A Real Young Girl  

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli

A Real Young Girl (Une Vraie Jeune Fille) is a 1976 French drama film about a 14-year-old girl's sexual awakening, written and directed by Catherine Breillat. A Real Young Girl, which Breillat's first movie, was based on her fourth novel, Le Soupirail. The film's depiction of graphic sexual content and bizarre sexual fantasies led to it being banned in many countries, and it was not released in theaters until 2000.

Breillat's films and novels are often about the "...erotic and emotional lives of young women, as told from the woman's perspective," typically using "...blunt language and open depiction of sexual subject matter." Many of Breillat's films and novels, including A Real Young Girl have led to controversy and hostile press coverage. For example, Breillat's film 36 Fillette, about the "... burgeoning sexuality of a 14-year-old girl, and a middle-aged man intent on seducing her" led to "storms of controversy."

Plot

The film shows several months of the life of Alice, a 14-year old girl attending a boarding school in France. While at the boarding school, Alice finds herself becoming increasingly withdrawn and preoccupied with her awareness of her body's changes. When she returns to her parents' country home to spend the summer vacation with them, her sense of being disconnected and alienated increases even more. All around her in her bedroom are the trappings of her former self, of her childhood, and yet she is becoming increasingly aware of sexual thoughts and preoccupations.

Alice's father manages a sawmill and the mother works as a housewife, carefully managing the family budget. While Alice is spending days with her mother, she helps the mother cook and clean and listens to her mother's complaints about her life. After tiring of the domestic routine of meals and chores, Alice begins escaping through daydreams and erotic thoughts, which she captures in her diary. Later, unbeknownst to her parents, Alice begins taking bike trips into the nearby town, where she loiters in bars, watches young men, and flirts with them. As well, Alice goes to her father's sawmill, where she becomes infatuated with Jim, a sawmill worker in his mid-20s.

When Alice's parents discover that she has been riding into town, they are upset, as they fear that she may be vulnerable to the attentions of the more experienced young men in town, and her bike trips are curtailed. However, even on foot, Alice is still able to wander to the sawmill, where she catches Jim's attention with her provocative flirtations. As Alice is going through the turbulent emotions of her first sexual experiences, coincidentally, her parents' relationship begins to unravel, after Alice's mother confronts the father about his many infidelities.

Critical response

Critic Brian Price refers to A Real Young Girl a "...transgressive look at the sexual awakening of an adolescent girl," an "awkward film" which "...represents Breillat at her most Bataillesque, freely mingling abstract images of female genitalia, mud, and rodents into this otherwise realist account of a young girl's" coming of age. Price argues that the film's approach is in line with Linda Williams' defence of literary pornography, which Williams describes as an “elitist, avant-garde, intellectual, and philosophical pornography of imagination" versus the "...mundane, crass materialism of a dominant mass culture.” Price argues that "there is no way...to integrate this film into a commodity driven system of distribution," because it "...does not offer visual pleasure, at least not one that comes without intellectual engagement, and more importantly, rigorous self-examination." As such, Breillat has insisted that "...sex is the subject, not the object, of her work."

Reviewer Lisa Alspector from the Chicago Reader called the film’s “theories about sexuality and trauma...more nuanced and intuitive” than other film treatments, and noted the film's use of a blend of dream sequences with realistic scenes.

John Petrakis from the Chicago Tribune noted that the film’s director, Breillat “...has long been fascinated with the idea that women are not allowed to go through puberty in private but instead seem to be on display for all to watch, a situation that has no parallel with boys.” Petrakis points out that Breillat’s film “...seems acutely aware of this paradox.” Dana Stevens from The New York Times called the film “crude, unpolished, yet curiously dreamy.”Maitland McDonagh from TV Guide also commented on the film’s curious nature in his review, which states that the film is “...neither cheerfully naughty nor suffused with gauzy prurience, it evokes a time of turbulent (and often ugly) emotions with disquieting intensity.” Other reviewers, such as Christian Science Monitor’s David Sterritt view the film as a way of understanding the director’s early development “...as a world-class filmmaker.”

Several reviewers have commented on the film’s frank treatment of unusual sexual fantasies and images. Filmcritic.com’s Christopher Null pointed out that the film was “...widely banned for its hefty pornographic content,” and called it one of Breillat’s “most notorious” films. Null says “... viewers should be warned” about the film’s “graphic shots” of “sexual awakening...(and) sensory disturbances”, such as the female lead vomiting all over herself and playing with her ear wax. While Null rates this “low-budget work... about a 3 out of 10 on the professionalism scale” and admits that “... it barely makes a lick of sense,” he concedes that “there's something oddly compelling and poetic about the movie.” The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman called the film a “...philosophical gross-out comedy rudely presented from the perspective of a sullen, sexually curious 14-year-old.” The New York Post’s Jonathan Foreman called the film a “... test of endurance, and not just because you need a rather stronger word than "explicit" to describe this long-unreleased, self-consciously provocative film.”




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