The French filmmaker Catherine Breillat has been making the same film over and over again since 1976. I mean this not as a criticism but rather as an observation that tells us much about her work. The realization occurred to me as I watched her 36 Fillette (1988) earlier this week (the title refers to a size of girls’ clothing, presumably a size that the protagonist will soon have put aside, along with other such childish things). In the film, 14-year-old Lili endeavors to lose her virginity while on vacation in Biarritz with her parents and older brother. She meets an older man in his forties; he says that he has little patience for teenage girls, but he flirts with Lili and eventually brings her back to his hotel room, where a teasing seduction unfolds. The film is structured around Lili’s tortured vacillation between her hesitant curiousity about sex, her strong desire to cast off the burden of her virginity, her repeated willingness to enter into dangerous and confrontational situations, and her fear of exposing her vulnerability to others. Lili plays out these feelings in her interactions with a number of different men in the film (her would-be seducer, her father, her brother, a boy her own age), but as Breillat makes clear in 36 Fillette, Lili’s virginity loss is not about her relation to a male object. It is about her relationship to herself, and about her own clumsy attempts to make sense of herself as a sexual being in the world.
This is a story that Breillat’s films have told, and continue to tell, since the beginning of her career. Her first film, Une vraie jeune fille (a.k.a. A Real Young Girl, 1976; unseen by me), tells the similar story of an adolescent girl on the verge of coming into sexual knowledge. (Like 36 Fillette, that film was met with controversy in its attempts to represent adolescent female sexual experience without the veneer of dewy-eyed sentimental cliché.) In Breillat’s excoriating Fat Girl (2001), she gives us another vacationing family, another nubile young girl, another seduction—but this time the brother figure has been replaced by a bitter and unattractive sister who bears witness to the scene of defloration. More recently, Breillat has explored the erotic subtexts of classic French fairy tales. In Bluebeard (2010) and The Sleeping Beauty (2011), her pubescent heroines are initiated—often traumatically—into the brave new world of adult sexuality.
It’s fitting that Breillat is drawn to fairy tales, so many of which are driven by the conflicted sexual desires of young women (might we look forward to her renditions of Little Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast?). The heroines of these stories find themselves both attracted to and repulsed by sexual desire, intrigued by carnivorous men but often fearful for their safety and conscious of the prohibitions handed down to them by parents and other figures of authority. What is Lili if not a fairy tale heroine, as fearless as she is green, who ventures into the woods and has the good fortune to make it out on the other side?