Copyright © 2012 by James Clark
On the first night of her summer vacation from boarding school, taking place at her parents’ rural home amidst timber country, a fourteen-year-old girl, Alice, resolves to defy those parents’ preference that she get a good, normal night’s sleep and instead gets started with writing a diary. The first entry we see is puzzling, but, then again, maybe not. It shows her, again insomniac, quietly making her way to the bathroom adjacent to the multi-bed dorm. First she goes to a stall, lifts the toilet seat to enable her to nearly immerse her anus and vagina, and also leave a mark on her cheeks, and then she pees copiously. She has locked the stall from within, and therefore a good friend, who had noticed her leaving her bed, cannot join her and can only cry out, again and again, “What are you doing?” Perhaps we have to give Alice more credit for constructing a coherent diary than we were first inclined to grant, because that question—in face of a flood of urine and cigarette ashes, extending to her hands and other parts of her body as well as the whole bathroom floor—captures the eerie persistence in body fluids our protagonist hurls herself into with only the vaguest of directives to guide her—like a young Marie Curie, or, perhaps closer to the mark, like a young Joan of Arc. (Like those predecessors, the film [produced in 1976] and its author suffered extreme physical violence, undergoing a ban that lasted twenty-five years.)
During the hours preceding that episode of sensual overdrive testified to on paper, she furtively installs a spoon in her vagina during a family snack of baguettes and honey at her arrival, and then she wanders about a barren field (strewn with discarded plastic containers, recalling casualties on a battlefield), caressing her own arms and shoulders and then shuffling due to her panties being down around her ankles, impeding her movement as if they were shackles applied to a heretic, as with those worn by Joan in Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, conspicuous as she walked between the shabby ecclesiastical court and her prison cell. (On finishing dinner, she dutifully kisses her parents good night and gropes along a murky, medieval-resembling corridor to her room.) Before pretending to call it a day, however, there is the TV, black and white, with a show lit and shot so severely—one could almost call it Bressonian—as to evoke a distant past as well as a crude and lively present. Appearing there is a Gallic rockabilly-rebel, all in black, greasy hair—not quite Elvis the King, but clearly in Alice’s eyes worthy of reverence and daring commitment. His song, delivered with a sneer and buckets of arrogant bravado (and a bit of an echo chamber), is enlightening, and it seems to be in close harmony with Alice’s first remarks (delivered as if preparatory to a diary/testimony entry)—“I hate people. They oppress me…” (This soliloquy is performed in a railway car [en route to her summer stopover] where she beholds a trio of provincials across from her, appearing to be direct descendants of the mobs relishing the gore of the guillotine in days popularly known as “revolutionary.”) The King proceeds in this way:
“Back then my friends used to bitch
Because I found a girl and settled down.
But nowadays that’s all in the past.
It would cost a fortune to make me stop being a single man.
My sweet baby has upped and gone
Too bad, too bad, too bad.
I was living on a volcano…
I couldn’t care less.
I’m out in my Triumph on a Sunday night
I pick up more girls than I can possibly want…
No feeling is worth the price of freedom.”
(Also on the TV, there are catchy sound bites about a Tour de France winner for the fourth consecutive year… and the death of a Bishop—both events recalling Bresson’s Joan.)
In her inner sanctum at last, and thus pumped, she vomits (more fluids to the fore; and unwitting solidarity with rebel Joan’s ordeal), but she does so much more, and thereby this alarming film applies some heat to Bresson’s chilly macrocosmic, almost Scholastic, interrogation. (Her bedroom ceiling light has been provided with a lacy shade that resembles a nun’s headpiece.) She is in monologue mode, prepping for the idiom of the diary, and we get an entry that stops us cold, in its precocious articulation of a subtle sensual dilemma, or, more accurately, the first stage of such articulation. “I undressed myself hideously… I only like seeing myself in small bits.” (During this preamble to donning her pyjamas, her lovely body delights us and her, too—“I’m well-developed for my age…” [Charlotte Alexandra, the actress very effectively carrying this role, was twenty-one at the time]—and we can’t help remembering here Marthe’s bedroom rites, as inspired by popular media, in Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer.
She takes a new notebook from her unpacked suitcase (a fresh, accounts book play of lines from this tool constitutes the background of opening credits reeled without a sound—Alice’s theatre of war), a tension-augmenting, repeated, slow run up the scales by the King’s reverberating guitar factor begins to play over the long night, and she’s presented in the dorm washroom, writing her name on the stall with mucus from her vagina. To complete the rumination about not seeing herself as a whole entity, the next day—stung by her mother’s charge that she dresses like a whore (tanning in the yard and flouncing about in the house in a bikini [eliciting approval from her father]) and is surely headed for the gutter—she pours out a reflection, after applying red ink to her vagina and nipples, which runs as follows:”I can’t stand the proximity of my face and my vagina.” Though the remark admits to suffering an impasse about coordinating her much-displayed material netherland and the vibrant aura of her face, before slipping into heavily traversed angel/whore morphology, we should take hold of something rather more subtle indicated by the cinematography. Over and above a camera arrestingly prone to showing Alice’s motion as framed by focus upon her feet and lower body—a visual characteristic of Bresson’s Joan—the disclosure of Alice’s person comprises a fascinating contrast between close-ups and middle-distance shots. Actress, Charlotte Alexandra, presents (enhanced by lighting features) a radiant energy as informed by perfect skin and vibrant muscle tone when shown to be filling the screen; but at longer range, her features and attitudes become rather discordant. That physical transmission serves to obviate trite baggage filling up the protagonist’s far from routine sensual schedule. Her insistence upon being totally stymied by the workings of her body must, I think, be ascribed to literary self-indulgence and immaturity, an aspect like her announcing, “I write in red ink with the pen I had for my Communion.” (Also in this vein, but with far more workable undertone, is her boast, “Disgust makes me lucid…I felt liberated by the sweet smell my vomit gave off…”) The copious run of close-ups proffering Alice’s adventure in a land that has her wondering has been memorably keyed by a second night’s glimpse of an inspiration on that grotty TV set. This factor is a nod toward Bresson (specifically his Four Nights of a Dreamer), inasmuch as it features a musical motif commanding attention from the protagonist, and coming to pass in multiple instalments. Alice gets to see on television the adolescent pop star she pledges allegiance to on the train ride home, specifically the milk train transfer from the main line vehicle first seen. Here’s the gist of what speaks to her: “I’m a little girl… I don’t know how big a girl I am… Please tell me what you like about me?” In her dad’s car driven by a grandfatherly employee, she only deigns to speak to him when the song comes on the radio: “Listen to this… I’d do anything for that woman!” We see her face from below, classic Joan of Arc territory. Like Joan, Alice may be young and foolish, but she’s discernibly on a roll (though perhaps not [yet] capable of eliciting a fan base amongst those who behold her artistry), a roll that ennobles her abrasive forays. (On meeting her parents at the end of the car ride, after a spate of fumbling embraces, she bolts ahead of her mom on going through the doorway and is criticized, “Do you have to jostle people?” The chronically unhappy woman would go on to maintain, “You can’t help but notice when things start badly…”)
In this way the scene is set—for those able to countenance nudity and sexuality without terror and rage—for this unlikely road warrior to put down some wild test drives with a view to her vehicle’s unsatisfactory bifurcation as to materiality and intent, inertia and steering. Like Joan’s spectacular blending of deadly earthiness and heavenly frisson, Alice becomes a rare and flawed and increasingly troubled practitioner of love. Her fertile imagination proceeds not simply in view of the roster to be dealt with amidst the woodland that is her summer locale, but instead, as with the TV feeds, she fantasizes opportunities not materially tangible. Martine, the girl who asked, “What are you doing?” has sent a postcard from her beach retreat and Alice enthuses to Mom, “She wants to be a pilot.” “Pretentious,” is the response from her elder (a bundle of disconnects, showing, for instance, affection and pleasure in feeding her flock of chickens, and yet—on graphically butchering one of them—insisting, “Chickens are the one animal I feel no pity for”). The wet blanket nearby inspires a day dream about being with Martine on her far-off beach (which sports a monumental machine-age apparatus recalling the ferry-bridge in Jacques Demy’s Young Girls) and flirting with and being kissed by a handsome young hunk (being in fact dragged along the sand in supposed Neanderthal style). Right on cue, the real thing arrives, in the form of “Jim” (“Jacques” being a Bressonian live wire), a new hand at Dad’s sawmill. (Apparently Joan of Arc’s parents, whom she ditched with nary a backward glance, were upper-crust peasants.) Also converging here is a third night of TV, this time featuring neither the King nor the Angel—neither Saint Michel nor Saint Catherine—but Charles de Gaulle, of no interest to Alice but sending her Dad into the resolve, “I want her to know the meaning of real values…” (At this point, too, Alice interrupts the postman carrying her report card, and she inflates her not high-value marks.) After masturbating with that red fluid, followed by heavy application of room spray, she is somehow on better terms with her mother, who, rather touchingly, I think, promptly pulls down an old bicycle from the rafters of the shed, and away rides Alice—bikes having a history of aiding women’s liberation—to Jim at the sawmill.
The mill is, among other things, a huge stockpile of planks, bringing to mind platforms for burning heretics. It is also a large workforce—the foreman of which expresses concern that her loafing around all summer might stifle her “will to work.” It is also, most importantly, the arena where her bid for ecstasy slides into canniness akin to that of her parents and the foreman. As such, the film confronts a primordial dilemma, realness (the Vraie, True, in the title, Une Vraie Jeune Fille, also meaning Real), and opts for a getting real about history, in stark contrast to the comparatively blithe success story of Saint Joan. (There is a striking moment when the noise of the power saws and trucks completely covers over her voice as she talks with workers she has known since she was little. That retraces the Maid of Orleans’ calling out soundlessly as the fire roars.) Far from informing a brilliant, celebrity saga, Alice’s bid shows her promptly turning to a common gratification, namely, lifting her dress over her thighs while mounting her bike to leave, every member of the crew brought to a halt. Concluding that Jim thinks she’s too young, she pouts, “I hated him… I’d never give myself to a man…” and fires up a steamy reverie of being splayed and staked to the ground and having Jim try to introduce a large worm into her vulva, and then tear it into wriggling pieces and spread them amongst her pubic hair. The masochistic tenor of this run-through involves a sharp turn to generate power from hostility and inertia. Its extremity is not merely designed to confirm obsessions pre-dating and transcending vacation boredom; but it also provides a conduit for revealing Alice’s falling (…falling…) into a painful diminishment of her “lucid” apex, along lines of precisely “bad girls” and their media-darling rabidity that factors down to humdrum domesticity. (Following from this “little girl” channel’s eclipsing her “big girl” instincts, there is her briefly rebounding to a member of a motorcycle, rockabilly gang recalling Gerard the hopelessly trite and utterly destructive punk in Bresson’s Balthazar.)
The dramatic and reflective rewards of the second half of this film pertain to the young but very ambitious protagonist’s becoming smaller and smaller as her campaign to fathom the sensual volcano her King embraces becomes bogged down in gestures characteristic of those hated “people” she was at the outset so determined to do something about. She watches Jim dance with another girl at a gazebo concert in a dreary rain, the band for which—butchering the beloved little girl/big girl song—seeming to have discovered the nadir of cool. (This film would be just a first instalment of Breillat’s relish for deploying popular music in order to illuminate a featured persona’s purchase upon freedom.) Alice proceeds to imagine being “liked” by the middle-aged owner of a chateau, and dances with him in a sequence of tepid and awkward shuffles. Then she goes to the midway of the village fair and (despite a guitar motif like that of the King pointing the way to true adventure), on a caterpillar ride, is shown a model of a gigantic cock by the guy in the seat next to her. “Asshole! You dumb bastard!” she complains. This is followed by a scene in the family living room, Alice snuggling up to and being fondled by Dad (and her recalling that midway cock), while Mom looks on murderously. From there she masturbates on a railway track, legs open wide as if to absorb a locomotive. She watches her mother slit the throat of one of the hens and plop the guts on the ground, where other chickens promptly grab and eat them. During a visit to a grocery store with her Mom, she hears the perpetually sneering proprietress warn, “She’s not a little girl anymore,” an innuendo that leads to Alice’s no longer having a bike. Now in a protracted funk, she picks out some ear wax and spreads it on a paper (literary ambitions going through a season of blight), thinking to note for posterity, from the vantage point of a blanket in the (prison) yard, “I buggered myself with a bottle of sunscreen. It did nothing for me…”
Disconcerting as this may be, even more turmoil is in store with the onset of her actually persevering (on foot) and winning over the handsome young Jim. Her penchant for surreal disclosure goes into overdrive after a brief real-time encounter where they form some kind of bond in the scrub territory near the sawmill, Alice whipping up a wet vagina as she sits in his path, legs splayed. She follows this sort of electric moment with the film’s second-most incandescent fantasy (after the torture with the worm), her muse alive, even if not well. The imagined interplay is tempered by close-ups of their face, presaged in her first visit to the mill. On grassland near the sea she crawls on all fours, like the unhappy, once-rural girl (showered by chicken feathers) near the end of La Dolce Vita, chicken feathers at her anus. With his mouth he picks out one of the feathers, and they embrace violently. He picks some yellow wild flowers and teases her with them, drawing them away as she ardently reaches for them. Then he puts a couple of blossoms in her hair, and next we see her hair awash in yellow blossoms. Speaking to that roadblock in getting feathers and flowers on the same page, they masturbate together, The King’s lead guitar moving up and down the scale. His hand is covered with semen and she, as always, in recording mode, tells us, “I watched his cock flopping like a dead fish…” As she tears away from this one of a series of trials that fizzle, she tells him angrily, “Get lost!” Right after this, clueless Dad tells her—one of a series of heart-to-heart, a previous one involving his recommending she set her sights on being a schoolteacher in order to reap long summer vacations—“When I was 17 I was at war, not having fun like you.”
It is to be noted, before tracing the upshot of her battle with Jim, that the narrative pointedly weaves a war between her parents into her resentment-plagued deliberations. Her mother had, throughout to this point, provided a descant touch of mockery toward the cliché-ridden businessman’s underwhelming energies, and, in conjunction with his citing his war-record, there she is, fiercely planing down the dining room table and growling to her daughter, “He’s scared of young people… There’s no talking to him… He likes to control things. I know you’re on his side!” On dropping Alice off at the mill, Dad gets together in the sand with a congenial girl who gently concedes, “You’d marry me if you were free.” Bearing some resemblance to Alice and Jim, the other couple pull away before climax (the girl with the bons mots saying, “Outside—no inside!”), and Alice’s Dad wipes his cock—from which we soon hear Mom rant, “Your father doesn’t mind giving me his sperm to wash out!” As her parents shoot it out on Main Street (“When I was expecting Alice, were you already cheating on me?”/ “Yes… But I don’t think I want to lose you…”), Alice watches, realizing there is something at stake for her own concerns in this miasma. Her father, so often sounding insightful, but so devoid of a comprehensive standing (His looking like comedian Terry Thomas doesn’t help, either), declares, as if this were a business meeting, “We love each other… You’ve never been able to take risks!” Take-charge-guy Dad had rigged up a shotgun-primed trap in the garden to exterminate the boar that was depleting the veggies. Instead of the boar, Jim gets exterminated in a nocturnal bid to bring some consummation to his and Alice’s life. This sends Mom totally into outer space—“I should have divorced you twenty years ago! We’re ruined! How are we going to pay for this?” And it sends Alice into packing her diary into her suitcase and preparing to take one last, perhaps long but surely not fond, look at what she now knows more keenly to be the Murderer’s Row of historical enterprise.
We’ll bring Jim back to help flesh out the way Alice almost follows in her parents’ footsteps. We are so caught off guard, by what Jim’s done with his hard-earned wages, that when he drives up in a tiny pink car we first suppose it’s one of Alice’s dreams. (Just prior to this test run [to ask for a raise; he gets fired], she had gone to the same old [hardly reliable] well of goo and defacement to get some communing going with her Hit Parade muses [her angels’ voices]. She dabs black ink into her filmy dress and smears herself with candle wax—“Symbols don’t scare me”—looking in vain for a trail of cheeky squalor to get things rockin’.) The toy-like vehicle actually includes a radio, and on it we hear a bit of country/western cheek and melodrama. “If you think I’m just a lout… No laws hold me… Give me my chance!” While Jim’s about to go free-lance, she smears masking tape over the windshield, describing sketchy crosses (like the one Bresson’s Joan obtains minutes before her death) upon an escapist toy. (Another way of looking at her minor vandalism is that it shows some undermining of that boast about symbols.) Car-proud dude that he is, he glowers, “You’ll pay for that!” (In her near despair at capitulating so far, she sadly replies, “Yes, I will…”) Driving to a secluded forest road, he parks, and the way he fondles her reminds us of Alice’s Dad and his canny girlfriend. On his rubbing her vulva and then undoing his belt, she calls out, “No! No! I’ll sleep with you but I don’t want a baby.” She goes on to instruct him about obtaining for her some birth control pills, and she even knows that the best source is Switzerland, that tidy precinct of canny success. If we haven’t thought of it before, this twist pretty much seals the deal that that candy-color-kid, Jacques Demy, has arrived on the set, with his bittersweet poetry of too little, too late. Alice tries to make a joke—“I’m still a minor, you know”—but it only carries us from bad to worse. The pill arrives, and she tells him to wait until evening, because “it’s sadder…”
At that point the shortfall stuns and stupefies her. But watching her parents unravel sparks an enactment of her mantra, “Disgust makes me lucid.” This was not to be an excellent summer vacation; but, on the other hand, part of the edifying punch of this episode was its putting an end to summer vacations of any description. Breillat’s brave and brilliant production invests a deluge of sensual audacity which pays off so handsomely that we become beneficiaries of an awesome engagement of the Joan of Arc legend, particularly the relentless critique that is Bresson’s Trial of Joan of Arc. Whereas the latter presents a finality the unfinished business of which we are left to pry from the written evidence, A True Young Girl sends our way a stunning sense of the discordant carnal field to bring to glowing harmony, and the odds against ever making headway. Moreover, it deploys cinematography and performance in such a way as to make us aware that the battle yields its own triumphs irrespective of the war.
This latter gift is transmitted in an arresting way by the dash of Breillat’s novelistic touch with metaphor. Two weaves of thematically fertile, intertwined issues provide the viewer with a compass for traversing the narrative’s jarring abundance. The first is broached with the work’s first seconds—that mainline express exploding in our face as it rushes by, carrying a collection of hidebound commoners and a nauseous Alice. The life-sapping prosaicness there is immediately contrasted by the picturesque little, one-coach local, jouncing slowly our way with the song about “how big a girl I am.” The prose/poetry juxtaposition takes a more edgy turn with the episode of the everyday, canny spoon serving an ecstatic, uncanny care (given tangible force by the color and muscle tones of Alice’s legs under the table). Soon the King’s song takes up this charge, apropos of his steady girl and his departing the Byzantine realm of domesticity. Alice’s writing binge that first night with the diary contrasts prosaic hygiene and obedience as against inchoate rebellion known at gut-level to be on to a first, poetic principle. Crushing an egg at the hen house interrupts domestic plodding with sensual magma. (But note—her mother finds poetic respite in caring for that flock! And note, too, the distemper of Alice’s sneer and retort, “It was broken.) As seen on television, the “woman I’d do anything for” comes across as a trite show-biz Kewpie doll, unwittingly emitting quantum poetics. The face/vagina challenge takes its place in this bruising saga of prose and poetry. While she flirts with the scruffy sawmill hands (a moment she refers to as “humiliating”), her attention is locked upon Adonis-like Jim. She applies makeup, looks and clearly feels smashing, and then gets stuck with the jerk and his model cock on the caterpillar ride. Her Dad’s little reproof, during the cancellation of the bike (a prose/poetry entity in itself), “You’re dangerous to yourself” unwittingly spans canny cautions and uncanny torrents. She wonders why there are so many dogs’ corpses on the beach—the bearers of unconditional love, in face of a sea the raw inertia of which is dangerous for vessels of uncanny poetry. On the third night of TV dinner, Dad is all rapt attention for a report about Pompidou and De Galle dissolving Parliament and precipitating, “the worst crisis of the Fifth Republic;” the shows on the first two nights imply another kind of “worst crisis.” This survey can get us started in sifting through the work from that angle.
The second metaphor, as you know, concerns the struggle of Joan of Arc. Two very exciting moments will suffice to initiate further appreciation of that vein. The first is the impact of the sawmill, its stacks of lumber resembling the flammable platform for the stake. Also there, the tentative, peek-a-boo flirtation of Alice and Jim amidst the heavily stockpiled inventory provides startling seconds when they appear to be peering through the peep-hole of a dungeon’s door. The final provision of absorbing panache has to do with her reverie about being bound, nude with limbs splayed, to the turf of a wasteland. As Jim laughs mockingly, like Joan’s English captors (Jim being a bemusing nickname for his real name, Pierre), there is a split-second when her head lines up with a shaded stake-like feature, her eyes squint heavenward in the bright sun and a rope of barbed wire across her chest punctuates her entrapment. Thereby Breillat throws down a gauntlet to not only Bresson, but also Dreyer.