PRINT September 2001


Catherine Millet

LAST APRIL, CATHERINE MILLET, a respected member of the French intelligentsia, editor in chief of Art Press for more than twenty years and author of several books on contemporary art, suddenly became famous—as a sex fiend, a habitué of orgies, the blow job queen of underground Paris; in short, a tireless servant of sexual liberation. What happened?

A book. A dazzling best-seller with a title as naked as a porn star: La vie sexuelle de Catherine M. An autobiography of sorts, limited to a nonchronological analysis of the author's sexual encounters, which prove so numerous she is incapable of counting—let alone recounting—all of them. Unprecedented in the history of French literature, and seemingly violating some unspoken taboo, a woman's voice describes in exacting detail the mechanics no less than the erotics of the sundry sex acts in which she's been so industriously engaged. We find her in every possible position, her head squeezed under a steering wheel, her body “ankylosed” by one of many frantic orgies. We follow the art critic/sex tourist to New York, Rio, Casablanca. We learn of Romain, a lover who remains absolutely immobile during the sex act. We look on as she fucks two men in the storerooms of the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and is sodomized on a hillside in Provence. C'est La vie.

Millet's lover, the acclaimed novelist Jacques Henric, simultaneously published Legendes de Catherine M., a mediocre text accompanied by amateur snapshots of her naked in a variety of indoor and outdoor settings: baring her breasts in the Perpignan train station, spreading her legs on the steps of a church—you get the picture. Millet and Henric's appearance on Apostrophe, Bernard Pivot's literary TV talk show, caused a stir, and La vie's sales have steadily increased. Is Millet's French audience responding to her attempt to rid sexuality of the ideological, moral, and political discourses that tend to encase it—or are they just buying highbrow porn? “For ethical reasons” the Auchan supermarket chain quickly refused to distribute her books, and she has been savaged by reactionaries of all stripes. While prominent intellectuals have lent Millet their support, no less celebrated a figure than Jean Baudrillard sees in the book the ineluctable ascendance of obscenity that is also at work in reality TV shows. In the end, the media storm raging around the book may prevent a sober reading of it: The Sexual Life of Catherine M. is not an art-world roman à clef or an erotic novel. Written in cold, repetitive prose, clinical by virtue of its attempt at objectivity, it is above all sexual self-analysis, the singular story of one femininity seeking neither seduction nor even pleasure but simply encounters with other bodies.

Jean-Max Colard is a Paris-based writer and critic.

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.


Catherine Millet, La vie sexuelle de Catherine M. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2001, 224 pages.

Jacques Henric, Légendes de Catherine M. Paris: Denoël, 2001, 208 pages.