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.