Already the 2018 film festival circuit has yielded two high-profile titles that both deal with the trauma of childhood sexual abuse: Jennifer Fox’s Sundance sensation “The Tale,” and Cannes discovery “Little Tickles,” the debut film from Andréa Bescond, co-directed by Eric Métayer and based on Bescond’s autobiographical one-woman play. The films bear many similarities: Both are from female filmmakers and based on their own experiences. Both use the protagonist’s creativity (in Fox’s case her skills as a documentarian, in Bescond’s her career as a dancer) as the conduit to investigate their trauma. Most strikingly, both employ a device in which the protagonist as an adult can interact with herself as a child, allowing them to wander in and out of memories as if they were adjacent rooms in the same house.
Bescond further complicates her tricky, occasionally clumsy past-and-present-colliding motif by making the adult Odette (played by Bescond herself) into a less-than-reliable narrator. Sometimes what we see did not happen at all, or not in that place, not in that way. Sometimes she will justify those glitches as a defense mechanism, the implication being that a vivid fantasy life, like the hedonism of drugs and alcohol into which she often escapes, are all part of the greater fantasy she has tried to maintain her whole life: that she is not living precariously on top of an immense wellspring of hurt.
One day, Odette, a scrappy, strong-willed blonde in her thirties with a compact dancer’s body and an engagingly abrasive attitude, walks off the street into a therapist’s office and relates the story of her abuse for the first time. The therapist (a lovely, grounded turn from Carole Franck) is out of her depth, but Odette is nothing if not stubborn, and refuses to talk to a more specialized doctor. And so, over the course of the next few years, the two pursue an offbeat course of intermittent therapy, in which psychological breakthroughs are interspersed with long periods of absence while she tours with dance troupes and falls back into bad habits. Odette experiences career setbacks and triumphs, maintains close contact with childhood friend Manu (Gringe), and falls in love with good-guy Lenny (Gregory Montel), but all her interpersonal relationships are threatened by a volatile streak of self-destructive secrecy around her childhood trauma. And so she always eventually returns to the therapist’s office (one of the peculiar strengths of “Little Tickles,” for all its unevenness, is in this idiosyncratic doctor-patient relationship and the refusal to paint therapy as a magic bullet).
The history that gradually emerges is horrifying, not least for its banality, and the proximity to her completely oblivious parents, played by Karin Viard and Clovis Cornillac. The sweet-natured, dance-mad child Odette (Cyrille Mairesse) was groomed from an early age by her parents’ close friend Gilbert (a fearless performance from Pierre Deladonchamps of “Stranger by the Lake” fame) and repeatedly raped and molested, often in her own home under the pretext of “playing dolls” or of him giving her the “little tickles” of the title. These scenes are never explicit, yet are so matter-of-factly told that they are among the most nightmarish sequences of the year, inducing in the viewer a visceral desire to reach in to the screen and stop them from happening. Which is obviously the point: Reaching back into a past that will not, as Odette hopes “forget about” her, and rearranging it so she doesn’t grow crooked around its often false memory, is essentially the whole project of “Little Tickles.”
There are times when the juxtaposition of moods and tones, from knockabout comedy to surreality to all-out dread, becomes jarring. The filmmaking, though energetic, can tend toward blandness, and some of the supporting characters are thin — Odette’s mother especially is almost cartoonishly villainous in her casual cruelty toward her daughter. But there is a sense in which this spiky, occasionally soapy but ultimately deeply moving film draws power from its raggedness, making us uncomfortable even beyond the disturbing events it recounts, because its truths refuse to be tidy. It feels a little like a much-needed bloodletting: A space has finally opened up for films like “The Tale” and “Little Tickles,” and if the rising tide of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements has taught us only one thing, it’s that when the victims of abuse choose to tell their stories, it is our obligation, as part of the society that failed them, to listen.