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36 Fillette (Catherine Breillat) 1988   

Fourteen-year-old Lili (played by sixteen-year-old Delphine Zentout) finds her life to be a drag. Everything in the world seems to be conspiring against her in an attempt to ruin her. Sheís miserable, and she puts up a hard exterior shell in an attempt to conceal the fear she has that sheís somehow inadequate to face. She dresses in black, and usually has her hair covering her eyes. She wants to remain distant from people, since they usually turn out to be phony. Her brother is at once her only salvation from her parents while on vacation, and her greatest annoyance. Sheís as temperamental as she is judgmental. She is not afraid to appear outwardly unlikable to the world, and that quality makes her the ideal protagonist of Catherine Breillatís fascinating character study, 36 Fillette, a title taken from a French childís dress size.

Breillatís film does not ever attempt to apologize or explain Liliís behavior. With an almost clinical analysis, it presents a few days her life as Maurice, a forty-something year old man that appears to be entrenched in a serious mid-life crisis, courts her. She is simultaneously repelled and attracted to him. She is smart enough to realize he wants her for little more than sex, though naÔve enough to hope for more. In any case, she is eager to give up her virginity, so that her anxiety that comes with it will end. Her virginity is an absolute curse. She feels sexually impotent since she has never had sex. This is material that Breillat would later cover in her fantastic Fat Girl, but here it feels as if itís more surface level. Liliís abhorrence of her virginity seems to be a whim brought on by a fight with her family. The film uses an almost autobiographical, documentary feel, as opposed to Fat Girlís directorial shimmer, but the film hardly feels like a trial run. The scenes showing the courtship between Lili and Maurice often slow down to an almost real-time pacing, and they are stunning because the interchange of power becomes completely palpable. Zentoutís lead performance is as accomplished as they come. Her Lili is a tremendously complex character, even as the audience is able to see the gaps in her ill-formed logic. Breillat never allows the film to become solely about the age gap between the two characters. She is after something more here than simple moralizing, and doesnít simply let Lili off the hook. Her approach may seem cold, but itís precisely by not making judgments on her characters that she endows the audience with the greatest understanding of the situation. 

* * * 1/2

October, 2001

Jeremy Heilman