– review – review

Exterminating Angels (Les Anges Exterminateurs) (2006)


Directed and written by Jean-Claude Brisseau

In December of 2005, former school teacher, now writer-director Jean-Claude Brisseau was convicted of sexual harassment, given a one-year suspended prison sentence, and fined 15,000 euros. Two actresses who auditioned for but did not get parts in Brisseau’s 2002 Secret Things accused him of pressuring them to masturbate during camera tests for the movie. These tests apparently took place over the course of several years with Brisseau insisting on the explicit acts to confirm he had the rights actresses. He was probably lucky to escape the charges of sexual assault and fraud. The court said, “The erotic tests … were not meant only to judge the capacity of the actresses to play the role … but also to satisfy the sexual impulses of the director.”

Now Brisseau has made a film out of the ordeal. One wonders if the title, a plural derivative from Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, stands for how the scenario made Brisseau feel – like he was trapped in a room full of savage bourgeoisie. A more likely interpretation is that the angels of the title are simply the women in Brisseau’s movie. Two of them (Raphaële Godin and Margaret Zenou) play actual fallen angels who seem to manipulate the material world against filmmaker François (Frédéric van den Driessche), Brisseau’s stand-in.

François is out to discover how and why taboo sexual behavior is a turn on and wants to make a movie about it. He interviews many reluctant women while rejecting porn stars like Céline (Apolline Louis) who he thinks are too well versed in sex. Ultimately, he finds only three – Julie (Lise Bellynck), Charlotte (Maroussia Dubreuil), and Stéphanie (Marie Allan) – who have the courage to throw themselves into the project fully uninhibited. The nubile actresses masturbate in front of him or engage in a lesbian ménage a trios. He tries to push them by making them arouse each other under the table at a restaurant or have two nudes try to orgasm in front of an open hotel room door.

Anyone who’s seen previous Brisseau will be familiar with the kind of perversity he enjoys in his films. He’s like an artier version of pornographer Andrew Blake using more refined-looking actresses and better lighting. Not as awkward as real porn, Brisseau’s sexual choreography is no less fantastic or stagy.

It’s hard not to take what’s on screen as being anything other than Brisseau giving the middle finger to the actresses who sued him. Not only does the film imply that the women should have taken these masturbation sessions as strictly impersonal business; not only does the film claim these women leapt into their roles as taboo-breaking provocateurs enthusiastically and this released them from their inhibitions (yes, there is a contradiction there); not only does the film insinuate that two of the girls are practically insane; not only does the film say the director’s essential innocence and naiveté made these actresses fall madly in love with him; to add insult to injury, Brisseau found actresses who did it for him all over again.

The only time Exterminating Angels indicates that François is even turned on is when he returns home after a hard day at work (pun intended) and responsibly makes love to his wife instead of engaging in an orgy with his young worshippers. Even the radiant ghost of François’s grandmother (Jeanne Cellard) appears to plead for his well-being. If the movie was meant to render sympathy to Brisseau, it only reinforces how monstrously repugnant he is. The audacity to suggest his complete innocence makes the whole thing seem like black comedy, only the core sentiment is not funny.

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Beverly Berning has recently begun her fourth career as a high school teacher of French and Italian, but her love of film remains steadfast. A former film student who aspired to be just like her idols Woody Allen, Erik Rohmer and Charlie Kaufman, she has been writing reviews for Culturevulture since 2006.