Writer-director Catherine Breillat’s new film Sex Is Comedy bases its premise on the shooting of a sex scene from Breillat’s last film A Ma Soeur!/Fat Girl (2001), and casts Anne Parillaud in the role of Jeanne, director of the film-within-the-film and a thinly disguised version of Breillat herself. It’s as though she were compiling DVD extras for A Ma Soeur! and became so hooked on the "making-of" documentary that she turned it into a feature – similar to the way in which screenwriter Charlie Kaufman spun a whole new movie, Adaptation (2002), from the problem of how to write the follow-up to Being John Malkovich (1999). It’s unclear, though, to what extent Sex Is Comedy asks to be viewed as an insider’s account of the making of A Ma Soeur!, or a movie in its own right.

The sex scene in question occurs about a quarter of the way into A Ma Soeur! Elena (Roxane Mesquida) is a fifteen-year-old girl on holiday with her parents and her younger sister (Anais Reboux), and she has met an older Italian student, Fernando (Libero De Rienzo). In her room (which she is sharing with her sister), he tries to persuade her to have sex with him, but she is hesitant about giving up her virginity to a guy whom she doesn’t know too well. The scene lasts for a long time, as the camera soberly observes his smooth-talking seduction, her tormented confusion, and, discreetly, the act itself. In Sex Is Comedy, Mesquida reprises her role – or rather, plays herself (or a fictionalised version of herself) acting the part of Elena. De Rienzo, however, does not appear; instead, he’s represented by Grégoire Colin, who was the long-lost son in Agnieszka Holland’s Olivier, Olivier (1992).

For Breillat enthusiasts, following her career from early works like Une Vraie Jeune Fille/A Real Young Girl (1976) and 36 Fillette/Virgin (1988) through the censor-baiting Romance (1999), with its hardcore detail, up to A Ma Soeur!‘s understated views on mid-teen sex and character rivalry, Sex Is Comedy might come across as rather prosaic.

Whereas in A Ma Soeur, the plain camera angles and naturalistic gestures of the characters served as a accompaniment to the raging emotions – with the sex scene itself a highlight of the film – here such an approach is rather flat and ungiving. It does make a nice change to see a film set portrayed without the clichéd embellishments which would give it a ‘backstage drama’ feel, but the title is, I think, meant to be taken fairly literally, and given that, the film is not as funny or as complex as it thinks it is, or as it needs to be.

The performances, though, command the attention: Parillaud, who never consolidated the stardom that seemed to beckon after she played the title role in La Femme Nikita (1990), is an engaging lead here, conveying an inner control that belies Jeanne’s stressed surface. Colin is tensely suspicious of Jeanne, perhaps because, as a man, he is being filmed naked by a woman, and because he seems unsure as to whether the huge prosthetic erection he is required to wear enhances or detracts from his masculinity. Mesquida is a fairly remote presence, a beautiful girl whose job in front of the camera is largely that: to be beautiful; and she therefore exhibits a great vulnerability which goes a long way towards suggesting that, in portrayals of sex and desire, the secret lies as much in the casting as in the talent of the performer.

Sex Is Comedy is watchable, then; it’s just a bit disappointing that Breillat has left it to the viewer to nudge out the potentially explosive themes – the power struggles between the genders, the way directors treat their actors in the service of the creative process – rather than really illuminating them herself.