Synopsis: It’s summer in the 1960s and Alice has returned home from school for her vacation. Stifled by the boredom of life in the country, she becomes infatuated with Jim, a young worker at her father’s sawmill. While not lusting after Jim, Alice spends her days writing in her diary and dreaming up sexual fantasies. Alternating between reality and fantasy, Catherine Breillat vividly captures the feelings of a young girl’s budding sexuality.
eyelights: the boldness of the script. its authentic feel.
eyesores: the jarring editing. the lackluster dubbing.
‘Une vraie jeune fille’ is Catherine Breillat’s 1976 directorial debut. It was extremely controversial and, due to distribution issues, was not released until 1999.
It’s the story of a teenaged girl’s sexual awakening and development during her summer break. Frankly, I can understand why it would be controversial at the time. It would be controversial now, so one can imagine the reaction back then.
What makes it challenging is that it’s extremely frank and graphic. Let’s face it: not everyone would be comfortable with the subject matter to start with. But, contextually, it’s worse because: 1) she’s female and, 2) because she’s a teenager. Society still has a difficult time with women being sexually-liberated, but the idea of teenagers being sexual is a touchy subject to say the least.
Even in this day and age, where sexting is commonplace and teenagers are exchanging pictures and videos of themselves without reserve, we have a hard time accepting that teenagers want to and will explore their sexuality. We did, they will too. I’m not quite sure where the discomfort comes from, but it is likely shame-based and coming from the same place as our discomfort with seniors being sexual. Or our parents.
But let’s face it: Alice is stuck in a nowhere town all summer with nothing to do. She dislikes people, so she keeps to herself, and is discovering her sexual feelings. She doesn’t really know what to make of them, what to do about it, though. What is she to do? She follows men, even fantasizes about them, but doesn’t really want their sex. At least, not yet: she is content inhabiting her new skin and fantasizing.
Then she falls for a sawmill worker who is employed by her father, and they begin a love affair (well, a sexual relationship, anyway) in secret. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, with the exceptions of some of her fantasies, which indicate a fear of acceptance: she is scared that her lover will find her genitals gross and will laugh at her – a common concern for many young -and mature- women. Except that her mental images are also disquieting.
She doesn’t have a great relationship with her parents. She is at odds with her mother (there’s this poignant moment when Alice breaks an egg in front of her mother, symbolizing her rebellion against her, a complete rejection of her motherhood), so she hides in her room all the time. She is close with her father, but he is a little too familiar with her, crossing lines in the way that he touches her or talks about her that would certainly be unwelcome in North America – he’d be in court so fast that he wouldn’t know what hit him.
‘Une vraie jeune fille’ is slow and listless, much like Alice’s summer, but it’s always incredibly interesting to watch. I can recall those long summers of my youth, and can barely imagine how I would have spent the time if I were in Alice’s situation, isolated like that. Of course, given that I was exploring my own sexuality well before that character does, I can think of a few things that would keep me busy – for lack of anything else.
In that sense, ‘Une vraie jeune fille’ is realistic. I didn’t find that Breillat took Alice to places that didn’t make sense. Some of what she does can be shocking, but it all falls in line with typical curiosity, boredom and hormones mixing together. If anything, the picture is uncomfortable because we’re peering into sacred, intimate moments that should probably be private. It feels transgressive, but I wouldn’t say that it’s otherwise disturbing.
It may be jarring to watch a teenager do all the things that she does on screen, though. Again, what Alice does per se isn’t what’s shocking, because sexual exploration is normal at that age, But it’s actually seeing it being done that is. Or can be. Right from the start, we see her drop a spoon on the floor during dinner and then slipping it inside her panties while no one’s looking. And that’s just for starters.
Let’s just say that there are a lot of images of vulvae and penises on screen. This could make some people uncomfortable. Charlotte Alexandra was quite gutsy to have made this film, considering how graphic it gets. She was 20 or 21 when she made it, but she plays a 14 year old – which surprised me, because, as I watched it I was sure she was 16 or a mature 15 year old; Alexandra naturally looks older, which skews things considerably.
And that’s probably a good thing, because I was already uncomfortable with the idea of watching a 16 year-old; I would have been completely embarrassed watching a younger character, had her age been disclosed in the picture. Even though I know that what she’s doing is totally okay, it doesn’t change the fact that a part of me has been brought up with certain preconceived notions that made this hard to watch. Call me uptight if you must.
The performances are all pretty good, but the film suffers on the technical front: it’s poorly edited, with some scenes coming in out of nowhere, like patchwork. It’s Breillat’s first film, so it’s normal, but it’s still a weakness. Even the film quality changes from time to time, and the dubbing is really bad: even in its original language, the synching is off and there are completely inaudible moments (I couldn’t help but think of the people in charge of making the subtitles: they likely had to a devil of a time, actually leaving some passages untranslated).
All this to say that ‘Une vraie jeune fille’ is an excellent debut by any standard. It’s unfathomably bold, and I can totally understand why it rocked the boat back in 1976. It’s an imperfect motion picture, but its intentions are good and it’s a sign of things to come; Breillat would build on the themes herein with her next films, continuing her exploration of the deepest and truest parts of women’s hearts.
Date of viewing: July 19, 2013