By Sophie Lewis


Catherine Breillat’s sexual anatomy lesson appears for the first time in English

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.

Pornocracy by Catherine Breillat is translated by Paul Buck and Catherine Petit, published by Semiotext(e) and distributed by MIT Press.

Sophie Lewis is a freelance writer and translator from French. Her translation of Stendhal's On Love will be published by Hesperus Press in February 2009. She is also manager of Dalkey Archive Press in the UK and Europe.