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He likes to watch, but will audience?

Instead of examining female sexuality and desire, symbolic `Exterminating Angels' ends up just ogling.

April 13, 2007|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

Rather than "fade in," the screenplay for French filmmaker Jean-Claude Brisseau's symbol-laden erotic drama, "Exterminating Angels," could very well have begun with, "Dear Penthouse ... "

Though the film expresses a kinship to Luis Bunuel, Federico Fellini and Jean-Luc Godard and carries a certain degree of high-mindedness, its scenario of an artsy filmmaker obsessed with the subject of female arousal provides plenty of opportunity for male fantasy fulfillment. Frederic Van Den Driessche plays Francois, a handsome, middle-aged director, preparing an experimental film in which he will explore the ways women achieve orgasm.

Brisseau's film opens with Francois awakening from a dream thinking that he needs to visit his grandmother, until his wife, Nathalie (Sophie Bonnet), reminds him that she's been dead for 10 years. The old woman's ghost then appears, warning Francois that he is about to enter dangerous territory. Two other apparitions, unseen by Francois and looking like they stepped out of a Robert Palmer music video, circa 1985, sans lip gloss, hover nearby, apparently holding the director's fate in their hands.

In his office, Francois interviews young, nubile actresses, assessing their willingness to engage in various sexual acts on-camera. Those that are up to the challenge then go with him to a hotel where he videotapes them pleasuring themselves. Francois' gaze, which is more professorial detachment than unabashed leer, is crucial to the process because it is the women's relationship to him -- their desire to please and/or manipulate -- that propels the film.

Brisseau, who directed the strident and sexy 2002 film "Secret Things," shares Francois's predilection for filming the erotic. Riffing off a legal entanglement that ensued following the earlier film, he seems to take delight in the self-reflective nature of the material. While Francois remains relatively unmoved by the women's self-ministrations, holding himself to a strict hands-off policy, Brisseau lets his camera ogle them uninhibitedly.

As Francois assembles his cast, he begins pairing them to judge chemistry and test how far each is willing to go with another woman. The unstable Charlotte (Maroussia Dubreuil) and the submissive Julie (Lise Bellynck) immediately take a liking to each other, and Francois pushes them to engage in increasingly transgressive acts. Complications ensue when Stephanie (Marie Allan) enters their menage.

The sex is fairly explicit, and Brisseau surrounds those scenes with a lot of psychosexual and philosophical discussion of the nature of the orgasm. An air of foreboding develops as Francois appears to be sliding further down a rabbit hole. The film maintains its narrative hold as long as there is a question of who exactly is exploiting whom.

Brisseau calculatedly offsets the silliness of the surreal elements and the earnestness applied to the sex by savoring the overall absurdity. The film -- buoyed by its cast of excellent actors -- loses its momentum in the final half-hour when it starts to take itself too seriously. With all the theoretical and practical application of ideas toward the questions about female desire, Brisseau finally seems more interested in the price paid for pursuing unattainable knowledge.

"Exterminating Angels." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500.

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