Even without the wire hangers, Eva Ionesco’s semi-autobiographical debut, “My Little Princess,” feels an awful lot like other monster-mommy tales, only this time, the director seems to be underplaying, rather than exaggerating, the particulars of her horrific upbringing. The helmer, daughter of Parisian photographer Irina Ionesco, achieved notoriety at an early age after appearing nude in her mother’s provocative portraits. “Princess” shows her still quite conflicted on the subject — and the casting of Isabelle Huppert, here in ice-queen mode, conveys everything about the odd blend of alluring glamour and twisted psychology. Huppert will be pic’s best shot at reaching famously conservative American auds.
“You’re so inhibited,” Hanah (Huppert) scolds her teenage daughter Violetta (Anamaria Vartolomei) during a typical photo shoot. But rather than ridding Violetta of such petty bourgeois notions through her art, Hanah instead teaches her daughter to feel shame: The poor girl is constantly teased at school and comes home full of odd questions, like wanting to know the definition of the word “incest.” But Violetta also displays a fierce pride, regarding Hanah’s haughty attitude and sublime fashion sense with awestruck reverence.
Clearly, what Hanah sees as a game is actually wreaking permanent damage on her daughter’s development, which becomes the central tension of a film that takes great care never to condemn Hanah’s decisions outright. Ionesco was four when Irina began snapping her naked, sprawled in poses that suggest Victorian-era erotica. Though rich in texture — a quality most evident in the film’s costume- and set-decorating decisions — “My Little Princess” lacks the artistic and compositional strength one might expect from the daughter of a famous photog, feeling a bit like the racy European equivalent of a Lifetime movie.
One expects the film to identify most strongly with the daughter’s character, but the helmer assumes a bit too easily that audiences will immediately side with her. Over the course of the film, we watch as Violetta transforms from an average teen into a holy terror. Before long, she’s dressing with all the pomp and perverse entitlement of a 1980s New York club kid, coming on to strange boys and screaming at her mom, behaviors that can exist even without such parental exploitation.
Ionesco has the good taste to go easy on the photo-shoot scenes, concentrating instead on memorable showdowns between her mother and the other adults in her life. Hanah’s most constant adversary is the conservative Romanian relative who raised her (played by Georgetta Leahu), a simple woman with no appreciation for art but a reasonably clear sense of decency. After years of being minded by this surrogate “grandma” while Hanah was too distracted to care, Violetta is so excited to be spending quality time with her mother that she doesn’t recognize how selfish and inappropriate the photo sessions are.
Certainly the fabulous artistic circle to which her mom belongs holds an illicit appeal for such an impressionable young girl, as do the elaborate veils and gowns that make up Hanah’s wardrobe. Still, no shortage of films have focused on the corrupting influence of being raised by narcissistic rock/movie stars (Sofia Coppola gave a rather more evocative sense of that frustration in last year’s “Somewhere,” to name just one recent example), and Ionesco has the usual trouble balancing this environment’s toxic mix of the damned and the divine.
Pic’s most troubling scene involves a special commission, in which Hanah instructs her daughter to strip and pose in the arms of an androgynous British patron (model Jethro Cave). What nudity “Princess” requires to make its point is limited to older models, though the film still creates the uneasy impression that Ionesco is subjecting someone else to the same discomfort she herself experienced as a child. Sadly, there’s no getting around this problem as regards films in the lost-childhood genre, though this no-doubt therapeutic exercise does an admirable job of using music and design elements to suggest the memories too raw to be depicted firsthand.