Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger says that Catherine Breillat has mellowed with time, which is like saying that a paper bag full of rusty fishhooks is less dangerous than a hot tub filled with razor blades.
"Women never grow bald, paunchy, and vain at 40, right?"—Alice
Catherine Breillat is a director for whom controversy is as normal as getting dressed in the morning. Her first major film, Une vraie jeune fille (A Real Young Girl) was not given the French equivalent of an X rating—it was banned outright. The film relentlessly explores female sexuality from a girl's point of view, featuring disturbing imagery of panties, dog corpses, vaginas, and worms. To say that Breillat aims to shock us is an understatement. To say that she is a feminist director is an equivalent understatement. Her body of work has made those two inclinations obvious. Twenty-five years after A Real Young Girl, Breillat presents Brève traversée (Brief Crossing). This court will explore whether Catherine Breillat's rampant approach has mellowed over the years.
Facts of the Case
Thomas (Gilles Guillain): Naïve teen flush with the innocence, lust, and pseudo-adult behavior that youth brings. He projects an attitude of maturity and sophistication, yet he constantly takes cues from the world around him. We sense in him a budding lothario.
Alice (Sarah Pratt): Fair middle-aged woman who has had her fill of games. Enigmatic and cold, Alice nonetheless retains a spark of youthful vigor and flirtatious warmth. We sense in her a reservoir of unsown wild oats, if she can unwind enough to sow them.
These two are about to share an overnight ferry voyage together.
Many Americans were first exposed to Breillat's films through Romance, a critically touted but unpopular film. It enjoyed heavy press in art film circles, where critics praised the film's piercing gaze into female sexuality. The ironically titled Romance showed us sexual frustration, indiscretion, and plain old horniness through the eyes of Marie (Caroline Ducey). What led to its unpopularity was the dialogue: talking, talking, ever more talking about penises and despair and vaginas and angst until we thought our brains couldn't take another fatalistic sexual analogy. French cinema tends to be philosophically dense, but Romance is a tier unto itself.
Fast-forward to Brief Crossing. Breillat has once again given us a sexual tale with a strong female protagonist. Here she has thrown in an element of shock by making the romantic interest a young and inexperienced boy (and casting a virginal actor who took full part in realistic sex scenes). Breillat's trademarks are all there; Alice spouts her fair share of man-despising vitriol. But Brief Crossing displays finer control of these elements. In many ways, Brief Crossing represents the refinement of the raw themes of Breillat's previous work, and they are more powerful for the subtlety. (Breillat even hints at this connection to her past films: It is no stretch to view Brief Crossing's Alice as a grown-up version of A Real Young Girl's Alice.)
Let's start with the feminist angle. Brief Crossing is the very embodiment of the battle between the sexes, although Thomas hardly realizes he's a combatant. Alice is always talking about sexual politics, grinding her axe in front of her blithe companion. It is the kind of stuff that French cinema is infamous for, using random happenstance as a metaphor for sexual ethics. Yet the way Sarah delivers her lines makes them seem flirtatious, almost like foreplay. Alice says herself that attack is one form of seduction. Such byplay makes this baldly feminist agenda palatable. Movies are often used to make a point or further an agenda, but when the agenda is transparent it can be annoying. Here, the agenda is wrapped up quite nicely in a complex relationship that keeps us guessing about Alice's true intentions. Breillat is somewhat balanced in her barbs. One of the great ironies is that Alice berates the pride and dishonesty of men, but she is in the presence of a humble and frank young man. He makes it perfectly clear what he wants, and he does not force the issue. He plays by the rules, negating some of the sting inherent in Alice's monologues.
Both Sarah Pratt and Gilles Guillain are unknowns. Because they are strangers to us, we spend much of the film discovering their mannerisms and personalities just as their characters are doing onscreen. Both performances are riveting at different times and for different reasons. Thomas is captivating because he is young but has such adult ambitions. Alice is a cipher, contradicting herself time after time. She speaks French and English and seems confident yet acts vulnerable. The strong performances speak highly of the actors, but they also indicate confident direction. In any case, this fleeting relationship is rich with emotional undercurrent.
Another of Breillat's trademarks is eroticism. Sarah Pratt is a sexy woman, but so masterful is the flirtation that even were she as plain as a bag of potatoes, we'd be dying to see her with her clothes off. When you throw on the additional fuel of Sarah's comely physique, Brief Crossing provokes a white-hot flame of yearning. Make no mistake, Brief Crossing is about sex, plain and simple. That we have to wait so long for it, that it is so illicit and real, makes the eventual sex scene come alive. We have a personal stake in these would-be lovers after being accomplices to their flirtation. Breillat dwells in the scene and its aftermath, fully capitalizing on the sexual tension she has created.
Part of the magic of the film comes from the photographic techniques. Though firmly couched in a realistic context, the shots are emotionally telling. Breillat is constantly emphasizing one character or the other, speaking with the camera as much as with the dialogue. The camera is often fully on the actor's faces. Thomas communicates through his eyes, stark and forthright. Alice communicates through her mouth. The set of her jaw expresses disdain, the curl of her lip indicates secret amusement. Her eyes always maintain the same cold look that could be playfulness, or fatigue, or manipulation. At pivotal moments, the camera moves back so that we can read the body language of the duo. There are also key scenes that border on expressionism, such as a scene in a bar with a magic act in the background, or steep angles following the two down stairways. We're always being led by the camera.
The soundtrack helps create an immersive environment. The 5.1 track is mostly anchored to the front stage but often breaks away to reveal life in the periphery. The opening scene is particularly well-handled, giving us the feeling of actually being on the ferry. Music is only introduced when it is played in the context of the scene, such as dance clubs. The soundtrack sells us on the realism of the events and location. We are on that ferry, and we can easily put ourselves in the place of the actors, feeling the cold wind of the crossing, huddling next to a stranger for warmth.
The bulk of the evidence shows that Catherine Breillat has not mellowed at all. However, her delivery has become more sophisticated. Brief Crossing is just as pointed and philosophically brutal as her other films, but it is more watchable and entertaining.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Another of Breillat's trademarks is a healthy dose of shock. Unlike some of her other films, Brief Crossing is not immediately shocking. Alice pushes the bounds, twisting Thomas to and fro, but she usually manages to pounce back across the line before alienating the audience. Brief Crossing contains two shocks. One is within the film, a twist that immediately casts previous events into a newer and harsher light. It is a delicious kind of malice, leaving a sudden rift in the audience's sense of warmth. The second shock comes as you listen to the director interview. Breillat is completely unapologetic about asking a young teenager to devour an older woman's breasts and rub private parts together with her on camera, even though the actor himself is sexually inexperienced. She says that the flush of embarrassment in his face gives the scene verisimilitude. I'm unaccustomed to hearing a director express such blatant disregard for her actors. Perhaps many directors feel this way, but you rarely hear people dismiss entirely the feelings and emotional well-being of others, particularly youths that they hired to make a film. In this sense, the interview is more shocking than anything in the film. As far as extras go, it is a doozy that makes up for a handful of advertising fluff.
Brief Crossing has the subdued, grainy, European look that I associate with Mentos commercials. I can only assume that this film was not created with high production values, but it may be the transfer's fault. The image lacks detail; whether from grain or digital noise reduction it is hard to say. The skin tones are decidedly greenish, which is not particularly flattering. Poor contrast and lots of dust do not help. I suspect the transfer is non-anamorphic, though I cannot be sure. In any case, this will not be among your best-looking DVDs.
Anyone who has experienced a fleeting encounter will detect the ring of truth. Brief Crossing is richly layered yet grounded through an unsympathetic approach, which makes it a compelling film. It is definitely one to watch twice, and it may be a movie you'll want to introduce to others. If so, it may be worthy of a permanent spot in your foreign film collection.
Pratt and Guillain, given that this is your first visit to the courtroom, you have shown remarkable poise. Feel free to approach the bench again in the future. Breillat, the court takes a dim view of repeat offenders. But you seem to be making real progress, so the court will allow your further testimony.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wellspring Media
• Director Interview
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