Breillat Retrospective @ InRO

Over at In Review Online, I participated heavily in the “Catherine Breillat Directrospective” helmed by our fearless leader Sam C. Mac.

I contributed essays on 36 Fillette (1989), Brief Crossing (2001), Fat Girl (2001) and Bluebeard (2009), and in the process completely engulfed myself in the sexually charged universe of Ms. Breillat.

All of the wonderfully written essays can be found underneath the thought-provoking Introduction by one of our many excellent editors, Ranylt Richildis, so please check out the whole retrospective. We put a lot of time and hard work into this beast, and in our minds it was worth every minute.

A Very Young Girl (Breillat, 1976)

Catherine Breillat’s debut shocker signifies everything that’s fascinating and maddening about her entire filmmaking career. For the first half, A Very Young Girl offers a daring glimpse into the warped fantasies of Alice (Charlotte Alexandra), a pubescent young vixen who returns home from boarding school to her French countryside home for Summer vacation. Like many of Breillat’s suffocating heroines, Alice is bored with her daily routine, understands the contradictions of her family life, and pines for some enigmatic fix by drifting off into heightened sexual fits of surrealism.

Breillat doesn’t mince the extreme imagery either, pushing Alice’s sexuality front and center so it’s unmistakably brazen and at times sensational. Alice bikes around the small town with her skirt up, flirts with older men by touching her privates, stalks an attractive young logger, and fights with her parents tooth and nail about her role as a daughter. These dalliances cause quite a stir in the town, but Alice’s parents end up caring more than the girl herself. But every action has a reaction, and with most Breillat’s films it’s the most minor moments that end up destroying the characters in the end.

The most disturbing element of A Very Young Girl might be Alice’s incredibly singular outlook on power, control, and ultimately manipulation. Breillat allows Alice to sway through scenes, part chameleon, part shark, scanning the shoreline for victims while also blending into the background. Her mere presence upsets the balance of communal stasis, and Breillat uses Alice to weed out the wolves in sheep’s clothing, those who watch from afar and both judge the provocateur and yearn for their undivided attention.

Unfortunately, Breillat can’t sustain the visceral power of the first half, and Alice’s experiences grow less fantastical and more realistic, depressing in the sense that conformity seems to be eroding her very soul from the inside out. A Very Young Girl provokes the audience into witnessing the emergence of a girl grasping at sexual straws in order to fill a gaping void. Breillat sees her heroine as both victim and aggressor, a great if not predictable foreshadowing of the more complex female forces to come.

Bluebeard (Breillat, 2010)

In wildly different ways, both Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl and The Last Mistress orchestrate the collective invasion of the female psyche by male oppressors. In each film, Breillat unravels sexual power and control to illustrate how her heroine’s battle against these social affronts, and the many different ways they fall victim to them. But Breillat brilliantly reverses this trend with her new film Bluebeard, a disjointed and diabolical period-piece balancing multiple story lines of sisters attempting to transcend the domineering male guise.

When their father passes away unexpectedly, Marie-Catherine (Lola Creton) and her older sister Anne (Daphne Baiwir) return home to their widowed mother, forced into the poor house and social ridicule. During their long carriage ride home, the girls pass by the towering castle of a wealthy and brutal aristocrat named Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas), and Marie-Catherine asks why such a structure would be built. Her sister answers,”To fend off invasions.” Marie-Catherine smiles, and the girls continue home.

Bluebeard later hears of the girl’s plight and proposes one of the sisters become his wife. Despite knowing Bluebeard has murdered his previous wives, the ambitious Marie-Catherine eagerly agrees to marry him. Almost immediately, her meek and slender physique begins playing tricks on the man’s perception, and Breillat stages a slow coup d’etat subverting gender politics and class distinctions. The subtle burn of revenge is something to behold, ending with a final shot confronting the fragility and brutality seeping through the castle walls.

Bluebeard appears to be a polished cinematic drama on the surface, but as with all of her recent films, Breillat deconstructs our expectations with genre and character. In a sly aesthetic decision, Breillat tells the story of Marie-Catherine and Bluebeard through the subjective eyes of another pair of sisters (also named Marie-Catherine and Anne), who find a copy of Bluebeard the novel in their attic and read out portions aloud. These young girls represent a disturbing parallel to the literary characters, playing out their relationship in much the same way, using prose as weapons against each other, finally acting out the film’s ending in their own harrowing way.

Breillat weaves these two stories together superbly, juxtaposing the nuances of each to potently represent her auteurist thematics. Taking emotional and physical control brings extreme power, but for both sets of sisters these actions also wreak havoc. The true horror comes in whether or not they decide to accept the consequences of their actions. As a procedure of gender invasion, Breillat’s Bluebeard paints a dynamic picture of social cost/reward, a sometimes terrifying and always fluid chess match no matter the characters or the time frame.

The Last Mistress (Breillat, 2008)

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The Duchess of Langeais is a tough act to follow. After reveling whole-heartedly in Rivette’s brilliantly staged rendering of forlorn love turned full-blown tragedy, I’m not surprised Catherine Breillat’s well-crafted The Last Mistress feels like small potatoes comparatively. Yes, both films use vastly different techniques and pacing to purvey their respective visions, but each can be linked by an obsession with past romantic entanglements, understanding, fantasizing, and re-living them. Whereas Rivette directly allows the viewer to grasp the minutia of the evolving characters by marking his narrative almost completely in flashback, making the book-ended present seem far more engaging and fateful, Breillat only uses flashback sparingly in one elongated montage of memory and regret, forcing her characters into predictable predicaments for most of the second half. Argento’s bold performance as the titular Vellini only heightens her need to be front and center, but instead she’s mostly defined as a calculating object offscreen. The inevitable finale is in turn disappointing, leaving little to ponder after the final credits. With The Last Mistress, the pleasures merely lie on the surface, in the texture of skin and blood, while Rivette delves deeper into his character’s uncertainties and shortcomings.