Monday, 21 May 2012
BRIEF CROSSING (2001) - 'The Canteen, the Duty Free, the Disco, the Magic Show, the Sea, the Cabin - the Sex - the Breakfast'
*This review may contain spoilers ~ please watch before reading*
BRIEF CROSSING (2001)
Director: Catherine Breillat
...the P&O ferry; the cooked breakfasts in a barely-bulbed canteen, plastic tables and tinned tomatoes nearly boiled away to nothing except a bright red stain in the old tin pan, but the soggy mushrooms are still there, waiting to be claimed, matching today's colour of the coffee (cheap foundation) - and then a quick visit to the Duty Free Shop, big bottles of perfume to last you a lifetime, plastic lighters and already cheap wine at a cheaper price, a last stroll on a deck in the wind and rain, the next best thing to a real kind of cruise and you imagine now you're arriving in Spain, not the misty cold haze of the greyed cliffs of Dover, arriving at port at 6am, leaving the cabin quickly, tired after a disco that ran all the way up to midnight and a few minutes past, just you and a few stragglers dancing (sort of) in secret to barely heard bad 80's music and a dirty stained glass to sip from, those still-dancing couples like wind-up toys, never needing a bed, until the time is right, and this time is right - this is BRIEF CROSSING, a film by Catherine Breillat.
Memories of a Canteen:
On an overnight P&O ferry crossing from Le Havre to Portsmouth, middle-aged Alice (Sarah Pratt) is in the ship's canteen, ordering steak - without chips. The neon-tinged sparkling clean metal gloom, illuminates the flash of blue eyes, the curve of her lips. Travelling alone, she demands the chips are removed from her plate. Just the steak - no chips. So angry, for so quiet a place. A young man, Thomas (Gilles Guillain) offer to take the chips, having also found the woman a tray - is she weak and in need of being helped, is she losing her grip? Just wait until the end of this movie; you'll see.
Memories of a Duty Free Shop:
They strike up a friendship; young man travelling alone and just-divorced thirty-something - a woman feeling playful in her scathing comments about men and what drives them on; the need to dominate, seduce, control. She will never be controlled. She does the controlling. The young man falls slowly for his rash, rushed-in obsession; is it attraction, or is it that he has a possible conquest in his sights? Why don't you stick with girls your own age, she asks him later, as they watch the young things sway like salty female sea cats on the well-worn dancefloor. It's obvious why. She offers more - more than any 'real young girl' can. This is the 'real young girl' grown-up. This is clearly a sudden rush of actual love for him, as much as it is desire. A wounded little bird perched on her own, knocked-back by a bad husband, unsure of herself, her sexuality, her age, her future. But that smile - that smile suggests something else. The way her lips curve - maybe just bitter or mocking, but equally twitching with longing. The Duty Free shop's cluttered shelves are full of cheap wine, that you could probably buy cheaper back home, and unloved perfume in bottles so big that by the time you finish spraying this stuff on with that last gasp drizzle and the splutter at the end, trying to suck up the last puddle in the jar where the plastic tube can't reach - that all important last spurt - you will have forgotten where you bought this perfume from, and memories will have drained away like the scent of the perfume itself. Thomas tries to buy his booze in the same basket as Alice's selection - he is not allowed, he is underage, actually 16 and not 18 at all. It doesn't matter. She buys her booze anyway. It looks like she knew all along.
Memories of the Disco:
They sit and talk in the glowing darkness of the old-fashioned disco. The wood-backed plastic seats and cheap but clean tables; everything on a P&O ferry is clean and bright in the darkness; every stair is steep and gloomy and lit brightly by bulbs underneath where you step. Forgettable, dreadful music plays as some of the nightbirds try to have a good time and dance the darkness away, as if on an exotic cruise, not just the overnight ferry from Le Havre to Portsmouth. Alice drinks brandies. Thomas has a coke. Alice begins to loosen her defences, but still mocks the boy's youth, his desires, his need to screw her. Later he tells her outright that he wants to sleep with her. Alice finds this funny - so direct. Men try tricks to flirt with and bed their victims; they talk about anything except the act itself. In youth and innocence comes a strange kind of confidence - but Thomas is either bluffing or clearly smitten, maybe he really does believe there is a future for them. But he is a virgin, and later, in the bedroom, his blushes are real. He falls for Alice, and she looks at him like he is embarrassing himself, and clearly, as they drink in the bar, she sends signals that seem to imply that he has no chance. But they are drinking together, with each other - clearly he has every chance.
Part of Alice's freedom and domination, is knowing when to play victim, and when to create victim. Her bluster could be playful, her regrets - at her age, her life, her divorce, her drinking - make her seem like a failure, but it's Thomas who comes across as the weaker, even in moments where Alice cries she-wolf. Thomas tries to buy Alice a drink at the bar as the piped music plays on, but is refused. "You see that woman other there - she's my mother", he tells the barman. That's ok sir, and he gets served now. Thomas even persuades Alice to dance. She doesn't want to, but they dance closely if awkwardly - Alice says the dancefloor is full of girls Thomas's age. But clearly this isn't true. He tells her that right behind them sits a much older man and a very young girl, of five or so years. That's even worse, she tells him, making up the rules as she goes along.
Memories of the Magic Show:
Huddled together, in a seat at the side of the stage, Alice and Thomas talk while a magician and his assistant perform their magic act behind them, boosted or perhaps subdued by the occasional trickle of applause. Now the disco and the drinking is all over, the rubbish magic act seems like a pointless distraction; another half hour of waiting for something more exciting to happen back in the cabin now, as everything also pales away compared to this next big step. The couple are framed by the film's director Catherine Breillat as if they have become far more the act on the stage than the magician and his assistant themselves; more the focus of that bored public stare - they are filmed from an angle that makes them the centre of attention to themselves and us. The setting is becoming less important now.
Catherine Breillat painted another seduction scene of a woman on the rebound in her even more controversial film 'Romance' a few years earlier, where the young woman, Marie, on the rebound from boyfriend trouble, is seduced by the promise of a rejuvenating one night stand and taken from a nightclub by a perfect man, played by real life hard-edged adult movie star Rocco Siffredi, acting all sympathetic and caring as if that works best (Breillat laughing - the rough and charmless man of adult movies here used by a woman; big, dumb and ready to..). Softly softly Siffredi turns on the charm - it works, but clearly she is using him, doesn't compliment him in bed as he probably expects her to, insists he use a condom, isn't especially impressed; it's not special. She is getting her own back on her weak real boyfriend - men are easy, in how easy they think women may be, they use and play user, while all along being used. Brief Crossing, you suspect, uses sex like the name suggests - as a brief crossing, a way to enthuse another more important but still essentially sterile relationship with renewed life, uses sex as self-help or perhaps more in protest, just like the sex act in Romance is like a temporary quick fix.
The bleakness of a P&O ferry in the middle of the night isn't so far away from the cold character emptiness and stark setting of an Ingmar Bergman movie - and Bergman is Breillat's most stated influence on her life and career. Breillat has a lifetime of creating and following her obsessions; she wrote her first sex-saturated novel at 17 (L'Homme Facile/ Easy Man), went on to act in films such as Last Tango in Paris, before directing the kind of films that shocked with their sometimes bleak, but equally often empowering (but less so to men), themes of sexuality, whether experienced at a young age (Fat Girl 2001), as a twenty-something professional (Romance) or when married and maybe divorced (Brief Crossing); all ages and all parts of the body or sexual experience equally a target for Breillat's unforgettable hot-poker prodding - and mostly poked into the crotches of men.
Breillat suffered a stroke at the age of 56 in 2004, the same year as she brought Rocco Siffredi back for perhaps her worst sexual nightmare on film so far; Anatomy Of Hell (focusing on a man's fear and supposed revulsion of the female genitalia at times, no less), and while now mostly recovered, just recently she seems, as a director, to have calmed slightly in the 'shock horror -sex!' stakes and focused her attention on developing a more calming, serene, and yes - beautiful (if no less confrontational) gaze at gathering sexuality in fairy tale-sourced films, first with the critically-acclaimed Bluebeard in 2009 and most recently, The Sleeping Beauty, in 2010.
Brief Crossing is less angry and shocking than many other Breillat movies, at times it's even quite languid and restrained, but is still the result of seething ideas and heady emotion. It's one of the director's best movies, perhaps thanks to the simplicity but clear wealth of setting and the two-act play nature of Breillat's cleverly scrambling script -like a cat and mouse chase in the realm of the senses: a surreal setting of secretive and furtive gloom; all exposing neon, awakening shop lights and burnt canteen oil fumes mixing headily with the salt-taste of the open sea somewhere still outside.
Now Thomas and Alice look only at each other, arms entwined, heads bowed or cocked in wanting to finish what they want to be able to do, the magic act behind them sometimes in focus, sometimes a blur, but always still there in the background. The sense of place is never forgotten by Breillat's lens, as without the setting, without being here, away from everywhere else, from the places they know too well back on shore, from haunts that remain opposed to each other's lives and unshakably their own, there would be no moment like this - they are completely alone, the P&O ferry like a secret world only they exist in.
You can almost feel the fine hairs on Alice's bare arm stand-up as Thomas runs his hand casually up and down her skin, almost embarrassed to do so but still determined to; enticing her in like bait. But it's bait that has clearly swum to the hook anyway. Thomas is smitten but Alice looks away too easily too often, with indifference. She seems to think that Thomas's interest in her is fake praise to get himself laid - expects this and plays along, but she is later surprised at how determined his speaking of a possible life for the two of them together is, when she expected it to all end and be over with that night; to end with the sex act and be done. Not all men can be read as easily as perhaps Alice had thought, especially when they are so young.
Memories of the Sea in the Dark:
There's something special about being on deck on a ferry, hearing the sea rush past in the darkness, the metal steps and rails you cling to climbing up to a higher deck so cold under your touch. You imagine what it would be like to fall overboard; would you survive in the churning, freezing, monstrous sea that oozes black fear in the darkness and returns with a safer serenity when the sun rises and the white foam churns, when water sparkles and feels safe again - less unknown and mysterious but no less powerful or dangerous?
Memories of a Cabin:
Alice takes Thomas into her cabin. She lies on the bed. Removes her underwear before he gets the chance. Keeps her dress on. He moves towards her, they embrace on the bed and more clothing is removed almost as fast as a magic act rabbit that vanished in a hat - one moment there, suddenly not. Just before this: she plays him along with the male-boost to the ego about how many conquests he has had, how attractive he must be to other girls who must want him all the time - of course, they both know he is a virgin, but it's better sex if she strokes his ego first. Thomas's skin, as he has sex with Alice (coldly and quickly, with a harsh bulb above them as a spotlight) is as pale as hers is, but his face stays blushed with pink while her face stays the same; there's no foreplay either, just a start and a finish, as you suspect she wants it to be like as she lies there all sedate and unraveling as the blinkered teenager squirms around playfully on top of her.
Then when it's over, the rest of the night lies ahead. They sleep for a while, then start up again when they wake up together by chance, this time they stay under the covers - one last bite at the fruit before the winter frost hides the shame or the promise of a future together. They shower in the morning together before breakfast, barely noticing each other, or her hardly noticing him - both fully at ease, in this moment, until normal life resumes, energised with an extra five lives and another start from go, in this game of cat and mouse.
Memories of a Breakfast:
"Are you hungry", she asks him, as he stuffs his mouth full of a big hearty breakfast - it's almost a threat, or a way to mock. Is she thinking: did I make you so hungry? The ship will be in dock soon. We think there is half an hour to go so maybe they will go back to the cabin and get back under the covers for a final romp. She goes back with him, but just to collect her suitcase. He has to go and get his case from the seating area where he left it - only some passengers get to afford a cabin. Alice is one of those. She also thinks he won't be back but he isn't the typical male she expects - he keeps telling her that he loves her and thinks they are going to leave the ship together. There's going to be an even bigger surprise before the end credits roll. The biggest shock of all. In the end, some events in our lives stay as they need to stay; safer to us all as memories ...
.... coffee (the colour of cheap foundation) - and then a quick visit to the Duty Free Shop, big bottles of perfume to last you a lifetime, plastic lighters and already cheap wine at a cheaper price, a last stroll on a deck in the wind and rain, the next best thing to a real kind of cruise and you imagine now you're arriving in Spain, not the misty cold haze of the greyed cliffs of Dover, arriving at port at 6am, leaving the cabin quickly, tired after a disco that ran all the way up to midnight and a few minutes past, just you and a few stragglers dancing ...
Words - Mark Gordon Palmer