ONCE UPON A TIME in a land far, far away, a little girl named Marie went with her parents to spend the summer with her grandmother in the country. Marie liked to play with all her friends, riding her bike, and watch all the grown-ups work hard. And by the end of the summer, Marie had turned into a lovely young woman, experiencing all the joys and sorrows of adolescence. She began experiencing womanly desires--she developed physically, fell passionately in love, and observed the passion in her parents' stormy marriage. Marie was 12.
When I was 12, all I thought about was hide-and-seek, homework, Nancy Drew books and my dog. My closest passionate encounter involved watching my goldfish produce many more little goldfish.
But innocence is a rapidly disappearing commodity in Jeanne Morreau's film L' Adolescente (The Adolescent). The threatening image of war flickers in the background of the film, set during the summer of 1939 in France, as Marie (Laetitia Chauveau) undergoes her monumental transition to womanhood.
No single flaw spoils the film--the character actors perform up to par, the French countryside is breathtaking, and Marie's development proceeds with innocuous charm. Yet Morreau gets so caught up in every little detail of Marie's summer experience that her film begins itself to seem a little adolescent.
Consequently, too much is only hinted at, left lurking in the background: Morreau never lets on what, if any, significance she hangs on Marie's adolescence. Do her experiences symbolize Europe's response to the approach of the Second World War? Is Morreau trying to show how even country life can be disrupted by war? Does Marie represent a growing external consciousness of life or is she just a little girl with an over-active libido?
Morreau on the one hand paints a pastoral landscape with all the interwoven relationships of a small, isolated community. Marie's grandmother (Simone Signoret) acts as an omniscient narrator, lyrically introducing all the characters and explaining all the village's social intricacies. All sorts of representative characters abound--star crossed lovers, old hags doubling as witches, and dumb country bumpkins. Marie meets all these characters and is swept along into their mundane lives until the volcanic outset of her maturity.
MORREAU SEEMS INTENT ON sprinkling dark, meaningful images throughout the plot's progress. Radio bulletins and brief conversations about war interrupt the film's flow. And the morose, seductive presence of a Jewish interloper in the village too obviously suggests the eventual fate of his people. The Jew, a young and handsome doctor from Paris, enters everyone's life. He has an affair with Marie's mother and entrances the young Marie. (At least Morreau had the common sense not to let the film become but another variation of the Pretty Baby theme).
The doctor's Jewish identity seems to be the source of his problems and his effect on everyone: Morreau's simplistic attempt to portray the resulting tensions fails because her images are too stereotypically flat. More of a presence than a character, the doctor's black suit and ever present dark car too heavily suggest his mysterious nature.
Morreau turns Marie's mother (Edith Clever) into a sexually one dimensional character; the only purpose her presence serves is to have passionate interludes with her husband and with the doctor.
But Morreau leaves questions unanswered that might explain the mother's passionate nature. The movie's only believable relationship--between Marie and her grandmother--develops because of the sensitive performance of the actresses. Signoret and Chauveau present experience and youth naturally. Their closeness blossoms during their midnight escapades into a lush garden for magical powders. But Morreau spoils even this relationship by miring the girl in an ambiguous ending. Left with a distraught vision of Marie and her grandmother standing by, helpless and confused. We don't know whether Marie's unhappiness will prove transitory or permanent.
Of course adolescence is traumatic for most young women. Yet Morreau's story doesn't ring true, since she never decides how strongly Marie's development should govern the entire plot. All women eventually get their periods--but they're certainly not all like those of 12-year-old Marie, whose initiation into womanhood begins with blood dripping down her leg.