Jean-Claude Brisseau either makes the smuttiest art films in contemporary world cinema, or the artiest smut films. Just like his 2002 creep-out Secret Things—which recorded the constantly shifting power in sexual and commercial relationships—his new Exterminating Angels devotes much of its screen time to lithe, naked women masturbating, alone and in groups. The rest of the movie mostly shows those same women talking dispassionately about what turns them on, and how they feel about their sexuality.
It's tempting to overpraise artists like Brisseau, who dare to appeal directly to the audience's purest, least controllable emotions. But while Exterminating Angels is undeniably arousing, Brisseau ritually drains the blood out with his "cool down" scenes. This film is mostly an intellectual exercise. It's about a filmmaker—played by Frédéric Van Den Driessche—who auditions actresses by urging them to rub themselves to orgasm while his camera rolls. He insists that he has no interest in making pornography, or hiring porn stars. He just wants to capture the look of real pleasure that overtakes the faces of real women when they abandon their inhibitions.
So Exterminating Angels is mostly a movie about itself, with an added layer of biography that Brisseau has actively tried to deny. In real life, Brisseau was sued by an actress who auditioned for Secret Things—putting on the auto-erotic sex show that Brisseau demanded—and later felt psychologically assaulted. The title of Exterminating Angels is a nod to pop surrealist Luis Buñuel, but it also refers to two ethereal spirits—women, of course—who shadow Driessche, whispering suggestions and generally getting him into trouble. Their presence in the movie can either be read as Brisseau's excuse for questionable professional behavior, or, given what happens to Driessche in the story, his way of sticking his fictionalized self with some cosmic retribution.
The problem with Exterminating Angels is that its explanatory side overwhelms its playfully perverse side. Brisseau has his female characters deliver speeches to Driessche along the lines of, "I don't want to become self-absorbed like other actresses," and "I appreciate how you listen to me." Even the ghost of Driessche's grandmother apprears, to warn the director against carrying on his experiments, saying he's on the verge of unleashing "the infernal machine" of female desire. Maybe—just maybe—all the "hey it's not your fault" voices are another version of the movie's exterminating angels, urging Brisseau on to inadvertent malice. Or maybe Brisseau's doing with this movie what he asks actresses to do for him.