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Written and Directed by: Catherine Breillat

Starring: Delphine Zentout, Olivier Parniere, Jean-Pierre Leaud

During an afternoon session of films and nachos, a new friend suggested we watch Cahterine Breillat’s 36 Fillettes, a film I knew relatively little about beyond having read somewhere about some controversy stirred by the graphic nature of its sex scenes between a young girl and a middle-aged man. I agreed, because I’ll watch anything, but I prepared myself to sit, rather uncomfortably, through a tense and increasingly violent cautionary tale. I was surprised by the tone Breillat strikes with her film, as she avoids such violence in favour of a keen and tender tale of adolescent sexuality.

14-year-old Lili (Delphine Zentout) is on vacation with her parents and brother. She’s restless, pissed off and trying to figure out what to do with her new found sexuality. She insists on tagging along with her brother to a nightclub where she meets Bertrand, a balding middle aged creep. She begins to flirt with him, and quickly learns how powerful she can be when she dangles her sexuality like a carrot in front of this man. Over the course of a week or so, Lili visits with Maurice, toys with him, but won’t have sex with him. He begs her, threatens her, gets angry, gets sad, but all the while he’s powerless. Breillat smartly constructs this tale, without favouring or antagonizing either Lili or Maurice. Both are irritating, whiny and inconsistent, and neither is a victim to the other because neither is capable of any serious damage. Lili is irritating in the way that 14-year-olds are, she pouts that he won’t make love to her, but draws away the moment he tries… only to begin teasing him. He, a grown man, falls for this and cannot see that her youth and inexperience will perpetually prevent her from being with him in any real way and he instead plays along with her childish games, proving himself to be equally a child.

This is  a short and smart film, and Breillat cares deeply for her subject. She seems to empathize closely with the confusion of sexuality at such a young age. It is remarkable to watch these scenes unfold, between a grown man and a very young girl, without ever feeling as though it is particularly dangerous, just kind of dumb. Unusual, perhaps, but it unfolds in such an organic manner, and is essentially so innocuous that it seems to pose no threat at all.A stellar performance from Zentout makes this film considerably more compelling than I’d expected, she is wonderful as she is simultaneously sensual and aggravatingly immature. This wasn’t the movie I expected, but that’s a great thing because it is impressive and refreshing to see subject matter such as this handled from such a rare and understanding perspective.