Catherine Breillat has, somewhat unfairly, gotten labeled over the years as the “female French director who deals in salacious female sexuality, especially of an adolescent nature”. Well, perhaps everything in that criticism is accurate except the “salacious” part. “Provocative” would be a much better word. But, as I’ve written about before (see my reviews for Diary of a Nymphomaniac or Y tu Mamá También), there may be nothing more difficult in dramatic art than integrating sexuality in a way that’s intellectually substantial and dramatically coherent while still keeping it sexy. Breillat has often been content with ignoring the “keeping it sexy” part, preferring to craft portraits of female sexuality with all the provocations and intellectualism (or, at least, suggestions of intellectualism) without ever even creeping close to pornography. In the three films I saw prior to 36 fillette, Breillat’s biggest problem is that she hasn’t been able to find characters or a plot strong enough to carry the dramatic weight. That problem is one she’s finally solved here.
36 fillette stars Delphine Zentout as Lili, a 14-year old girl who is vacationing with her mother (Adrienne Bonnet), father (Jean-Francois Stevenin) and brother, Bertrand (Olivier Parnière), but finds herself frustrated with her parents, brother and her life in general. After getting her parents to allow her to go to a late night disco, she meets a middle-aged playboy named Maurice (Etienne Chicot) who gives she and her brother a ride. Because of Lili’s snotty attitude, she eventually gets out and walks on her own, meeting a celebrity, Boris Golovine (Jean-Pierre Léaud), at a local café. The two talk about her life and she drops hints about her angst and frustration. After leaving, she eventually meets up with Maurice and her brother again at the disco, where Maurice (after convincing Bertrand that he wants nothing to do with young girls), convinces Lili to come back to his apartment. Lili reluctantly agrees, but refuses to sleep with Maurice while she’s there. Despite their rather hostile parting, they meet up again and again, and each time Lili allows Maurice to only get so close before pushing him away.
One thing that makes Breillat’s films frustrating from a male viewer’s perspective is that she never overtly intellectualizes the sexuality in her films. Rather, everything is dramatized and carried out through the actions of the characters. But Breillat’s gift is her tremendous intuitive understanding of the maddening contradictions of the adolescent female mind and its burgeoning sexuality. In one of the film’s steamiest scenes, Maurice holds Lili down on the floor and begins sliding her pants off and sliding his hand down her pants. He then proceeds to say that “even though your head says no, it’s clear your body is dripping with desire”, to which Lili intelligently retorts “well do you want to cut me in half!?” This question seems to summarize the subtle dramatic tension of the film, that of Lili’s undeniable physical desire to have sex and lose her virginity, but of the conscious roadblock that refuses to let her do it. This contradiction certainly isn’t an original theme, but some artists know how to dramatize such emotionally complex paradoxes and some don’t; Breillat is one who certainly knows how to.
It always amazes me when people seem to discount films (or fiction in general) about teenagers as being fluff as it strikes me that there’s no more emotionally and intellectually complex time in a person’s life. What could be more nerve-wracking than biologically being pulled out of childhood into adulthood while navigating the tempestuous emotional seas that exist to lead you from the former to the latter? Perhaps what has garnered teenage films their juvenile reputation is the tendency for directors to indulge in the natural melodramatics of characters who naturally feel that the world revolves around them and is, therefore, always on the verge of ending or bursting into paradise. Breillat has a greater sense of patience and a more quietly observant style, typically using static cameras, long-takes and a long-shot aesthetic (though not quite as distancing as some contemporaries like Hou Hsiao-hsien or Theo Angelopoulos). The result is a film that documents more than manipulatively seeks to engage.
In such a film it helps to have a cast that’s up to the emotionally and physically taxing challenges of the roles, and, in the young Delphine Zentout, Breillat has finally found a young female actress that can embody all of the nubile allure, understated intelligence and emotional tension and anxiety that such a character requires. Zentout is phenomenal in the film, frequently displaying more with a look than most characters could with pages of dialogue. She remains a mesmeric pixie throughout, one that can be a bratty asshole one minute and a tantalizing tease the next, but she’s one that is often so emotionally naked and vulnerable that it’s impossible not to sympathize with her. The real miracle of the role is that Breillat has managed to craft a character with all of these dimensions that never feels anything less than genuine. For those who can remember being a teenager or (God help you) those that are raising one, I imagine you couldn’t help but concur.
Playing alongside Zentout is Etienne Chicot in what may be an even more difficult role. How does one play a middle-aged man robbing the cradle Lolita-style while not slipping into sleaziness? Well, I won’t say that Maurice never displays any sliminess, but given Lili’s attention to him, it’s hard to blame it all on him either. If nothing else, Maurice plays more like a Humbert Humbert than Lili does a Lolita. Maurice isn’t quite the weak adult that Humbert was in the novel, and Lili isn’t as opportunistic as Lolita. If anything, Breillat seems to have leveled the playing field to a greater degree. Maurice may begin as a confident playboy, but as the film progresses we sense that his obsession is resulting in a confusion that has weakened his character. Lili’s own indecision and equivocation seems to be a constant threat to tear their already tenuous relationship apart, but like the infamous compass in John Donne’s Forbidden Mourning, the two can’t help but find their way back to each other.
The result is a film that plays out like a psycho-sexual chess match between two humans who don’t even know the rules of the game (or, in the case of Maurice, has discovered that the rules have changed). I’m inclined to believe Maurice when he says that he isn’t really drawn to young girls, which makes his attraction to Lili something beyond his conscious control. Lili’s confusion is much more understandable given her age, but she remains a compelling enigma throughout, forever complicating our understanding of her and her relationship with Maurice because the dynamics themselves are ever changing. 36 fillette is nothing if not a dynamic film. There’s nary a scene that goes by without introducing a new emotional or thematic level, and each one seems to intertwine as palpably as if the scenes themselves were making love to each other. But if this would merely represent the physical network, then it’s the thoughts and emotions behind it all that form the connections on the much more complex, painful, sensual and poignant realm.
All of this culminates in the scene where Lili has finally made it into Maurice’s bed and undresses. But, instead of intercourse, Lili performs oral sex on Maurice, eventually choking—much to the frustration of Maurice. This forces him to get up and leave, while she stays wrapped up in bed under the sheets crying. It’s certainly the film’s biggest emotional gut-punch, achieving a pathos through an act of sex that I haven’t seen in another film outside of Last Tango in Paris or Y tu mamá también. It’s a scene that manages to capture what I’ve said for a long time about sex in film, and that’s that, when it’s done right, it achieves this ultimate synthesis of the aesthetic, sensuous, psychological, physical and emotional realms all at once. It’s a level that really can’t be hit by anything else, and it’s a level that so incredibly few films ever manage to reach.
For all my accolades, the film isn’t perfect. Filmed on a budget of less than half-a-million it certainly looks like the cheap production that it is. Not helping is the fact that Breillat isn’t much of a visual artist, and the film isn’t exactly aesthetically satisfying on any level. Not helping this is the abominable transfer by Fox Lorber that looks as if it was copied from a VHS tape and, to make matters worse, it’s been cropped from 1.66:1 to 1.33:1. But beyond the visual blandness and the horrid transfer is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about sexuality, and likely the best I’ve ever seen, period, about adolescent sexuality.