Culture Will Have Her Girls

by Adèle Barclay

Adèle Barclay’s (she/they) poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Fiddlehead, The Walrus, The Tyee, The Malahat Review, glitterMOB, PRISM, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2016 Lit POP Award and The Walrus’ 2016  Readers’ Choice Award for Poetry. Their debut poetry collection, If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You won the 2017 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Her second collection, Renaissance Normcore was nominated for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award and the ReLit Award and placed third for the 2020 Fred Cogswell Award. They teach literature and writing at Capilano University.

The title takes its name from Ariana Reines’ poem “Save the World”


The films of Catherine Breillat delighted me more than any of the teen comedies or coming of age dramas I consumed at sleepovers in friends’ basements as an adolescent. The French director is known for depicting transgressive sexuality and violence. In comparison, Hollywood’s bright primary hues and American smiles felt alien. Breillat’s vicious psychosexual dramas cast in drab beiges resembled ordinary life. Breillat’s films, though often about young women, are barely considered palatable fare for adults let alone youth. Her films are notorious, courting controversy and censorship. But in Breillat’s supposedly depraved films, I found a magic mirror that spoke to the desires and shames of my own fraught, queer girlhood. 

In Breillat’s films, the plot may be as fantastical as a fairy tale or as banal as a family vacation but currents of peril underpin her young women’s lives. Breillat’s girls come of age and endure the typical tropes: they test the bounds of sibling camaraderie and rivalry, resent parents, explore burgeoning sexuality, yield to changing bodies, and fall for older men. Breillat, however, is sure to plant melodramatic landmines to disrupt any normative arcs. Her girls become women and then abruptly witness and experience acts of rape, murder, or accidental death. These films often push past pathos and land in the realm of bathos; a poignant portrait of a young woman navigating sexuality, agency, and family veers off track into rapid over-the-top carnage. Bildungsroman becomes sudden, almost laughable horror.

Breillat’s films articulate the paradoxical mix of numbness, anxiety, and menace that abuse breeds.

And yet Breillat’s world where girlhood dovetails with cruel and random violence made sense to me when I watched her films as a teenager and young adult in my early 20s. As a survivor of early childhood sexual abuse and a witness and survivor of domestic abuse, I found Breillat’s bizarre, gory vision not only relatable but oddly comforting. Her portrayal of women’s bodies squirming under patriarchal society is bleak. But enduring unending cycles of violence is full of dread, bitterness, detachment, fear, and reverie. Breillat’s films articulate the paradoxical mix of numbness, anxiety, and menace that abuse breeds.

Whenever Breillat’s films swerve towards absurd brutality, I’m struck with recognition, like I’ve met a long lost family member whose hands resemble my own. A sister unexpectedly falls to her death. A gunman rapidly kills a character’s entire family and rapes her in a flash-in-the-pan scene. A suitor is killed by a trap intended for a wild boar. These ludicrous twists are the other shoe I’ve been waiting to drop my entire life. Growing up, I was acutely aware violence and trespass were part of life. A young man raped me when I was three years old. My father beat my sister regularly. My sister is now dead by suicide. And of course there’s more that I can’t bear to write and that my brain won’t stop spinning long enough to let me remember. I, like many survivors, have never experienced a reality where violation or disaster weren’t acutely baked in. When I watched Breillat’s films with their nonchalant treatments of violence, I found an atmosphere to which I could relate.

In Breillat’s first film A Real Young Girl (1976), sexuality shimmers with surrealism and bows to banality as a young girl sexually awakens. Breillat’s protagonist Alice is 14 years old and lives in thrall of her viscous secretions while abiding the slow boredom of summer and the aloofness of her parents. Alice streaks a bathroom mirror with her vaginal fluids, masturbates in the ocean, crushes a raw egg to explore its textural similarity to that of  her own wetness. In addition to her introspective explorations, she comes to know how the larger world exerts power over her as it makes its way into her psyche. For example, a man exposes himself to her while she’s trapped on a Ferris wheel with him, which later prompts her to imagine her father’s cock through his pants. Intrusion becomes quotidian and integrates as a low, omnipresent hum throughout the film.

A Real Young Girl questions this divide between internal and external worlds. Alice’s infatuation with one of her father’s mill workers, a man named Jim, leads to scenes that collapse reality and fantasy. The film never discloses whether the encounters between the teenaged Alice and the adult Jim are Alice’s fanciful imaginings, actual events, or some displaced allegory for sexual exploration. Alice and Jim’s interactions include jacking off beside each other, Jim strewing segments of an earthworm on her cunt, her clucking and frolicking in a field with a feather tail inviting him to pluck her. With this spectrum of reality that bleeds into fantasy, Breillat remarks that burgeoning female sexuality consists of euphemism, longing, whimsy, ennui, and threat.

I first caught the film as a young teen in the early 2000s a few years after its ban was lifted. I was perusing late night Showcase programming in search of soft-core porn and art house films. In true Showcase fashion I found both in A Real Young Girl. I stumbled upon the opening scene in which Alice fingers herself in the bathroom of her boarding school dormitory and streaks the mirror with her wetness. I had never seen such flagrant play with a cunt’s fluids. I was simultaneously aroused and bored by the film and kept changing the channel and returning to it, awed by its tactile embodiment of female sexuality but also repulsed by its dismal 1970s sallow saturation and snail’s pace plot.

Whenever I heard the expressions while growing up I felt like a floating hourglass, disassociated from my body as my hips knocked into furniture and men leered at me out of car windows.

The film’s French title, Une vraie jeune fille, comes from a common idiom applied to a pubescent girl. As I moved through puberty, my francophone mother would sometimes emerge from her cavern of major depression to note that I was becoming une vraie jeune fille or une jeune fille en fleur. I was a real young girl or a young girl in flower. These terms frame girlhood as an authentic spectacle, a botanical garden the whole community gets to stroll through, enjoying its seasonal blooms. The strange terms clung to me like a patina of sweat. Whenever I heard the expressions while growing up I felt like a floating hourglass, disassociated from my body as my hips knocked into furniture and men leered at me out of car windows. These French phrases made clear how gender and sexuality were fireworks for others to behold when I was trying to send up a flare for help. 

Breillat’s film bounces off of this weird saying—a real young girl—underscoring how young girls’ bodies are consistently appraised. The blatant display of a pubescent girl’s sexuality and female genitals made A Real Young Girl shocking enough to earn decades-long censorship. The legacy of the male gaze’s monopoly over cinema means that we bristle when women wield a severe gaze to look at themselves and the world around them. Girlhood is eternally on display. But Breillat also adds to and corrupts the idiom, unveiling the agency and perversity broiling within these supposedly delicate flowers as Alice fantasizes, interrogates her body, and demands that Jim get her birth control before they can fuck. Breillat gets at the lewd, boring violence embedded in the expression “a real young girl,” as she superimposes Alice’s hyper-visibility to the men around her with Alice’s own visceral, internal experience of her body and desires. Her “realness” is her fluids seeping with muddled curiosity underneath the external world’s consumptive delight in her pubescent body. Breillat’s film hit home for me because, like the American teen comedies my friends and I watched, her young girls are objectified but, unlike those films, her feminine subjects are working with the awareness of their objectification, sometimes distressed by it and sometimes getting off on it.

The film’s awkward grossness deviates from acceptable representations of sexuality—Breillat’s explicitness highlights the ordinary messiness of sex, both literally and figuratively, and how we work with the violence we’ve endured. This admission feels especially taboo because it’s not empowerment; it’s acknowledgement. Bodies are as gooey as earthworms. Desires smack of the oppressions we’re surviving. Covertly watching A Real Young Girl late at night with the volume down so the sparse French dialogue was a whisper, I forayed both into Breillat’s world of sensual gore and plucked a way through my own queer sexuality and developmenetal trauma.

Film is a sensory experience that triggers the bodies that gaze upon or, rather, graze it.

The sensory-oriented quality of the film opens it up rather than seals it off from the viewer. Laura Marks coined the term haptic to describe “the way vision itself can be tactile, as though one were touching a film with one’s eyes.” She emphasizes “the tactile and contagious quality of cinema as something we viewers brush up against like another body” thinking of the screen as a “skin.” Marks’ haptic formulation treats films and viewers as organisms coming in contact with each other, recognizing how film is more than figuration. Film is a sensory experience that triggers the bodies that gaze upon or, rather, graze it.

’90s sex education in small-town Ontario didn’t address wetness. Someone’s mom, who worked as a nurse, was shipped into my grade five class to tell us about periods and perspiration, prescribing Kotex and deodorant for our pubescent woes. A few months later, I experienced my own wetness for the first time. Packed into a minivan in a grocery parking lot with a bevy of girls[1], waiting for my friend’s angelic mom to buy us snacks, I brushed up against a friend while we made outrageous jokes and giggled. My cunt twinged and I was slick with arousal. Surprised by this sudden wetness, I assumed I had begun to menstruate when really I had begun to embody desire. Later in the bathroom, I was perplexed when my underwear revealed not blood but translucent streaks like spiderwebs. Like Alice, I was curious and enthralled.

Marks’ haptic definition speaks to that opening scene in which Alice streaks the communal mirror with her body fluids. Breillat makes Alice an organism addressing viewers as organisms. Alice then embarks on a journey into her sexual awakening. It is riddled with monotony, eros, and danger as she pulls the audience along through the smudged looking glass.

And I felt the film’s haptic invitation to venture into Alice’ gooey and fraught ecosystem. It made sense to me as a scared gay kid trapped in a dangerous household. In Breillat’s taboo, textured vision I could touch the secrets and secretions of a young girl on screen and, in turn, acknowledge and briefly hold to the light the muddled cocktail of violence and sexuality that I had been navigating since early childhood. At that time there was no space for me to articulate my fears and desires, but I could meet with Alice and feel her tap at the glass while I tapped at the screen.

These days I’m unsure whether Breillat’s films are revolutionary or resigned. Breillat is a complicated figure who simultaneously embraces and rejects feminism and questions the #MeToo movement in uncomfortable ways. And of course, her subjects are always thin white straight women. Breillat hasn’t shown interest in considering how race and queerness compound violence and shame. She seems committed to her white dollhouses of tragedy. I don’t even think it’s her intention to mock heterosexuality in these films but still I admire how her deadpan catastrophe almost turns heteronormativity into parody. She articulates the steeped-in quality of patriarchal violence and how desire and abjection entwine as a brutal force. Breillat is perhaps even sadistic in that she doesn’t offer her viewers any escape routes, but survivors are handy and can often fashion their own.


ENDNOTES

[1] I write “girls” here because that is what we were called at the time.



Adèle Barclay’s (she/they) poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Fiddlehead, The Walrus, The Tyee, The Malahat Review, glitterMOB, PRISM, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2016 Lit POP Award and The Walrus’ 2016  Readers’ Choice Award for Poetry. Their debut poetry collection, If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You won the 2017 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Her second collection, Renaissance Normcore was nominated for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award and the ReLit Award and placed third for the 2020 Fred Cogswell Award. They teach literature and writing at Capilano University.

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