While her best films may still be more unconventional in style, in recent years Catherine Breillat has made a successful turn toward films that could almost be called mainstream while keeping the focus firmly on gender. The sexuality, while present, is slightly toned down in its explicitness. The storytelling is a bit more clearly drawn. These are the films one can watch to ease into Breillat’s filmography.
Breillat has on multiple occasions explored the dynamic of a relationship between a teen girl and an older man. With 2001’s Brief Crossing, she reverses the dynamic as French teen Thomas meets British thirty-something Alice on a ferry across the English Channel. In many ways the film draws out the gender role reversal in this dynamic. The use of nudity is commendable in that, while Alice is certainly attractive, she does show those subtle signs of aging on her body. An emotionally potent ending really makes this a success.
2007’s The Last Mistress marks a real step up in terms of the cinematography and art direction relative to the grittier aesthetic through most of Breillat’s films to this point. This is fitting as Breillat leaves the realm of the modern setting for late 19th Century costume drama. The bulk of the film involves Ryno, a poor and somewhat disgraced man of aristocratic birth, relating the story of his past romance with Spanish siren Vellini to the grandmother of the wealthy woman he seeks to marry. He must earn her trust that he will be true to her granddaughter. Like many French films, love proves to be a wild and unkempt thing and drama ensues. The bulk of weddings and divorces and affairs makes for quite the whirlwind.
Fairy tales have always been rich ground for thematic subtext, but often, at least as presented by Disney, in a way that can be considered problematic on gender grounds. Breillat has turned to the world of fairy tales for her two most recent films, 2009’s Bluebeard and 2010’s The Sleeping Beauty. Bluebeard tells a story of two sisters who, due to their poverty, try to impress upon a nearby aristocrat seeking a wife. However, he is rumored to have killed all his previous wives. Like Fat Girl, the rivalry of sisters is of importance here in both parallel stories. The film has some interesting comments on patriarchy, though not as clearly drawn as might be desired.
Finally, The Sleeping Beauty is a story that has been critiqued on gender grounds because the female character is completely inert, asleep, waiting for a male to save her. Breillat puts a powerful twist by taking us into her dream world where she is the actor in the story. The princess is a fascinating character, initially insisting she is a boy and becoming upset by attempts to fold her into the gender norms. Early in her fantasy world when she is taken in by a mother, with one son, who always wanted a daughter, the princess is delighted by the hand-me-down boys clothes and playing along with her new brother in boys games. Then he hits puberty and once again gender is a source of tension. Ultimately, Breillat tells a tale about girls finding their own way toward being women.
Catherine Breillat has and hopefully will continue to be an essential voice in cinema, telling tales about women and from a woman’s perspective that are too often lacking. Watching her develop into a truly accomplished technical filmmaker and storyteller is really exciting and makes one anxious for what will follow.