After more than 20 years of working in relative obscurity and sustaining
her directoral career with screenwriting jobs for hire, Catherine Breillat
finally achieved a degree of international notoriety with her critically
divisive sixth feature Romance. As a result, we are now able
to see her never-released debut film, Une vraie jeune fille, shot
in 1975 and finally finished last year with belated government funding.
Oddly, Romance and Une vraie jeune fille turn out to be more
like each other than any of Breillat’s intervening films; audiences unfamiliar
with the rest of her output will get a somewhat skewed impression of her
vigorous personality. Not only do both the first and most recent film show
explicit sexual behavior, but they also push toward the exotic, tawdry grandeur
of commercial eroticism; both contain images that could have been snipped
from the pornography of their wildly differing times. Breillat’s longtime
admirers may locate more easily in these films the shifting levels of realism
and play with narrative convention in Tapage nocturne, the clear-eyed
depiction of adolescence’s casual depravity in 36 filette, the cool
but kind vision of man and woman in extremis in Parfait amour!
Alice, the teenaged protagonist of Une vraie jeune fille (Charlotte Alexandra) returns for summer vacation to her home in rural France, where, beset by boredom, she plunges into a contemplative, fantasy-laden world of sexual self-exploration. Interior though her journey may be, it gives her ample opportunity to act out: she broods over and provokes a young worker (Hiram Keller), antagonizes her frustrated mother (Rita Meiden) with her sullen rebellion, and flaunts her sexuality in front of her family and the conservative townspeople. But Breillat is most fascinated with the girl’s private, urgent need to realize her physicality in as many ways as possible; the film is awash with Alice’s bodily fluids, none of them too repulsive for her to eroticize, even as the audience recoils. However often Breillat topples into the sensational, her thoughtful, imperturbable perspective on Alice’s journey never completely loses sway. In the end, Une vraie jeune fille is less a celebration of sexuality than a depiction of adolescence as a cheerful explosion and reassembly of the psyche.