Although not released until 25 years after its production, Une vraie jeune fille (A Real Young Girl, Catherine Breillat, 1976/2000) stands now as an auspicious screen debut for self-proclaimed “pariah of French cinema” Catherine Breillat and the initial entry in her “Decalogue” of films devoted to exploring female sexuality. 1 Having forged her notoriety as a teenage memoirist whose debut work was banned for minors in France, Breillat adapted A Real Young Girl from her autobiographical fourth novel Le soupirail (The Opening, 1974). Producer André Génovès – a regular Chabrol collaborator – financed A Real Young Girl with an interest toward duplicating the commercial success of French soft-core feature Emmanuelle (Just Jaeckin, 1974). Yet Génovès subsequently suppressed A Real Young Girl’s distribution, fearful it would be subject to a newly implemented tax on films classified with an X rating; when his company went bankrupt soon after, the lab retained possession of the negative. There it languished until 2000, when Breillat’s international recognition with her breakout film Romance propelled A Real Young Girl’s long overdue release.
As indicated by the promotional image of its young heroine sitting open-legged on railroad tracks with her hand covering her bare crotch, A Real Young Girl invites the comparisons that would earn Breillat the moniker “auteur of porn”. Yet the performer’s defiant stare into the camera – a gaze repeatedly taken up by Breillat’s female protagonists to come – announces the film’s confrontational aims to deliberately disrupt voyeuristic pleasure and to desecrate Lolita-like fantasies of girlhood sexuality. Intent on revealing a real young girl (the French title’s idiomatic meaning is “virgin”), Breillat employs surreal elements to convey the uncanny experience of pubescent sexuality, with a changing body, surging libido, and much vying between fantasy and reality as 14-year-old Alice Bonnard (played by then 20-year-old Charlotte Alexandra) grapples with the conflicting lust and shame directed her way by adults, peers, Catholicism, and popular culture.
This departure from patriarchal images of adolescent girlhood earns its inclusion within the cinéma du corps by unflinchingly registering Alice’s curious inspection of her bodily fluids and processes and her animalistic fantasies of self-humiliation (including provocative scenes of Alice cavorting with chicken feathers stuffed up her rear and submitting to having an earthworm placed on her pubis). A Real Young Girl unsurprisingly proves one of Breillat’s most divisive films for these scenes of distasteful (if fantasised) degradation that nonetheless function – here and throughout Breillat’s work – to render bodies and sex realistically and to de-fetishise women. As Adrienne Angelo observes, Breillat’s unruly female protagonists are “exemplified by (their) vomit, urine, and vaginal fluids, which signify a body whose own borders are unstable and threaten to erupt or transgress proper codes of feminine conduct.”2
Breillat makes ingenious use of the discontinuity wrought by post-synch sound (Alice and Mme. Bonnard’s voices are dubbed by Breillat’s sister and mother); the resultant out-of-body effect and heightened interiority enhance our sense of Alice’s alienated, subjective perspective. In another surreal scene evincing Breillat’s self-inscription, Alice vomits on herself then intones in voiceover, “Liberated by the vomit’s warmth, disgust makes me lucid. It was at that very moment that I decided to write (in) my diary.” Breillat recalls discovering the works of Bataille and Sade (whose influence is conspicuous throughout A Real Young Girl) during a youth spent in the library, a refuge from her repressively Catholic upbringing in provincial southwest France.3 A wonderland this was not, evident in Breillat’s depiction of Alice’s stultifying home life and surveillance by parents and villagers (including Shirley Stoler as a scowling storekeeper) who alternately sexualise or infantilise her.
In two protracted sequences, Alice watches televised musical performances by imitation French pop stars in the mold of Johnny Hallyday and Françoise Hardy, popular figures in the early 1960s when A Real Young Girl is set. With music written by Mort Shuman and lyrics by Breillat, the songs reflexively stage contrasting performances of heteromasculinity and heterofemininity for the instruction of adolescent spectator Alice. The male singer’s sweaty, sneering boasting of sexual conquests is juxtaposed with a demure young woman wearing a white frock and stroking a daisy while coyly singing
Suis-je une petite fille? Je ne sais pas, je ne sais pas. Ou bien une grande fille? Vous le savez bien pour moi. (Am I a little girl? I don’t know, I don’t know. Or a big girl? Only you can know for me.)
Against this chanteuse’s modeling of sexually pure, submissive girlhood, the brazen Alice would seem to offer the Lolita-like converse, with her name and blue hairband recalling Lewis Carroll’s fantasy of another sexually alluring innocent. Instead, A Real Young Girl’s depictions of Alice’s real and fantasised reveling in her abjection convey a more authentic femininity while the chanteuse’s performance seems artificial in its idealisation.
For all its perversity, A Real Young Girl stands as one of Breillat’s most amusing works: the deadpan sequence in which Alice stumbles home with knickers around ankles, her feigning nonchalance while inserting a sticky spoon into her vagina under the dinner table, her blatant spying on hunky Jim (Hiram Keller). A similar sensibility is evident in the veritable genre of films about girls’ abject sexual awakenings that A Real Young Girl birthed, including Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2010), Feuchtgebiete (Wetlands, David Wnendt, 2013), and La niña santa (The Holy Girl, Lucrecia Martel, 2004). So too do traces of young Alice remain in Breillat’s recent revisionist treatments of the Bluebeard and Sleeping Beauty cautionary tales about female sexuality. Above all, A Real Young Girl is about the escape that sexual fantasy and writing the self provides female adolescents from the shaming and enforced submissiveness of society, overbearing in the Pompidou-era provinces in which A Real Young Girl takes place but still undeniably oppressive.
A Real Young Girl (1976/2000 France 89 mins)
Prod. Co: Artédis Prod: André Génovès Dir: Catherine Breillat Scr: Catherine Breillat, from her novel Le soupirail Phot: Pierre Fattori and Patrick Godaert Mus: Mort Shuman, lyrics by Catherine Breillat Art Dir: Catherine Breillat
Cast: Charlotte Alexandra, Hiram Keller, Rita Meiden, Bruno Balp, Georges Guéret, Shirley Stoler
- Quoted in Benjamin Secher, “Catherine Breillat: ‘All true artists are hated,’” The Telegraph, 8 April 2005, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/starsandstories/3672302/Catherine-BreillatAll-true-artists-are-hated.html ↩
- Adrienne Angelo, “Sexual Cartographies: Mapping Subjectivity in the Cinema of Catherine Breillat,” Journal for Cultural Research 14.1 (2010): p. 47. ↩
- Douglas Keesey, Catherine Breillat (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), p. 3-4. ↩