A schoolgirl’s seeming crush on her curvaceous teacher turns obsessive in “The Evening Dress,” tyro writer-director Myriam Aziza’s engrossing exploration of female sexuality. Although Aziza sticks close to her 12-year-old heroine’s perspective, diving ever deeper into the treacherous undertow of adolescent fantasy, pic’s focus expands to include the fortysomething object of the child’s fixation. Alba Gaia Bellugi, as riveting as she was as the 8-year-old star of “My Name Is Elizabeth,” excels as the schoolgirl, while Lio, as the mischievously sexy educator, smartly tempers her allure with professorly brio. Critical support could help make “Dress” a perfect arthouse fit.
Studious, introverted Juliette (Bellugi), a middle child who receives minimal care from her overworked mother (Sophie Mounicot), blossoms and explores hitherto untapped femininity while basking in the solicitous attention of her French instructor, Mme. Solenska (the mono-monikered Lio). Such is Juliette’s sensual intensity that even when experimentally donning her mother’s makeup, outsized shoes and low-cut evening gown, she never looks ridiculous or merely cute. Aziza lends a hypnotic quality to the passages chronicling Juliette’s increasingly ritualized “private times” in her often-empty house, sometimes even visualizing daydreams and nightmares about Mme. Solenska to brilliantly surreal effect.
Oblivious to Juliette’s psychological baggage, Mme. Solenska continues to treat her with the special interest accorded promising pupils. And when her mentor loans Juliette a treasured book, the girl transforms it into a talisman, staring at the cover Magritte painting of a nude woman seen from behind (titled “The Evening Dress”), sniffing its pages and chewing on a hair caught in its folds.
But when Mme. Solenska transfers her attentions to handsome young student Antoine (Leo Legrand), it triggers mad jealousy in Juliette, with disastrous results.
One of several recent French films to explore classroom dynamics in the wake of President Sarkozy’s right-wing educational reforms (“Stella,” “The Class,” “The Beautiful Person”), “Dress” transposes its social consciousness to a larger canvas. Juliette’s trips to and from school, back and forth from spying on Mme. Solenska, via bus or bicycle, reveal a neat, tidy but utterly soulless town with nary a cafe in sight and nothing to engage imagination. Aziza underlines the point when Juliette runs away to her uncle, who operates a colorful bar in an even more colorful burg where Juliette joyously joins in a celebration where people are dancing in the street.
Not that Juliette’s hysterical denunciations solely stem from a poverty of social options. Aziza makes clear that Mme. Solenska dresses provocatively, almost seducing students into learning, and countering their sniggering innuendo with matter-of-fact discussion. As long as this flirtation remains subtextual, it succeeds in engaging tweens in challenging educational dialogue. But once Juliette takes vengeful action, it destroys Mme. Solenska’s fragile rapport with her charges.
Meanwhile, Mme. Solenska silently grapples with the realization that she may be using her students’ acceptance not only as a means of pedagogic self-affirmation, but also as proof of her continued attractiveness as a woman. Inclusion of this p.o.v. broadens the film’s scope and emotional range as it mirrors anxieties at both ends of the female spectrum.