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Wednesday, March 26, 2003

What a wicked game to play

A ma soeur!

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Catherine Breillat
Running time: 86 minutes
Language: French
Currently showing

Catherine Breillat may not have "love" and "hate" tattooed across her knuckles, but she's got those words seared permanently into some frequently accessed corner of her psyche. Men, sex, siblings, desire . . . In "A ma soeur! (For My Sister)," Breillat again confronts her contradictory feelings toward life's main courses, and -- once again -- don't expect any dessert.

News photo
Catherine Breillat and Roxane Mesquida in Tokyo (below); and Mesquida with Anais Reboux in "A ma soeur!"
News photo

"Men are pigs," says 13-year-old Anais (Anais Reboux), the younger and chubbier of two teenage sisters at the center of "A ma soeur!" It's a view Breillat shares to a certain extent, as evidenced by the men on display in previous films such as "Romance" and "36 Fillette." And yet, knowing this, Breillat is also aware of the delicious way in which sexual attraction clouds this understanding.

Anais' older sister, 15-year-old Elena (Roxane Mesquida), is particularly susceptible to romantic delusions. Svelte and flirtatious, she knows she can command the attention of men, and gets off on that knowledge. While on summer holiday with her family on the Mediterranean coast, Elena cruises a cafe and is chatted up by Fernando (Libero De Rienzo), a much older Italian grad student who knows well the rules of seduction.

It's an interesting scene: Elena and Fernando sit on one side of the table as Elena basks in his smoothly worded flattery. Meanwhile, Anais sits across from them, her face buried in a banana split Fernando has bought her. Breillat directs our attention to the cravings of the sisters; both involve filling a gaping psychic need physically, through the constant comfort feeding Anais indulges in, or the sexual consummation Elena will soon experience.

Looking at their parents, it's no wonder the girls seek something: Their father (Romain Goupil) is remote and disinterested, while their mother (Atom Egoyan regular Arsinee Khanjian) is a neurotic mess, alternately comforting and cold. Neither seems especially disturbed by the idea that their 15-year-old daughter is dating a twentysomething guy who's taking her for long drives to who knows where.

Anais, never the recipient of men's charms, is able to assess their actions in a way that Elena can't. She sees Fernando going after Elena like a heat-seeking missile, while Elena's head is swimming in murmurs of love and romance. Anais, by necessity both brighter and more cynical than her sister, can do nothing to burst her illusion, but she does tell her "the first time I do it will be with a nobody." Her idea is that sex must be viewed for what it is, and not mistaken for love. (She gets her wish in a shocking closing scene that hits the viewer like a blow to the stomach.)

The film's most revealing moments come in the bedroom, no surprise for a Breillat film: Fernando has a tryst with Elena, sneaking into her bedroom late at night and doggedly trying to talk his way into her pants, as Anais lies on a cot across the room, feigning sleep. The viewer gets to share her embarrassed perspective as Fernando flatters, whines and coerces his way past Elena's semi-resistance.

This scene is so horribly, magnificently true that it should almost be mandatory viewing for every girl entering her teens. (And every guy, too, so that he'd learn how lame a line like "it would prove you love me" sounds to those who have to hear it.) Elena seems to vacillate between her curiosity and her fears, and ultimately agrees to take it where the sun don't shine, reluctantly acquiescing to Fernando's promise that it isn't "real sex." (A line that Bill Clinton would be proud of.)

Breillat shoots the scene from medium-length, cloaked in darkness, but with Elena's vulnerable nakedness emphasized; it plays out in almost real-time, nearly 25 uncomfortable minutes. It's a masterpiece of observation, making the viewer explore the power games and mixed feelings of seduction.

It's interesting to note the wide range of critics' reactions: Some feel that Fernando is a sleazy Lothario who practically date-rapes a naive young girl. Others, however, see Elena as wielding more control, that it was her decision to invite the boy, and her decision to go as far as she does. Intriguingly, it was a male critic who felt the former, and a feminist who thought the latter.

Breillat, over a coffee in Omote-sando a few weeks back, chuckled as she heard of such differing responses. She was open to both interpretations, but noted "it's a contrast in desire. [Elena] really wants to do it, but she can't live with herself if it's only an act of desire. But if it's for love . . . that's the excuse she needs, so she makes the boy pledge his love to her. But that's a lie she tells herself and her sister. Yet even as she tells this lie, she recognizes her real, physical self. It's almost like a split personality.

"You can say this is due to the education or societal pressure that women receive, but the problem is this sense of sin. She's a girl who's been raised to think that girls shouldn't be the one to show desire. She must be desired, the one who is seduced. So Fernando tells her a load of lies; he looks bad, like he's tricking her. But it's the girl who is lying to herself. Very delicately, subtly, she makes herself out to be the victim, and spins this guilt onto him. Everybody's living these lies."

Breillat elicited some compellingly real and unforced performances from her young actresses, though some critics have questioned -- as they did with Caroline Ducey in "Romance" as well -- whether she was demanding too much of them, exposing them both emotionally and physically. Mesquida, reclining langorously on a nearby sofa, came to life, saying "I enjoy the challenge of something difficult. The shoot was tiring, physically, but I felt a great satisfaction with what was achieved, and that really filled me with energy."

Breillat lit up with a mischievous grin: "I'm always taking flak for manipulating my actors," said the director. "But it's not like I'm doing that in their private lives, only on set, and only to make them better actors, to push them past their limits. Anyone who can't handle that isn't an actor. I'm not interested in filming ordinary acting, only extraordinary acting."

That's readily apparent in "A ma soeur!" and it's such intensity that puts Breillat's films in a class of their own.

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