Les Anges exterminateurs
Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2006

François, a director, wants to make a taboo-breaking movie about female sexuality. This will require the actresses to masturbate and have unsimulated sex with each other on camera. When he explains this to the young women who come in to audition, they are shocked; several of them storm out, and most of the rest turn him down flat. It looks like this project will remain on the drawing board. But then at a café a young woman named Julie recognizes him and begs for a part in his next film. He explains that because of the nature of his project, finding willing actresses is turning out to be impossible.
« Avec moi c'est possible, Julie insists. Je suis sûre c'est possible. » Cut to Julie naked and supine on the bed of a swanky hotel room, enthusiastically jilling herself off in front of the director as part of her screen test.

François soon finds two more prospective actresses willing to prove themselves willing to explore the forbidden, be it by masturbating in a crowded restaurant at François's command or engaging in all-girl threesomes while he chastely does a bit of product placement for Sony. But he soon finds that they want more than to demonstrate for him this Earth thing called splittin' the kitten; they want hugs. Has François crossed any ethical boundaries? And what will happen after he decides not to cast them after all?

When I read or hear something about a movie that makes me want to see it, I add it to my list, and then usually promptly forget why I put it on the list. Then when I see it at the library or someplace I say "Hey, that was on my list for some reason" and give it a try. So when I fired this one up I was not expecting to see what is essentially a series of clips from ifeelmyself.com with a feature film wrapped around it (and, y'know, with French girls instead of Australian ones). I had forgotten that I had added this one after reading a review by Mike D'Angelo that recommended it for its erotical aspects. Apparently I hadn't been feeling particularly picky that day, either, because it turns out that that same review had mocked the movie's entire raison d'être. See, Les Anges exterminateurs is actually a very thinly reworked depiction of true events. Writer/director Jean-Claude Brisseau was convicted in 2005 of sexual harassment (but acquitted of sexual assault) after multiple actresses accused him of forcing them to masturbate in hotel rooms and restaurants as part of the casting process for one of his earlier films; they didn't get the part, and suspected that he was just stringing them along so he could get his jollies. Anges is Brisseau's reply, depicting himself as a lily-white soul whose only crime was wanting to make art exploring the noble topic of female sexuality in a world that prefers films packed with hideous violence. As for the screen tests, why, they were highlights of the actresses' lives! « C'était super ! » « Jamais n'ai senti un plaisir comme ça jusqu'ici ! » And not only did they volunteer — in addition to Julie, there's Stéphanie, a waitress at the fateful restaurant who tracks him down and pleads to participate — but they came up with many of the twists: Stéphanie is the one who demands that François let the other two share in her screen test, for instance. Brisseau does allow that he made mistakes: he should have known that the actresses would find the experience so wonderful that they would fall in love with him and not realize that he only had eyes for his wife and his art. "Mea culpa!" we can almost hear Brisseau cry. "I should have known that I would become a god to my bevy of nubiles! After all, who could resist some fresh-squeezed me?"

As bad as this sounds, the movie is even worse — I haven't yet mentioned the ghost of François's grandmother, or the literal angels of the title (a pair of severe-looking young women in black tank tops who appear and disappear while a clock ticks loudly on the soundtrack). The only thing needed to make this more risible would be an appearance by the Sad Clown of Life. And, uh, it isn't actually all that erotical either. More about that in the next section.

To me, the most interesting thing about Les Anges exterminateurs is that somehow I was bored by a prolonged, explicit scene of three attractive women pleasuring each other, but overjoyed by a relatively tame, four-second shot that made sitting through the previous 85 minutes entirely worthwhile. What's up with that?

First of all, with any erotical cinema there is a non-diegetic element, in that the audience is investing money or at least time in exchange for the opportunity to get a thrill from, not a character, or at least not just a character, but a performer. The best example I can think of to illustrate the distinction is The Gift. I've never seen The Gift. But I've seen that scene from The Gift, um, several times. See, when I saw The Ice Storm back in 1997 I was quite taken by the girl who played Libbets Casey; I looked her up on IMDb after I got home and discovered that she was a girl from Ohio named Katie Holmes who had never been in anything before. Then she got a major part in Dawson's Creek, and while I could never get myself to actually watch Dawson's Creek, the commercials made it pretty clear that Katie was pretty much the cutest thing going. However, everything I'd read about her also made it pretty clear that the chances of her ever doing nudity were basically zero. Then came The Gift. The scene itself is unremarkable: girl takes off her top for a few seconds, during which she gets into a very unarousing scuffle with Greg Kinnear. But the trifecta of the girl being superlatively cute, the staggering unlikelihood of this particular girl ever showing her breasts onscreen, and those breasts turning out to be perfectos y espectaculares made it legendary. This had everything to do with Katie and nothing to do with her character. I don't even know what her character's name was.

Les Anges exterminateurs is therefore not just a story of François filming three prospective actresses (Julie, Charlotte, and Stéphanie) having sex with each other, but a document of Brisseau having filmed three actual actresses (Lise Bellynck, Maroussia Dubreuil, and Marie Allan) having sex with each other. However, I had never heard of any of them, and so the curiosity aspect was missing. For me, at least, the curiosity aspect is paramount. I'd be much more interested in seeing an actress I recognize doff her kit than some random who gets naked immediately — and if you asked me to make a wish list, you'd have to browse through dozens of girls I've known in real life before you got to any actress. (My high school yearbook alone...)

Thus, I would submit that Katie's scene in The Gift would be nowhere near as well-known had it been her first film. On the other hand, if you polled a bunch of Gen-X American males about their favorite nude scenes, I would bet that #1 would be Phoebe Cates's poolside seduction of Judge Reinhold in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and before Fast Times she hadn't done much more than Seventeen covers. But note that this wasn't her first scene in the film! Her character had already been established; there was plenty of time for the dudes in the audience to develop a sudden crush on her before she untied her bikini top. Diegetic concerns come into play here as well. I would contend that there's an even more arresting scene in the same movie, namely the one with Jennifer Jason Leigh in the poolhouse. It's not that I find Jennifer Jason Leigh intrinsically more attractive that Phoebe Cates (I'd say they're right about on par with each other). No, the reasons lie in (!) the actual story. Jennifer Jason Leigh's character, Stacy, is a dewy ninth-grader who has just started experimenting with becoming sexually active; Phoebe Cates's Linda is her been-there-done-that mentor. It's a pretty standard pairing of innocence and experience, and I happen to go for the former. Also, while of course the entire film is fiction, the Phoebe Cates scene is a fiction-within-a-fiction, muting the impact a bit, whereas when Stacy pulls her shirt up over her head in the poolhouse there's a frisson of "holy crow this is really happening!" that is only amplified in retrospect by the awkward denouement with Stacy reclining on the hideous 70s couch. I realize this is a minority opinion. Which is sort of why it's relevant, since I expect that my reaction to Les Anges exterminateurs is unusual as well.

So, on to the one part of Anges that worked for me, and why it did. Early in the film, François goes to interview a girl named Céline, played by an actress named Apolline Louis. Céline is supposed to be a porn actress, but she could hardly look less porny — she looks wholesome and clever, a Gallic geek girl. Julie, Charlotte, and Stéphanie are the stuff of chauvinistic fantasy, passive pawns who do whatever the alpha male asks, and love doing it; Céline is just as much a creature of fantasy, but of a slightly different sort, the sort that wants to believe that a sex worker can be an « intelligente, sincère » Sorbonne student who has shrewdly calculated the merits of working in the porn industry rather than a hopeless crackhead acting out after spending her childhood being molested by her stepfather. Putting this character into the movie, in short, doesn't win Brisseau any enlightenment points, especially as she helpfully lays out one of his self-serving themes: « plus c'est interdit, plus on aime. » But it's still fun to listen to her dissect François, explaining to him as if he were a small child the psychological dynamic of his project and basically predicting the narrative arc of the film. It's even more fun to watch her eyes dart intelligently as she speaks. And when she mocks François for saying « Moi ? » one too many times — « Moi ? Moi, moi ? Qui d'autre ici ! » — she's one step away from auditioning for Pulp Fiction. "Say 'moi' again, motherfucker! SAY 'MOI' AGAIN!" So, to sum up:

  • She is so cute as to zoom right past "cute" and into "adorable"

  • During her scene she establishes herself as bright and quite winning

  • She spends her scene in a fetching black patterned kimono-like thing that makes her look like she's a model taking a break from posing for a life drawing class; coupled with the fact that she is notionally a sex worker, there is the promise that she may lose the robe before the scene is over

  • This doesn't happen

With Céline, then, Les Anges exterminateurs successfully evokes desire. The same cannot be said for the three female leads. First, while they're all reasonably attractive, they're not enough so to evoke wows just by showing their faces the way Céline is. Julie is a little thick and sullen; Charlotte has very nice breasts but is ever so slightly rat-faced; Stéphanie has a bit of a simian edge to her looks. Second, their personalities aren't as appealing as Céline's — too much desperation. And their sex scenes are not a matter of gratifying built-up curiosity, because viewers only have a few moments to get curious before the wocka-chicka starts. This is the modus operandi of porn, and porn just isn't very interesting. Also too porny: the fact that the actresses are not only virtually anonymous to us, but to each other; they don't even get to lock into each other during the sex since there are three of them. It's just so much undifferentiated writhing. Yawn.

Céline, despite being the ostensible porn star, is the one whose appearance in an erotical film is handled properly: she disappears for an hour, long enough to engender disappointment that she won't be participating in the festivities — only for one of the auditioners to wig out and have Céline named as her replacement. Cut to the best four seconds in the movie: Céline stretched out on a bed wearing nothing but her glasses (Dorothy Parker, eat your heart out), then sitting up and demurely pulling a blanket over herself. Magnifique ! Formidable !

The thing is, though, despite all the above narratology-lite analysis of why this shot worked for me when the others didn't, ultimately it's probably all outweighed by the simple fact that Apolline Louis gets my motor running and the others don't, and that's probably idiosyncratic. I'm reminded that Mike D'Angelo, whose review led me to put Anges on my list in the first place, spent several years mooning over Sylvie Testud, and, uh, dude, I saw Jenseits der Stille and know what Sylvie Testud looks like and, uh, wtf. I'm also reminded that Evan Thomas of Time once interviewed John Hinckley and asked him why he went for Jodie Foster of all people and Hinckley replied, "Jodie's got the look I crave. What else can I say?" So that may trump all concerns of craft: Apolline's got the look I crave, and therefore I'm going to shoot Jacques Chirac in order to impress her.

(note to the DGSE — that was a joke)

Return to the Calendar page!