In an interview with FJI in 1999, French filmmaker Catherine Breillat told this critic that the entire time she was on the set directing Romance, a sexually explicit film, she wore a cashmere scarf over her head. The scarf had holes for her eyes. "I'm an extremely shy, introverted and puritanical person," she declared. "When I'm making a film, I'm confronting what scares me, something that produces in me a huge amount of emotion." It's an odd statement for a director with a penchant for making films about sex, particularly ones that explore women's sexuality. Two, 36 Fillette and Fat Girl (À ma souer), are about teenage girls. Breillat's new feature, Sex Is Comedy, is also sexually explicit and obviously autobiographical: It's about a director who works tirelessly to coax her young actors to do a nude scene.

This delightful roman á clef film is like a Gypsy Rose Lee-style striptease in which Breillat and her alter ego, film director Jeanne (Anne Parillaud), reveal just enough of themselves to entice and entertain. Jeanne does not wear a scarf and she isn't overtly shy, but she exhibits a lot of emotion. Breillat, in her director's statement for Sex Is Comedy, says that she set out to overturn the notion that "making of" documentaries get to the heart of what it means to make a film. That, Breillat says, is a secret. For about 90 minutes of Sex Is Comedy it remains a secret, a French-style secret-lots of talk of sex but no actual sex. Then, the nude scene. Suddenly, Jeanne's cajoling and flirting, her exquisitely tortured logic for getting the actors to do what she wants, and her insecurities, revealed in longueurs with her assistant L'o, all make sense. You wonder what Breillat does when she isn't making films. Real life pales in comparison.

Breillat's movies are always painstakingly rendered affairs; she's a skillful writer and director with an eye for good acting. Here, though, her casting of veteran Anne Parillaud (La Femme Nikita) proves problematic. Parillaud is too enigmatic, although it's difficult to say whether this is intentional or not, whether Breillat was hinting at a penchant for hiding behind explosive emotion-on Jeanne's part and her own-or whether Parillaud simply couldn't handle a character as complicated as Jeanne. Grgoire Colin (Beau Travail) is excellent as the unnamed young actor who must don a fake penis lest he lose his erection during the key scene. Colin is by turns farcical and brooding, a strutting rooster for the crew and a sullen, emasculated lover for Jeanne. In a smaller role as the unnamed actress, Roxane Mesquida, who was brilliant in Fat Girl, is equally wonderful here: A sexual neophyte, ambivalent about her male lead, she is nevertheless a consummate professional on the set. When Jeanne asks her to give to the camera what is obviously inside her, she explodes with the complex emotions of a virgin in the throes of her first sexual encounter.

Sex Is Comedy is Shakespearean in its complexity, an on-location As You Like It, brilliantly written and cleverly directed. If we are to take Breillat at her word, that she makes films in order to explore her fears, then this one must have been cathartic or, more precisely, orgasmic. No doubt Sex Is Comedy is about sex. Jeanne likes the fact that the young men in her employ-both the actor and her assistant director-find her alluring. She gets a charge out of being the director, out of making the actors do a beach scene in the dead of winter, or telling the male cinematographer that a scene must be completely changed. She delights in talking incessantly about the nude scene, working with the special-effects guy and the actor on the phony penis and, in the last scene, she enjoys her satisfying hug with the young actress. That embrace has an unmistakable sensuality. For Breillat, sex is work and work is, well, sexy.

-Maria Garcia