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Losing It

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36 FILLETTE

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Catherine Breillat

Written by Breillat and Roger Salloch

With Delphine Zentout, Etienne Chicot, and Jean-Pierre Leaud.

Among coming-of-age films this acrid little gem is an ideal antidote for Porky's-style teenage sex fantasies, and director Catherine Breillat's 14-year-old protagonist Lili (Delphine Zentout), bubbling over with bile and braininess, makes John Hughes's teenage heroines look about as complex as Annette Funicello in her Beach Blanket Bingo phase--no, make that her Mickey Mouse Club days. Lili is a lushly developed (in a pudgily Rubenesque way), ferociously precocious lower-middle-class girl from a Parisian suburb who is grimly determined to lose her "horrible" virginity with the first faintly intriguing male passerby--and make it snappy, si'l vous plait. Most undaintily, Lili arranges her own defloration with all the impersonal efficiency of a heat-seeking Sidewinder air-to-air missile homing in on target, which in this case takes the unlikely form of a supremely jaded 40-ish playboy. (Even the usual Freudian phallic imagery found in films about sex is inverted, even subverted, in this cunning work.) The roles of predator and prey flip-flop at every turn, confusing characters and audience alike, which is no mean feat. Director Breillat, screenwriter for Maurice Pialat's estimably gritty Police (1985), thoroughly demolishes every trace of prurience, instead focusing on the almost dizzying conflict within Lili--her confusion over her hunger for life and her anger at it.

What at first seems a raw and ragged mise-en-scene really reflects quite accurately the turbulence of a razor-sharp and resilient teenager on the prowl. Her ruthless seeking focuses not so much on sexual trysts in themselves, but on the self-knowledge she craves above all. The point of view is anchored so firmly in Lili that we quickly assume she is too strong and clever to be at any real risk, and in her scheme of things the guys are, well, just appendages. Yet Lili is no cold-blooded femme fatale in the making either. What's so riveting about her unpleasant antics is her gradual mastery, after lots of detours and delays, over her own hypercharged self.

36 Fillette is a curiously touching portrait, consciously leavened with the same compassionate candor that Truffaut brought to portrayals of his own youth in the intermittent and autobiographical Antoine Doinel saga (The 400 Blows, Love at Twenty, Stolen Kisses, etc). In fact, in Breillat's film the scepter is almost ceremoniously passed directly from the now middle-aged actor Jean-Pierre Leaud, Truffaut's "Doinel" (here playing a sympathetic adult), to Lili, the worthy heiress apparent.

36 Fillette opens on a blustery afternoon at the beach in a cramped family camper. The sullen and viper-tongued Lili contemplates ways to end her distressing maidenhood, and mulls over the adolescent conundrum of why life is such a stone-cold god-awful drag. She engagingly debates the relative merits of black and pink versus blue and green (while remaining ruefully certain that all colors look horrid on her) and contemptuously manipulates her sad-sack parents and maladjusted older brother, J.P. (Olivier Parniere). In short, Lili is at that tender age at which she mercilessly abuses everyone who fails to read her mind. It's a triumph of the skills of Breillat and actress Zentout that despite Lili's ostentatious quest to get laid, she isn't at all easy to read.

Lili marches off to the local disco, more sulky than sultry, clothed provocatively in a black bustier and trousers. Hitchhiking, she and her brother are scooped up by Maurice (Etienne Chicot)--an "old Romeo," Lili declares--who is a venerable disco habitue with the equivalent of an advanced degree in misogyny. Breillat pits this keen-witted kid who doesn't quite know what she wants against a dissipated and bitter gent who doesn't really like what he knows he wants. In a series of sparring bouts Lili and Maurice tease and taunt, tantalize and torment one another--and the underage seductress becomes so insistent and dominant that it's tempting to see her as a molester of middle-aged men. With close to cruel glee she tests the power latent in her sexuality, while Maurice approaches this latter-day Lolita with what amounts to a languid shrug of his shoulders, evidently having nothing better to do than dabble in a bit of statutory rape. Their physical clinches are about as erotic as wrestlers body-slamming, because what is at stake is so obviously power, not passion. At this level 36 Fillette resembles--at a cost, I think--the robustly misanthropic epics of Bertrand Blier (Menage), in which everyone cynically uses everyone else, with the pecking order sometimes changing but not the nature of the characters or the game.

But Breillat veers off from this supremely shallow course by resorting early on to a very simple device; she inserts an "interlude" patently designed to give audiences an alternative peek at Lili, in a magically calm moment when she softens most appealingly. It's a shameless and clumsily obvious device, and, of course, it works. In a nearby town Lili meets Mr. Golovine (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a celebrity of undefined talents who for no particular reason takes Lili aside for an amiable and revealing chat. In this respite, this cinematic "time-out," she is able to discuss feelings honestly, with an adult who is not absurd or at least is not absurd all the time. Golovine is gentle; he recognizes her skittish turmoil and wisely reaches out only as far as invited. But by his very presence in the role, Leaud injects the moment with a soothing mythic power, and needless to say Golovine instinctively understands that Lili isn't "mad at the whole world," but rather is maddeningly ambivalent and requires time and many more errors to sort it out.

Lili and Maurice resume dueling in his bordellolike living quarters, where they have Bloody Marys, a vitriolic fight, and some indecisive sex. Nothing could be more radiantly or ruthlessly clear than that Lili is enticing him only in order to plumb and chart the mystery she is to herself. But in case we see the poor guy as a pitiful Humbert Humbert, Breillat scrambles such sentimentalizing with a wicked turnabout. If Lili gets what she wants, perhaps he does too, the film suggests. Incidentally, the sex scenes, including one encounter in which her gag reflex is activated hilariously--are calculated to give sexual repression a good name.

The director's explicit link-up with Truffaut's films was boldly self-serving, but I believe, at this stage anyway, apt. Breillat's protagonist is a fascinating fury of a creature, and one can't help anticipating another "installment," a la the Doinel films, in her unpilgrimlike progress.

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