Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Exterminating Angels is the filmmaker’s version of Sex Is Comedy, though it could just as easily have been called Anatomy of Hell. This is not to say that the pervy French director, whose Secret Things was a delirious mix of sexual primitivism and modern gender politics, feels the need to reprimand audiences for their pleasure. Elegantly crude and surprisingly confessional, the film stars Frédéric Van Den Driessche as François, a director whose upcoming project aims for “sensual tension with poetry and suspense.” François looks for women without qualms about exploring their sexual agency and breaking taboos, and his tests consist of recording his actresses rubbing and lapping each others clits and reaching orgasm in hotel rooms, their arched bodies craving for attention. The director does not involve himself physically with his actresses but their rehearsals are not without repercussions.
A sober surrealist, Brisseau is charting terrain that has been of similar interest to both Catherine Breillat and David Lynch—only he shuns the sometimes repellent intellectualism of the former and the exhilarating visual pretenses of the latter. Like Lynch’s films, Exterminating Angels rattles and hums with metaphysical interruptions. Ghosts and angels make their appearances, unseen to everyone except for the audience, plotting interference and pointing to François’s shame about what he may be doing to his women. A man, the Devil perhaps, narrates with chatter about a great blue desert and calls to order, multiple references to “three times” suggesting that François’s search for the perfect actresses isn’t so much a matter of casting as it is a matter of life and death. In the film’s standout sequence, he takes two potential stars of his movie to dinner, where the women begin to touch each other. Nothing is ever one thing in Exterminating Angels, and what starts as an improvisational exercise becomes something almost mystical when the secret things that go on beneath the dinner table catch the attention of the restaurant’s hostess. François and his women are not just testing moral waters, they’re also building an army.
Brisseau understands that what he does for a living, not just as a filmmaker but as an artist who explicitly and provocatively grapples with the politics of sex, is risky business. The sex scenes in Exterminating Angels are titillating through and through, but at what point must all this looking and pleasure take on moral responsibility? For François, his mistake is thinking that the permissiveness of his actresses means that they are without emotion, and when he shortchanges their feelings, they turn against him. Fiercely commenting on its own self, Exterminating Angels is notable not only for the way pert bushes peek out between long and slender legs but also for asking complex questions without easy answers. This is what gives Brisseau’s movies their unique splendor, but it is also what makes them intimidating. François’s creative process, like Brisseau’s, is hot-wired to his spiritual essence, and sparks fly dangerously between the two dominions before the film falls into an unknown black abyss.