By Owen Gleiberman
Updated September 17, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s a true shock — at least, the first time it happens. In ”Romance,” a young Parisian schoolteacher lies in her boyfriend’s bed, and the two converse, in that tone of morose yet blasé abstraction so beloved by the French. She then reaches into his pants, pulls out his member, and right there, in full view of the audience, begins to do things. With her mouth. Shocking things. How shocking? Let me put it this way: For a minute or two, a somberly existential French movie character actually stops talking.

It’s been a while since we’ve had a good dose of European art porn, and the graphic, deadly solemn ”Romance,” written and directed by veteran filmmaker Catherine Breillat, certainly qualifies as a flesh-saturated curiosity. The heroine, Marie (Caroline Ducey), dates a male model (Sagamore Stévenin) who has lost all sexual interest in her. Why do they stay together, night after night, in his swank white-on-white pad? It’s never made clear (though she claims to love him). The suggestion, though, is that Marie, a baby-skinned bad girl, finds pleasure in debasement. Instead of tossing the bum out, as one of the do-me bachelorettes on ”Sex and the City” would, she heads off in pursuit of a punishing series of sexual misadventures.

Newcomer Caroline Ducey is rib-skinny, but with a forceful presence; her Marie is like a fusion of one of Erica Jong’s zipless feminists, a ”Dawson’s Creek” misfit, and Sylvia Plath. She comes on to a stud (played by Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi), then lies there passively as he pounds away. She is propositioned and raped in a stairwell, and she enters into a casually exploitative relationship with her principal (François Berléand), a dumpy middle-aged S&M devotee who brags that he has had 10,000 women. He then ties her up in his living room, displaying all the excitement of an electrician stringing wires.

For all its naughty bits and explicit copulation, the real scandal of ”Romance” is its mood of highfalutin dispassion. Marie is at once aggressor and victim, unfaithful harpy and self-annihilating ”hole” (to use her term). She keeps describing her feelings to her lovers (and to us in voice-over), yet the characters don’t interact, exactly; they deconstruct each other. Even their hottest fantasies are like footnotes in a gender-studies text. The movie is a footnote as well, a minor reference back to the days when people yearned for a cinema that was serious and erotic at the same time. Now they just call up for a new cable channel.