If nothing else, “A Real Young Lady” — Catherine Breillat’s first film, shot in 1975, but never released because her producer went bankrupt — proves that the signature ingredients of all her subsequent forays into film (and literature) were already firmly in place 25 years ago: a forthright expression of female desire, a bold approach to genitalia and bodily fluids and, uh, cheesy voiceover. But where “Romance” — Breillat’s biggest commercial success to date (locally and internationally) — was excruciatingly pretentious and mostly humorless, this early work is often perceptive and funny as well as willfully provocative. While far from an unsung masterwork, pic is an intriguing oddity that will slide into fest berths as effortlessly as the title lass slides various objects into her nether regions.
Forbidden to viewers under 18 (but not classified as porn) at the time it was made, this exploration of an adolescent’s unformed but insistent interest in the many potential uses of her own orifices is raw and crude, although one need only be 16 to get into the theater in Gaul today. Breillat, who says she’d wanted to direct films from age 12 on, shot to notoriety in 1968 with the publication of her first novel, “A Man for the Asking,” which was ironically off limits to readers under 18, the author’s age at the time.
Producer Andre Genoves (who bankrolled many of Chabrol’s films) commissioned Breillat to adapt her third novel, 1974’s “Le soupirail,” for the screen. Semi-racy story of a young boarding school student who dreads the boredom of long summer vacations stranded in the middle of nowhere with her parents seemed like ideal source material: The government had greatly relaxed censorship in May of ’74, and all manner of previously unthinkable films were freely distributed until the government cracked down again in December 1975 with a law relegating certain content to the ghetto rating of “X.” But whereas the producer thought he was going to get soft-core porn, he ended up with boundary-pushing art. By the time the film was completed, the producer was in bankruptcy court and his assets had been seized.
Using a three-man crew drawn from the ranks of porn techies, Breillat shot for four weeks in the rural Landes region. There is no synch sound — Breillat’s sister dubbed the voice of the vacationing schoolgirl, Alice (Charlotte Alexandra), Breillat’s mother dubbed Alice’s mom (Rita Meiden) and there’s often a pesky fly buzzing around in the mix. Jim, the pillow-lipped sawmill worker Alice lusts after, is played by striking Hiram Keller, from Fellini’s “Satyricon.” For a brief role as the village grocer, Breillat recruited the formidable Shirley Stoler of “Honeymoon Killers” fame.
Pic gets under way in the late 1960s with Alice, whose age is never stated but who seems to be a precocious 14 or so, introducing herself in voiceover while riding a train: “I don’t like people — they oppress me.” What Alice does like is wandering through fields with her white cotton undies around her ankles, writing her name on a mirror with vaginal secretions, writing with red ink in her diary while covered with vomit from a recent bout of nausea, urinating in an unhygienic matter, sodomizing herself with a salad dressing bottle and fantasizing about Jim in vignettes that include her crawling on the ground with chicken feathers sticking out of her anus. There’s an earthy feel to all this fearless and peculiar sensation-seeking, as opposed to the sterile tone of “Romance.” Breillat is out to tell the world that seemingly innocent young girls are seething repositories of vivid sexual thoughts.
Within eight minutes of opening credits, insolent, indolent Alice joins her laughably middle-class parents for a hot beverage; after dropping her spoon she manages to briefly insert it into her crotch before returning the utensil to the table in order to stir her tea. Breillat has a natural eye for catchy camera placement, whether it’s a closeup of flies stuck on gooey flypaper or Jim dangling a long worm over Alice’s spread-eagled vagina prior to sectioning the live creature with his nails, the better to array the still-squirming segments across Alice’s pubic triangle. Any excuse to show a full-frontal vagina or penis is a good one in Breillat’s book as Alice grows bolder in her bored plays for attention.
There’s an odd, languorous quality to the film, reinforced by the slightly disembodied dubbed dialogue and sound effects. Music — including four entertainingly insipid teen-targeted numbers with lyrics by helmer — is by the late transplanted Yank Mort Shuman, who brought the world Jacques Brel’s music in English translation.
Pic also goes into the record books as the first feature to receive the coveted avance sur recettes, or juried funding loan (to be paid back out of eventual profits) — 25 years after the fact.