Lili, at fourteen, is literally busting out of her children’s size (36 Fillette) dress. While on vacation with her family, she vows to lose her virginity and soon attracts the attention of a good looking, middle-aged playboy. With the skill of an adult and the naiveté of a child, Lili seduces him. Her involvement with this older man and a chance encounter with a musician (Jean-Pierre Leaud of The 400 Blows) further her journey toward sexual awakening. The young Delphine Zentout portrays Lili’s ascent to adulthood with a charged sexuality.
36 fillette 7.5
eyelights: the dance of seduction between the leads.
eyesores: the negativity of the characters. the dishonest dynamic between the leads.
12 years after her controversial debut, ‘Une vraie jeune fille‘, Catherine Breillat decided to explore teen sexuality once again. In ’36 fillette’, however, she drew fire not for the explicitness of her character’s sexual exploration, but because of the age difference between her two leads (hence the title, ’36 young girl’. The film provoked such strong reactions that it pretty much put her name on the map for the first time outside of her native France.
What is interesting is that, without being graphic, she explored a dynamic that isn’t at all uncommon, she spotlighted a truth: that younger and older people do pair up. Or try to. She dispassionately put these characters on the screen and explored the dance between them, with Lili struggling with her timidity and insecurities in a quest to lose her virginity, and Maurice trying to chip away at her reservations by alternately showing interest and disinterest.
Frankly, it’s a fascinating pas de deux. It’s not to say that either character is pleasant (Breillat’s protagonists rarely are), but watching them try to manipulate each other into position through an awkward array of reeling in and pushing away feels genuine. In fact, I suspect that much of this is culled from Breillat’s own experiences, as she claims to have decided to give her virginity away to a man she didn’t like to make the experience her own.
Our story takes place at the end of the summer break. Lili’s family has set up a camper by the seaside. It is not a festive environment, however: Lili and her brother Bertrand argue all the time, her father tries to drown them out but loses his patience and her mother tries to ignore all of them. Through much prodding, Lili coaxes her brother to talk her parents into letting her go to the disco club with him that evening – despite her age.
On the way there, they will meet up with some friends of his, including Maurice. It’s an awkward dynamic given the age difference, but it feels as though Maurice doesn’t care who he hangs out with, so long as he has someone to drink with. And Bertrand naturally likes his company because he buys the drinks and even pays for some tail from time to time. Lili and Maurice’s initial encounter is fraught with conflict as Lili acts like an entitled brat.
In fact, our first impression of Lili is that she’s difficult and grating: she constantly gets upset over the slightest thing and shouts, shouts, SHOUTS incessantly – with her family, with friends, with strangers. Maurice, a jaded old Romeo who has seen his share, takes it all in stride, patiently trying to talk her down, telling Bertrand that it’s her way of attracting attention. He plays into her insecurities by pushing her away so that she boomerangs back.
It isn’t long before they are making out and he is groping her in a club, under Bertrand’s glassy-eyed supervision. They eventually ditch her incapacitated sibling to be alone but it’s not an easy mix: she acts girlish, shy, sweet, hesitant, saying she only wants to talk, while he acts blasé and makes false promises about his intentions. They both know why they’re spending time together, but they aren’t honest about it one bit. Instead, they play games.
The games would continue over a couple of days. Even though he gives up on her, she returns with a vengeance, unleashing her brother’s anger and threatening to contact the authorities if he doesn’t spend time with her. He tacitly agrees, but for all their time together (including some sex play) she is unable to get beyond her own defenses, leaving frustrated. When her parents confront her she breaks down, shaken by her inability to lose her virginity.
However, she still has one final trick up her sleeve.
What makes ’36 fillette’ interesting, aside from the complicated attempts at seduction taking place, are the dialogues and messages that Breillat inserted in her script. She has always been interested in exploring heterosexual dynamics through a female lens, but she started to express it more eloquently here. It would take a few more films before she really hit her stride but, in ’36 fillette’, she clearly began to hone her craft.
One outstanding example is when Bertrand and Maurice are at the bar and a friend of Maurice’s takes a break from the dance floor to come say hi. A bon-vivante, they clearly have enjoyed some good times together and openly discuss their conquests together. Bertrand immediately calls her a slut, but Maurice corrects him, telling him that her overt sexuality is totally okay, that it shouldn’t be judged. It’s a first sign that Breillat has something to say.
She also delves into Lili’s psyche when she breaks out by herself and meets a popular concert pianist and goes for a drink with him. It feels contrived, particularly due to Jean-Pierre Léaud staggered quizzing, but it got us to understand Lili’s perspective on men, relationships, and life in general. Naturally, this pseudo-interview format wasn’t the best choice to do this in, but it works to some degree, and it helps understand that Lili isn’t a victim.
In fact, that’s the overwhelming message of ’36 fillette’: despite her age, and the age difference between her and her chosen beau, she is very much self-aware and in control. Or, at least, as much as she is able to be – she can’t seem to control her own defenses. And although one could easily see Maurice as a predator, the fact is that she sought him out, she picked him, and eventually rejected him. At no point does he force his will on her, although he tries to break down hers.
And perhaps that’s part of what made ’36 fillette’ so provocative, it takes us into a dangerous area where Lili could very well have been a victim, but shows her instead as the master of her own destiny. Audiences no doubt brought their own prejudices, misconceptions and fears into it and made quick judgements of the characters based on their ages: she is young therefore she is a victim, he is older therefore he is a predator. It would be easy to be shocked when looking at it that way.
But the reality is that what took place between them takes place between couples of all ages. In fact, changing Lili and Maurice’s ages would immediately disarm this ticking time bomb: had she been 14 and he 16 it would have been fine, and had she been 24 and he 36 it would have been fine. But it’s the perceived intentions of both characters strictly based on their ages which makes it a challenge. It’s not their actions, because, ultimately, they do very little.
The film ends with Lili staring at the screen, coldly, accusingly. I’m sure that this elicits very different responses from its audience, depending on how the picture was perceived: people who saw her as a victim would likely feel guilt, sadness, whereas those who don’t would see someone who is calculating, defiant, unashamed. When she breaks out into a beaming smile, the former would be confused, whereas the latter would have their suspicions confirmed.
And that’s probably the final straw for some audiences. After being offended, repulsed even, by what was taking place, having the girl laugh in their faces likely shocked them out of their seats. Breillat’s exploration was complete then. Not only did she examine a teenager’s sexuality, and female-male dynamics, but she also explored (exposed even) audiences’ darkest feelings and most deeply-rooted preconceptions. They would never forget -or even forgive- her for it.
Post scriptum: Breillat takes all this controversy, even the threats, in stride. She would even return to the same well again in ‘À ma soeur‘, many years later, naturally attracting more controversy.
Date of viewing: August 30, 2014