Friday, October 14, 2011

VIFF 2011: “My Little Princess”

Have you ever come across a picture of a teenage celebrity, take one look at the fifteen-year-old girl in full makeup, cleavage-exposing bustier, short-shorts and a sour look on her face, and been completely disgusted? (That, or watched those vulgar toddler beauty pageants: same difference.) There’s an unfortunate discussion of the “pimp parent” and the sexualization of minors in mainstream media. Controversial French-Romanian photographer Irina Ionesco would have scoffed at today’s ruckus, particularly since she did it first in the early 1970s.

Those with long memories will remember Ionesco. A Bohemian, French-Romanian photographer in Paris, she dressed her extremely young daughter Eva in baby doll nighties and full makeup, directed her to pose in vaguely sexual tableau, and sold them as art. This created a firestorm of controversy in the 1970s and pushed the boundaries of experimental art and bad taste. Eva, long out of that line work and still estranged from her mother to this very day, has fashioned her life story into the thinly veiled biopic My Little Princess.

Standing in for Irina is mercurial French actress Isabelle Huppert as Hanna Georgiu. She is given to wearing long flowing gowns, even in broad daylight, vanishes for long periods at a time, hangs around with artists and is the kind of self-involved Bohemian who douses herself in perfume to avoid the necessity of bathing. Having returned from yet another mysteriously long absence, Hanna reconnects with daughter Violetta and has her pose in erotic Lolita-style photography, passing them off as art and fetching thousands of dollars for them. Her excuse for not backing down is that she refuses to be “mediocre”, which if you think about it is really a Bourgeois cop-out she will not confess to (she’d sniff with a snooty yet juvenile “you just don’t get it”). Not quite understanding what is going on, Violetta soon becomes increasingly sexualized in her dress, showing up to school in satin short-shorts and halter tops. Did I mention that Violetta is ten years old? A natural model on camera, it’s disturbing to see her pose so effortlessly. Eventually, Violetta grows to adore and resent the attention her mother’s work brings her, loving the way the camera gazes at her yet loathing the heckling at her elementary school.

Ionesco keeps the film in check so that it doesn’t become uncomfortable or tacky. Thankfully, we do not see full-on underage nudity, despite the film’s subject matter. She has chosen the actors for what is essentially a Mommie Dearest dynamic very well. Newcomer Anamarie Vartolomei as Violetta, shining impressively with a feral energy that matches Huppert’s regal, self-deluded Hanna. By focusing on the relationship, Ionesco conveys the fact that the mother is not the only monster on screen. It’s shocking to see the daughter grow a false sense of entitlement and thereby become a beast of nature, particularly since she isn’t even a teenager yet, and one wonders just how badly the mother screwed her up. Huppert in particular has the harder job, delicately balancing Hanna’s love for Violetta with her own insatiable need for celebrity, given that she’s failed as an artist on so many other levels. My Little Princess fits well into the subgenre of the stage parent melodrama. (At this point you can lump the label “pimp parent” into that category, too.) By humanizing the parent and making the daughter hell on wheels, Ionesco shows how both parties are complicit, even if neither truly understands the nature of what they have wrought.

My Little Princess played to packed theatres at the Vancouver International Film Festival. As no North American release date has yet been announced, it may be a foregone conclusion that we may once again miss out on one of Huppert’s challenging, amazing performances. For more information on the film, click here.