French writer/director Catherine Breillat, whose Romance beats Eyes Wide Shut as this year’s smartest, wariest sex film (if not the most fascinating), hasn’t been heard from in the U.S. since 36 fillette was exported back in 1987. Taking its title from the purported dress size of its 14-year-old protagonist, 36 fillette is a low-key character study involving an elaborate courtship between that girl (16-year-old Delphine Zentout, in a fine performance) and a 40ish salesman (Etienne Chicot). She’s on vacation with her family; he’s keeping a posh hotel room and spending long nights at dance clubs following a separation from his wife.
Yes, this another one of those cute-young-thing-beds-geezer-with-receding-hairline movies that we’ve all grown so tired of. But although Maurice is clearly taking advantage, the film investigates a balance of power betwen him and the girl — Lili protects her virginity in an extended will-she-or-won’t-she display, and it’s never clear whether the largely hapless Maurice is any good as a lover, anyway.
Breillat is interested in the girl’s incipient sexuality, the source of her desirability and power. Her skill with members of the opposite sex is established early on, when she gives a celebrity musician (Jean-Pierre Léaud, famous for his role in Truffaut’s autobiographical The 400 Blows) a demanding look from across a crowded room as he rather dourly signs autographs for well-dressed concertgoers. “I wonder what you want?” he asks. “I certainly don’t want your autograph,” she says. She’s not looking for sex or souvenirs; she just wants to talk.
When she’s playing the coquette, she’s just a kid, impatient with life and perturbed by her environment. She mopes around, complaining that she doesn’t have the guts to slash open her wrists, and that school bores her. Other than an obligatory scene in which her father smacks her around after she pulls a quick vanishing act, there’s no indication that this innate sulkiness is borne of anything more significant than standard-issue adolescent pique. But the ultimate sourness of this film (a quality it shares with Romance) is tied up in Lili’s encounters with men, who seem congenitally incapable of satisfying a woman sexually or emotionally.
Only with Léaud’s character, the musician, does Lili seem to make any kind of connection. Breillat does seem to be making her own version of The 400 Blows, with that actor’s presence just the most obvious reference point; she even closes her picture on a freeze frame that apes the Truffaut picture. Your reaction to the film will likely be reliant on your tolerance for that level of impertinence.
Even so, Breillat’s unique quality is her ability to make sex scenes emotionally resonant in and by themselves — the relationships between the characters are revealed in the ways they try to connect physically, and that physicality can only be conveyed on film through an offhand explicitness, at which Breillat excels. (Were she to dabble in out-and-out hardcore, you have to wonder if she could make the film that would singlehandedly rescue porn from the gutter.)
Let’s give Fox Lorber the benefit of the doubt and describe the label’s new DVD of this film as “disappointing.” To be honest, the first word that came to mind was wretched, but that’s a little too harsh. While the image is peppered with relatively unobtrusive digital artifacts, this does seem to be competently mastered from video source materials that probably date back to the film’s original release on tape and laserdisc in the 1980s. The non-removable subtitles are big, white, and ugly, and from the looks of the transfer, they were present on the worn film print used rather than being stripped in electronically. Special features are scant; they include a theatrical trailer, which is a nice touch, as well as a lame “filmographies & awards” section that omits Breillat’s most recent film and fails to tell us what Zentout has been up to since making this one (Léaud is the only performer listed).
The biggest problem is that the transfer is cropped to 1.33:1. For a late ’80s laserdisc release, that was barely acceptable; in this day and age, it’s inexcusable. The ultimate insult is that the trailer, which has been matted to about 1.50:1, reveals imagery on the periphery of the frame that went missing from the film itself.
But, OK, it’s better than watching the film on laserdisc, assuming you can find it, or on VHS. I applaud Fox Lorber for an eclectic and adventurous DVD line-up. It’s just a shame that, when you buy one of their discs, you don’t know whether you’re going to be getting something gorgeous, like Last Year at Marienbad or Vivre sa Vie, or a barely adequate disc like Wild Reeds, Irma Vep, or 36 Fillette. It would be nice if Fox Lorber would institute a “budget” line of low-priced DVDs, for which they could recycle old VHS and laserdisc transfers to their heart’s content; failing that, at least the industry should adopt some kind of disclaimer like the one you used to see on CDs, warning that the digital image could reveal limitations of the source tape, and affix it to new DVD versions of older video transfers. Until then, well, caveat emptor.
Directed by Catherine Breillat
Written by Breillat and Roger Salloch
Starring Delphine Zentout, Etienne Chicot, Olivier Parniere, and Jean-Pierre Léaud