Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Catherine Breillat's A REAL YOUNG GIRL (1976)

Oh, my poor neglected blog. Here's a review, full of keywords that will surely bring out the spammy comments, that I wrote for an upcoming In Review Online feature on the films of Catherine Breillat. I chose to review her debut feature (which I hadn't seen at the time) thinking it would be tamer than her more infamous films like Romance or Fat Girl. What I learned in the process was that Breillat had been arming her battle stations as a novelist for over ten years before embarking on her career as a film director and that A Real Young Girl may be her most audacious film to date. There is little irony that the abrupt and 'shocking' ending is overshadowed by the films overall brazenness. Experiencing A Real Young Girl is overwhelming, to say the least, but it is also a film worth considering from two steps back, which I've tried to do here.

Catherine Breillat ushers in her filmmaking career with similar controversy that accompanied her writing career. Her directorial debut, A Real Young Girl, instantly paved the trajectory for one of the most compelling oeuvre in cinematic past, present and future. Clear eyed and focused, Breillat steps into the filmmaking ring and throws a defiant punch in the face that will likely take just about anyone by surprise. Adapted from her own novel, Le Soupirail, A Real Young Girl would have been the film that gave pause to the chauvinistic French film celebration, had it gotten the attention it deserved. Walking a fine line between soft-core porn and arthouse drama, this lucid shocker was brushed under the rug until its eventual release in 1999, almost 25 years after the fact. Even 35 years later, this film feels like a subversive bitch slap to the on-screen clichés of feminism in film. (See the inane conversation about ‘women’s films’ after Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Picture Oscar.) Breillat makes the men the passive objects and unapologetically treats a teenage girl as a vibrant sexual being instead of a visual sexual object, quietly begging the question of how many times we’ve seen just the opposite. Although audacious and subversive, A Real Young Girl feels far more personal than a film simply motivated by the base transgression that got it sidelined.

Much of the cause célèbre lies not only in the blunt shots of genitalia but also in the crude juxtapositions—sticky flypaper and unorthodox masturbation or the slaughter of a chicken and abstract sexual fantasies—generated from the perspective of a bored misanthropic bourgeois teenager named Alice. Forced to spend her summer vacation at her parents’ quiet country home, Alice spends her days honing her self-awareness by either traipsing through a littered field with her panties pulled down or reveling in the ‘liberation’ of her own warm vomit. Her adversary is her stern mother and her puppet is her plump, dandyish father. Enter Jim, a sullen and fit mystery man who works at her father’s sawmill. The hunky laborer sparks Alice’s post-pubescent exploration of unbound fantasies and desires. Coyly showing up at the mill, Alice attempts to lure Jim with seductive glimpses through the stacks of lumber or by not-so-subtly lifting her skirt as she gets on her bike. This is all foreplay for the fantasies Alice will build about Jim, as aggressor and self-pleasing companion, while she negotiates the mundane yet turbulent world at large.

For the duration, we are held hostage by Alice’s brazen psyche, making for an unsettling ride not unlike a scene where Alice provocatively joins a man on an amusement park ride only to be disgusted by his jerking off. Although A Real Young Girl is a dreamy blend of fact and fantasy, you can also envision that the entire film takes place inside Alice’s head as she lies on her bed with her eyes closed. Breillat’s depiction of femininity in revolt may be an assault, but it is also fastidiously unique. Alice’s innocence exists in the lack of humility, not in naiveté or stupidity. But Alice is also nothing more than a typical teenager, flushed with contradictory emotions and susceptible to the same social influences as everyone else. Breillat infuses the story with a catchy and banal pop song “Am I a Young Girl” that resonates with Alice: “I’m a little girl. I don’t know, no I don’t know. How big a girl I am, only you can tell. Please, please, tell me, tell me now, what you like about me.” When Alice hears the song on the radio, she admits her gullible connection to the song—and her very simple desire to be understood—and addresses the singer: “I’d do anything for that woman.” Made years before the world realized Catherine Breillat’s nuances and before she was crowned heir apparent of the New French Extremity, A Real Young Girl matches debut mettle with dauntless muster by tackling themes and presenting images in a bold analytical statement.

Friday, June 18, 2010

NIGHT OF THE HUNTER coming to Criterion?

The best part of Criterion's newsletter is the teaser graphic at the end. Today's featured this:

It looks like bunnies have to make due with three fingers. The Playlist confirms.

Friday, June 4, 2010


(Originally published on In Review Online. No One Knows About Persian Cats screened last month at the Walker and opens today at the Lagoon in Minneapolis.)

Musicians who dream about Rickenbacker guitars, Ludwig drum sets, and meeting Sigur Rós are nothing out of the ordinary. But when they are aspirations of young Iranians living in Tehran, there is an undeniable bitterness to these daydreams. The scene is one from Bahman Ghobadi’s new film No One Knows About Persian Cats in which the lightly tossed out fantasies of free-market equipment, unlimited energy drinks and traveling to Iceland to meet the world’s most beloved post-rock band act as empathetic connecting points for the audience despite the obvious social, political and geographic distance. These ambitions, as ordinary as they might seem to us, are secret islands of escape for the musicians who risk arrest in the name of rock and roll. Although the threat of popular music is a myth locked in the paranoia of Elvis’ gyrating hips or Kevin Bacon’s irrepressible need to dance, the threat in Iran is very real and treated with oppressive severity. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and company are not fans of freedom of expression, especially after the protests that gripped the nation last year, and they attempt to control it with an iron fist. But just like the cracks that exist for filmmakers, musicians and fans find a way to circulate and listen to the most forbidden music. This is the backdrop Kurdish director Ghobadi uses to airbrush a portrait of music that is independent by its very nature. The musicians are the cats, and Ghobadi wants to make sure we know about them.

The film quietly follows two musicians, Ashkan and Negar, as they travel around Tehran searching for musicians to complete their band and as they seek out the necessary passports and visas to make it to a gig in London. They find a friend and agent in Nadar, who is committed to helping the couple after he hears their CD. Flying low on Nadar’s motorcycle, the three of them give us an insider’s tour of the nooks and crannies of the underground channels of Tehran and the bands that makes up a veritable who’s who of the Iranian rock world. Compared to Granaz Moussavi’s My Tehran for Sale, a very similar film on the surface, No One Knows About Persian Cats is a free and lighthearted affair that breaks away from the well-known heavy hand of Iranian film—at least for most of the film. The breezy cast of characters, all playing themselves, is a world away from anything you might expect to find. The paper-thin plot simply allows for quality time with the very likeable Ashkan and Negar, and for full, music video enhanced tracks from artists you have never heard of but wish you had. Normally I’m a harsh critic to the MTV influenced segues masquerading as content, but there is no masquerade in Persian Cats: these are full-on music video expositions that exist for the sake of the music not the film, not the other way around.
Persian Cats opens with a twist on the normal fictional disclaimer, stating, “This film is based on real people, real locations and real events.” Ghobadi should have stuck to this edict, because everything he builds with the real people and real places is diminished by the trumped up events that are supposed to give the film its powerful finale. Fact and fiction are employed, but they are never blurred. There is a definitive line between the effortless facts and the forced fiction. Ghobadi has proven with A Time for Drunken Horses and Turtles Can Fly that he can make thoughtful dramas out of very real situations, but it is almost like Ghobadi forgot that those two forces should work with, not against, one another. To its credit, the film is filled with simple, understated scenarios that break the stereotypical tropes of Iranian society. Waiting for information about their doctored visas, Negar strikes up a conversation with a woman who is also waiting. The woman would normally be a symbol of subjugation, but instead we listen to her casually chat about how she is going to aimlessly travel the world and about how she loves indie rock. The sequence is sweetly abstract and far more powerful than the downward spiral that ends the film. When the dramatic shoe drops—and it hits hard—all investment in these ‘real’ people is gone. Ghobadi shot No One Knows About Persian Cats on the sly, taking the admirable but probably necessary risk to highlight music the government sees as a threat. In light of Jafar Panahi recent arrest, Ghobadi is afraid to return to Iran. The grave situation for creative people in Iran is no joke, and is probably the core reason for the film’s knee-jerk need for tragedy, but it does a great disservice to the otherwise unique Iranian film. As a document about the welling of rock music in Iran, No One Knows About Persian Cats is indispensible; as a dramatic excursion, it’s a trip not worth taking.