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The Exterminating Angels

Rap-beating French director Jean-Claude Brisseau gets off.

Anyone who doubts that moviemaking is an essentially masturbatory endeavor would do well to come -- preferably alone -- to Jean-Claude Brisseau's The Exterminating Angels. Women may often have the upper hand in this red-hot fantasy of distaff diddling, but the middle-aged French auteur -- a former schoolteacher, believe it or not -- appears to be in business largely to service himself.

As Gallic film devotees are well aware, the writer-director was found guilty in 2005 of sexually harassing a pair of young actresses who had been persuaded to masturbate while auditioning for parts in Secret Things, his film about female pleasure and transgressing taboos. Brisseau received a stiff fine, but a one-year prison sentence was suspended, and the bulk of charges against him were dropped. In other words, he got off. Around the same time, Brisseau was putting the finishing touches, so to speak, on The Exterminating Angels, in which a writer-director is accused of...um, sexually harassing a pair of young actresses who had been persuaded to masturbate while auditioning for parts in his film about "female pleasure and transgressing taboos." Some of the incidents have no doubt been changed by Brisseau to protect one member or another of the ménage. But the movie hardly skimps on the sex. This is risible material in more ways than one.

Hilarious from the get-go, Angels begins by suggesting that its emotionally abusive filmmaker was himself the victim of sexual entrapment -- snared by two extremely hot young apparitions in tight black tank tops. (Disclosureonly hinted at the phenomenon of the wanton harassment of men by bitchy wraiths.) Visible only to themselves and us, these fallen angels (Raphaële Godin and Margaret Zenou) find the unhappily married François (Frédéric van den Driessche) in his Paris bedroom late one night and begin to strategize his slow humiliation at the hands of mortal females -- the sort of work they've apparently done before.

"This one will be too easy," boasts the more aggressive of the pair.

Indeed, a bevy of babes, at least one of them acting on instructions whispered to her by Angel No. 1, soon head in rapid succession to the auteur's casting couch, confessing their erotic secrets and making him uncomfortably hot. François never lays a finger on the women (that'll be his defense), instead compelling two of the most eager actresses, Julie (Lise Bellynck) and Charlotte (Maroussia Dubreuil), to finger themselves (and each other) most memorably in a crowded restaurant where even a busy waitress (Marie Allan) takes notice -- and gets turned on.

This is one audaciously, endearingly ludicrous movie. Indeed, not since Basic Instinct has a modern noir gotten so playfully aroused by straight-male sexual phobia -- the twist in this case being that the maker of the film has firsthand knowledge of the subject. "I realized that sex is quasi-virgin territory," Brisseau gushes in the press kit, verily spilling innuendo. "I wanted to dive into it."

Casually reaping the benefits of his celebrity, François is an immediately unreliable protagonist -- his collar open far too wide, hair arrogantly unkempt, reading glasses hung from a string around his neck. (He's like a sixty-year-old version of the smug shooter in Antonioni's Blow Up.) The more assertive his auditioning actress is about achieving pleasure, the more François stiffens -- defensively, that is. Angels reads like a guilt-ridden perp's absurd exoneration of himself, but it plays more like a confession. Consciously or not, Brisseau makes the women more sympathetic by far than his passively coercive, believably creepy alter ego.

There's even a sense in which the titular avengers take over direction of the movie, one of the angels calling for a suitably punitive "final act." Brisseau may imagine himself an emasculated martyr for the cause of sexual liberation in le cinéma, but somehow the women in his distinctly male fantasy manage to have the last laugh. The key line belongs to crazy Charlotte, lounging in post-orgasmic bliss after a typically steamy screen test: "We work and come at the same time!"

 
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