Published June 1, 1998
La Desenchantée by Benoit Jacquot stars the stunning young actress, Judith Godrèche, as Beth, a supposedly down on her luck teenager who, far more rapidly than most teenagers (especially teenagers who look like this) is shorn of her illusions as a sheep in the springtime is shorn of its wool. I am suspicious of a cinematic experience which pretends to show us such disillusionment. Movies are about creating illusions, not exploding them, and the affectation of wisdom and sophistication in so vigorously insisting on the latter sort of moviemaking always looks to me like posturing. If you’re really so world-weary and knowing as all that, why are you making movies in the first place, I want to ask? Anyone can be cynical, but there are still apparently a lot of people in the movie business, not all of them in Hollywood, who still think of cynicism as a kind of short-cut to wisdom and artistic accomplishment.
The movie is also very short on narrative coherence. There are some artistic touches, a kind of fairy tale beginning where Beth makes up a story about a prostitute who only has sex with her partners behind her, waiting to turn around until she finds one that she think will be her true love. When at last she turns around she finds a horrible old geezer assuming the position. He is her fate. She tells this dream to her own lover, a thuggish sort known only and to everybody as Whatisname (Malcom Conradt) and asks him if he loves her. He turns the question aside by recommending that she sleep with someone else, so as to make sure that she really loves him. But it should be someone really ugly. Angry, she tells him that she will sleep with the three ugliest men she can find and runs from the room.
She does not. She tries picking up a computer-geek, but can’t go through with it. Later she is rescued from an importunate Whatsisname by a strange romantic figure called Alphonse (Marcel Bozonnet) who at first looks like being a dirty old man but later offers her only platonic affection and lessons in disillusionment. The real dirty old man is known as “Sugardad” (Yvan Desny), a lip-smacking sleaze who has apparently had Beth’s mother (Thérèse Liotard) as a kept woman hitherto. Now that mom has some unspecified illness that causes her to sit up in bed in a semi-catatonic state all day, Sugardad has decided that he would like to sample the luscious daughter instead. “I’ve done worse things to help you,” says her complaisant mother. “You’re no longer a child.” (She’s 17.)
Not so very long ago, the upshot of all this would inevitably have been some heavy moralism. Here it is some heavy mid-century romanticism—not an improvement. Beth, with her switchblade and her passion for Rimbaud, is a sort of feminized version of the existential hero, who was in turn a philosophized version of the literary anti-hero—that is someone who thinks that his (or, indeed, her) loss of illusions gives her a special claim upon our sympathies and so hastens to find some illusions, preferably silly ones, and to shed them as quickly as possible. You would think that at this distance in time from such cinematic pioneers of 20th century romanticism as the young Marlon Brando and James Dean, even the movies—even French movies—would have tired of replaying the old themes. Not yet, I fear.