In Her Face
Lauren Kaminsky on A Real Young Girl

The simple clarity of surprise is commonly mistaken for the genuine disruption of shock, just as stupidity is often taken for innocence. The difference between the two is evident if you eliminate the cheap trick of surprise: a genuinely shocking film can be watched again and again, and the rug will be pulled out from under you every time, ripping you away from the comfort of morality, undermining the way you think about yourself, your decisions, your preoccupations. To be truly shocked is to have your deepest expectations subverted, and to leave you conflicted about your emotional responses to brutality, disgrace, or even desire.

No discussion of shock cinema is complete without considering the films of Catherine Breillat, but her best-known film, 1999’s Romance, is also in many ways her weakest and most conventional. Breillat began her career as a best-selling writer whose first novel, written when she was 17, invited controversy for its frank depiction of transgressive sexuality. She has written novels, plays, screenplays, lyrics, and she even had a bit part in Bernardo Bertollucci’s seminal 1972 art-porn film, Last Tango in Paris, acting alongside her sister. Soon afterwards, Breillat directed her first film, Une Vraie Jeune Fille (awkwardly translated into English as A Real Young Girl). Although completed in 1975, the film was not released commercially for 25 years. As a consequence, this masterpiece has largely been ignored, its importance minimized in comparison to lesser films such as Romance, which made up in publicity what it lacked in true subversiveness.

Romance is famous for its live kinky sex and the appearance of well-endowed porn-star Rocco Siffredi, but it remains conventional in its mobilization of transgressive tropes. Here we have the typically repressed schoolteacher acting on typical sexual fantasies; here is the “art film” genre upended by porn aesthetic. Whereas Michael Winterbottom’s hard-core chick flick 9 Songs emphasizes the banality of sex (and is itself rather banal), the self-consciously “edgy” dynamism that makes Romance engaging depends upon the element of surprise. Eliminate its “what happens next?” tactics and the film falls flat—but this dependence on suspense is a particularly popular cinematic crutch that translates Romance into an understandable vernacular. The relative accessibility of Romance has no doubt contributed to its prominence, explaining why it is the film by which all of Breillat’s other films are judged. By comparison, A Real Young Girl is a transformative, disorienting experience, difficult and irrational and truthful.

The real young girl of the film’s title is Alice Bonnard (Charlotte Alexandra), an adolescent girl-woman who reluctantly returns to her parents’ provincial home for summer vacation from boarding school. She is sullen and self-obsessed (“I hate people. They oppress me”), which is typical for her age. She and her parents do their best to play the part of a happy family, a collaborative performance that thinly veils outright contempt for one another. It is the early Sixties, and the postwar economic boom conspired with rapidly changing social mores to cause a generation gap of historic proportions, and the Bonnards exhibit symptoms of this strain.

If Jean-Luc Godard’s 1966 film Masculine Feminine is about the children of Marx and Coca-Cola, A Real Young Girl is about those (female) children who descend directly from the latter. Godard’s film stars real life “ye ye” girl Chantal Goya, one of the princesses of Sixties French pop (infamous for inane “ye ye” choruses), which Godard uses to emphasize the break between meaningless pop cult consumption and meaningful revolutionary politics. While workers of the world unite off-screen, Breillat’s Alice listens to lyrics like, “It’s dangerous to love too much” and “I’m a little girl,” but the only gap relevant here is that between Alice and her petit bourgeois parents. They don’t understand her, but the peppy teenage pop singers on radio and TV do. “I’d do anything for that woman,” Alice plaintively sighs at the radio as it plays a song intended to elicit that very response, the camera staring back at Alice as though from the perspective of the unseen, underage chanteuse. Marx who?

Stranded in her provincial hometown among hostile grown-ups, with only broadcast “ye ye” girls to commune with, Alice plunges down the rabbit hole of her own newly discovered sexuality. Alice’s body is half girl and half woman, an uncomfortable in-between stage of maturity where breasts spill out of an ill-fitting bra and little-girl knickers resemble doll clothes on her fleshy body. Her flaxen hair and blue saucer eyes look almost plastic; her mouth seems to pout for a pacifier.

If this is Wonderland, then the white rabbit’s name is Jim. A day laborer employed by M. Bonnard, Jim (whose Christian name is Pierre) drives a bubblegum pink car, wears blue jeans, and has a tattoo. He is, in short, dreamy, and Alice’s summer vacation (and therefore the film itself) is given over to her daydreams about him. Like Lewis Carroll’s story, Breillat’s film leaves us to determine where the real world ends and Wonderland begins—that is, if Wonderland ever really existed and wasn’t just the languid summer afternoon dream of an overexcited young girl on the verge of womanhood.

A Real Young Girl captures the darkest, least explored realm of sex and selfhood: undefined and aggressive adolescent female sexuality, when they cannot yet know what they want but charge forward as though they do. By focusing on the innate perversity of young girls, Breillat turns the standard boy-meets-girl seduction narrative on its head, while remaining faithful to the captivating character of Alice, who at once seems like no one you’ve ever known and every pubescent girl you’ve ever seen. Other directors have tried to broach this subject, but most are too cowardly to admit that this dark sexual awakening has repercussions, many of them shameful and hurtful. While the rest of us maintain the fantasy that young girls can have it both ways, exploring their sexuality without consequences, Breillat exposes the inconvenient truth that there is no easy road to sexual maturity. Like Breillat’s equally brilliant 2001 film Fat Girl, A Real Young Girl will show you that everything you think you know about little girls’ libidos is wrong.

Alice is like a child seeing everything for the first time, only in her case she sees everything—and everyone—sexually. Viscous substances like tree sap and egg yolk fascinate her. A bottle of tanning oil becomes something with which to pleasure herself. She relishes kissing her father too long and sitting on his lap to scandalize her mother (and the viewer) with the impossible-to-ignore sexual overtones of her actions. But we soon realize that her sexed-up worldview is not self-imposed—Alice is merely responding to the way in which the rest of the world suddenly sexualizes her. Everywhere she goes she is made to feel embarrassed for her self-evidently sexual body, as a consequence of which she finds that “people looked at me reprovingly.” She cannot change her body or the way people react to it, so she might as well use it, have fun with it, make a game of it.

Alice fantasizes about Jim being the aggressor, about being able to mumble “no” in response to his advances, when of course she doesn’t mean it. Casting herself as the virgin policing the boundaries of their sexual intimacy, she agrees to let Jim have sex with her on the condition that he give her what she really wants: “The pill! You can get it in Switzerland!” In so doing, she dreams of embodying the radio and TV characters she idolizes, replicating their sung and staged melodramas. She dreams of being privy to such adult conversations—for Alice, this is as tantalizing as sex, if not more so. She repeats overheard dialogue in order to sound more sophisticated than she is, to convince herself that she really is the adult woman that she increasingly appears to be.

“I didn’t dream of sleeping with him. I’d never give myself to a man,” we hear her say. The affected self-assurance of these words reveals that they cannot be her own, even if we take for granted that they accurately describe how she feels. Instead of imagining sex, Alice fantasizes about rolling around on the beach with Jim, like couples do in movies, but more often than not the petting ends there. Does she even know what sex looks like? Probably not, but perhaps a fixation on penetrative sex is evidence of closed-minded notions of heterosex irrelevant to Alice’s sexual fantasies. In her imagination, she and Jim roll onto their backs and masturbate—a sensation Alice knows firsthand.

No more than ten minutes into the film we watch Alice discreetly pleasure herself with a spoon at the dinner table with her parents. After dinner, she wanders around a verdant field strewn with trash, her knickers around her ankles. Exposing herself in public clearly pleases her, but Alice is not an exhibitionist in love with her own naked body. “I only like seeing myself in small bits,” we hear as she carefully changes into her nightclothes piece by piece, without ever being fully naked. All of the pleasure she derives from exposing her body in public comes from the submissive degradation of perhaps being caught in a compromised position. The exhibitionist takes her top off for no reason; other women rely on elaborate ruses to expose their bodies, casting themselves as the demurely reluctant victims of erotically charged circumstance. (Spend five minutes with college girls on Halloween, and you’ll see what I mean.)

This peculiarly female fantasy of reverse voyeurism (that is, arousal by merely being seen) is what drives the booming sales at Victoria’s Secret and explains the appeal of Janet Jackson’s unfortunate “costume malfunction.” And yet no one talks about this inescapable phenomenon, as though to give it a name would be to spoil its coy magic. In one pleasant daydream, Alice imagines herself sensuously rubbing tanning oil on her schoolgirl friend, until Jim shows up and playfully drags her away by her feet as she squeals, “My suit is coming off!” Here, Alice derives as much pleasure from the thought of being carried away by hunky Jim as she does from the thought of being “accidentally” exposed in public. In theory, even the “accidental” exhibitionist owns and controls her submission by courting it, and therefore this sexual power is self-affirming and downright feminist, right? After watching A Real Young Girl, it no longer seems so simple.

Alice’s attempts to get Jim’s attention are artless and therefore seem shockingly brazen, because she does not yet now the complicated choreography of socially acceptable flirtation. Instead, she hikes up her skirts when she knows he’s looking, exposing her baggy, white knickers as she climbs onto the seat of her bike—a simple, straightforward gesture that nevertheless left me slack-jawed and burning with shame by association. What is she doing? People are watching! She is, of course, just doing what seems natural, but Alice’s gesture and my reaction to it exposed my own ugly intolerance and unconscious insistence upon the maintenance of bourgeois propriety. I know that women are entitled to sexual self-determination, but that doesn’t change the fact that I cannot watch that scene without shaming Alice and feeling ashamed myself for watching. This complicated emotional response illustrates the brilliance of Breillat’s film: She shocks you with your own response, and it works every time.

Alice is inexperienced with sex, but perhaps more importantly she is inexperienced with its representation in pornography. Since the film is shot from Alice’s perspective, Breillat is therefore able to completely transform how sex and sexuality are depicted onscreen, while remaining devoted to her heroine’s perspective. Unmoored from clichés of (masculine) dominance and (feminine) submission by Alice’s naïveté, Breillat subverts cinema’s standard-issue big-cock/small-cunt dichotomy, which I have unconsciously come to expect. Instead of dominance and submission, Breillat offers us Alice’s fantasy of Jim fucking her with a worm. Alice’s cunt is gigantic; it takes up the entire frame. Rather than a fetish object, the phallus here is small and squishy and must be ripped into pieces before being shoved inside. Here, he accommodates her, rather than the other way around. It’s a shocking inversion. As she so often does, Breillat forces a genuine confrontation with everything you think you know about sex and porn and film.