unwittingly become a serial seducer of women. But what grates is the film’s resolve, when things turn out badly for most everyone involved, to divert blame from the 50something director who holds a psychological advantage over the much younger objects of his demanding gaze.

It’s a shame that the film’s narrative boils down so simplistically and self-servingly, because Brisseau has a potent vision — working in concert with cinematographer Wilfrid Sempé, he stages erotic tableaux with an almost painterly attention to the way light and shadow play across a woman’s body, giving a rippling third dimension to the nude scenes. His sense of composition can be startlingly adroit, as in a scene where Francois has two of his starlets fingering each other in the dark, narrow space next to a door opened onto a well-lit (and increasingly noisy) hotel hallway. The performances he gets from the young women are quite good, even aside from their erotic overtones. And when his sense of humor is engaged, as in the quick-cut scene where he’s turned down by a succession of sweet young things who seem as amused as they are mortified by his come-ons, it’s a refreshing change of tone in a film that otherwise seems to take itself pretty seriously. The somewhat patronizing depiction of Woman as an irrational, avenging other doesn’t intrude on the astonishing efficacy of its sexual set pieces — this vigorous approach, applied to a less risibly self-conscious project, could rescue big-screen sensuality from its current aesthetic ghetto. C+

Exterminating Angels has been chosen to open this year’s Film Comment Selects series this week at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City. Following those screenings, it opens March 7 at the IFC Center — and, because it’s an IFC First Take release, it should be available at the same time via the on-demand cable channel IFC In Theaters. While I can see that there are some, ahem, obvious advantages to watching this sort of thing in the privacy of your own home, I’d imagine the weird majesty of the whole endeavor will be reduced somewhat when it’s screened on television. In other words, if this sounds interesting to you, it’s worth trying to catch on a real screen.

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