During the overnight journey of the ocean liner Pride of Le Havre from Le Havre to Portsmouth two strangers, Thomas and Alice, will strike up a conversation, a relationship of sorts, a “brief encounter” during which the 16-year-old French schoolboy will lose his virginity to the young though far more sophisticated English woman. This is a film about the fantasies that people act out on the sly. Until his age is outed, Thomas pretends to be 18; shy and raw—his worn, expired identity card is unlaminated—he bolsters his sense of being “cool” by smoking cigarettes, which he says he has been doing since he was 12. When he buys a brandy for her, because he is underaged he tells the bartender that Alice is his mother. Alice has spooky eyes, tells Thomas that her husband and she broke up the night before, and altogether spins a tale of which her seduction of Thomas becomes a part. Different viewers will interpret the outcome as “life goes on” or the devastation of Thomas’s fragile ego. One thing is certain: regardless, Alice will “go on.”
Brève traversée is one of Catherine Breillat’s most intricate and fabulous films, even if Breillat herself, when interviewed, doesn’t appear fazed by the ambiguity of the boy’s fate. Breillat is fond of shooting actual sex that her actors perform in character, and she expresses pride in the male actor’s bravery. Yes, but he knows a lot more than the character does (and may be a few years older). It is Thomas that I worry about.
On one level, the film (which includes a corny stage magic act) is about the magic of fiction, how it opens doors and opportunities; surely the suggestion of Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) is not inadvertent. In a way, many have lives of the imagination; but what does it mean when we ensnare someone else, who has his or her own such life, into ours?
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