Every year there has to be at least one controversial French movie. This year, that mantle appears to have fallen on 36 Fillette, an odd little film that examines the familiar territory of a young girl’s coming of age.
Countless French movies have covered the same subject, but 36 Fillette has a number of distinguishing characteristics. One of the most striking is that director-writer Catherine Breillat has made a film in which almost no character is at all likable, including the heroine.
The heroine, Lili (played by 16-year-old Delphine Zentout), is a thoroughly exasperating character. She’s a real pill, 14 years old, smart and spiteful, and her body is becoming womanly beyond her years (the title refers to her dress size). On vacation in Biarritz, with her parents and a much-hated older brother, she meets a 40-year-old hipster (Etienne Chicot) who somewhat lazily goes about seducing the girl, or is it the other way around?
This seduction never quite gets completed, since Lili is mostly teasing and her “old Romeo” is mostly bored and confused. The film shows their encounter as a protracted sex game with much attention to body parts.
Director Breillat dares us to turn all of this off, particularly in a hotel-room scene between the two, which is presented in real time with long, silent pauses. But if Breillat is as taunting as her protagonist, she’s also gifted at finding the authenticity of this situation: the look of the seaside location, Lili airily telling a friend, “If you knew what my love life was…”, the fingerprints on the window through which we glimpse Lili and her older man kissing. These details have the ring of truth.
And the two lead actors are excellent. They go about their jobs so honestly that the movie stays away from Lolita-like titillation. For all that, the acting honors are stolen in an early cameo by Jean-Pierre Leaud.
He plays a famous pianist who has a brief conversation with Lili, in which he advises the hateful girl that the world is like a giant box-spring mattress: You bounce on it, then you land somewhere else. It’s a wonderful scene, and only Leaud could bring this kind of eccentric grace to it. I haven’t seen him in a movie in years, but he made his own debut as a child in Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, and he appeared in movies by virtually all the important French directors of the 1960s. Some of those movies were the most controversial of their years, too.
First published in the Herald, January 26, 1989
Breillat was about to wade into even more controversial territory, of course, with Romance and Fat Girl. I knew nothing of the director at this point, but I remember coming out of the film and thinking this was a geuninely original voice.