Monday, March 26, 2012

Breton Fantasies/American Realities

Another Breton fantasy
It doesn't take long to realize that Brittany is French cinema's favorite place to go for tales or moments of beauty and wonder, renewal and healing, meditation, and life realization. The landscape lends itself to those emotional phenomena, and frames whatever narrative moment you've got with poignancy and meaning. And so I'm turning over in my mind the latest use of Brittany as setting for such a tale in 17 Filles, the French take on the infamous American high school "pregnancy pact" (there was no such thing save in the high school principal's (maybe) and media's (definitely) imagination). It's very much worth reading the critique by June Thomas of Slate because it will get you past the bluster of trying to understand how on earth French directors Muriel and Delphine Coulin could romanticize the sad phenomenon of seventeen teen pregnancies at the same high school in Gloucester, MA into what appears to be, in the trailer anyway, a beautiful phenomenon of seventeen beautiful young women creating a pregnant utopia at the same high school in Lorient, Brittany. Nowhere is the Atlantic wider between France and America than on issues of young femininity. The key distinction is, as Thomas points out, that the French state provides enough social and medical assistance that the Breton teenagers can afford to rent a place together and create their utopia - whereas the American teenagers are, in total opposition, rendered woefully dependent upon their families (who cannot support them in the first place) by the absence of any significant help from the state. And so I find myself in the strange situation of being angry at the Coulin sisters for creating an impossibly romantic situation that would in fact be possible - but in France only. (But even there, one (the American) wonders about the realistic wear and tear on the teenage body (on any female body) of pregnancy, about the complexities and difficulties of pregnancy, as wondrous as it is - never underestimate the power of French culture to romanticize every single aspect of the feminine experience, continues the American - whether that power to romanticize is affirming or oppressive is for us all to debate). I have to get beyond the American Realism/French Romanticism dichotomy that this film puts me in the mind to writhe within, because I hold French Romanticism dear for showing us beautiful things. Teen pregnancy is an ugly phrase in American discourse, bespeaking failures of morality, economics, and opportunities. In this French film, it just doesn't seem to be, and I'm unnerved by the possibility of thinking, even for a minute, that teen pregnancy could be a beautiful thing. There's much to be said about the morality and aesthetics (that gorgeous pool scene in the trailer) of teen pregnancy, and I should see Juno before too long. For now, I just marvel at the seemingly inescapable French cinematic solution that strange beauty is best set in Brittany. Is it the deep layer of Arthurian legend in the landscape? The world apart of a terrain marked by such ancient human aspirations as neolithic megaliths? The sublime sweep of those beaches at the end of the world? Brittany as refuge and possibility, for the translation (in every single sense of the word) of tragedy to romance.


  1. I saw 17 Girls yesterday at the Cleveland Film Fest and I didn't find it all that romanticized. The girls don't get their own place. They try to set one girl up on her own in an abandoned trailer, but then there is a storm, she is all alone is this miserable place, and calls her parents to come get her (she had run away and the others had promised to be there for her). I don't want to spoil the plot, but that seems to sum it up to me; these girls have some romanticized ideas about what being pregnant and becoming mothers will mean for them (independence and power but also belonging and love), but it all falls apart.

    1. Ah! Thank you for this - interesting to see how the trailer plays it vs. how the film actually is. I have a dear friend who goes to the Cleveland Film Festival every year - it sounds amazing! Your comment also makes me rethink the Slate article pitch. And then there's another piece in (yesterday's?) NYTimes about why so many young American women major in French and study there... "trips over" to continue considering!