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Non-Review Review: My Little Princess

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012.

My Little Princess is a deeply disturbing piece of French cinema. It’s very hard to address the topic of the sexual exploitation of children in a way that doesn’t end up feeling exploitative itself. However, despite some moments of melodrama, Eva Ionesco’s creepy and unsettling character exploration is a fairly well-crafted film, one that leaves you feeling just a little bit dirty for even watching it.

Mamma Mia!

Apparently parts of the film are based on Ionesco’s life, as she spent her own childhood years modelling for her mother. Ionesco modelled at the age of four, but the film shows its lead character modelling at in her early teens – perhaps to avoid seemingly excessively heavy-handed, or perhaps to give the character a chance to develop her own arc. Either way, the film pulls few punches, and leaves you with no doubt as to how Ionesco must feel about her own childhood career and her own mother.

There is an awkward element of airing dirty laundry about the film, perhaps even more uncomfortable than anything in the film itself. Wisely avoiding on anything too explicit within the film itself – realising that there’s a point at which this sort of story becomes sensationalist – Ionesco still goes into a great deal of uncomfortable depth about the kinds of people who inhabit this seedy underbelly. They are pretty much as disgusting as one might imagine, with one even promising to write an “erotic story” to compliment the erotic photographs, while they all take disturbing pleasure in sitting a young girl on their knee, and they all have bad teeth. It’s hardly subtle. Then again, this sort of thing isn’t.

Crowning accomplishment?

The sexualisation of children is something that seems to have slipped under the radar. It takes films like Little Miss Sunshine just to illustrate how obscene these sorts of activities are, and how they play to elements of society that we really shouldn’t be engaging with. The plot of My Little Princess follows Violetta Giurgiu, a young girl who models for her mother. In one stomach-churningly uncomfortable scene, her mother strips her naked to photograph her. Later on, predatory adults are quick to offer the young girl wine and even opium. Her mother’s photographs are a runaway success with the art set, and she is quickly crowned the “high priestess of erotica”, though she’s quick to distinguish her work. “It is literary erotica,” she insists.

And so the justifications begin. Because it is shown in galleries, it can’t be child pornography or exploitation of a minor. The pair do press junkets, and her mother claims to be an artist – which is funny because it always comes down to money. When Violetta balks at doing a spread with a Gary-Glitter-inspired punk rocker, her mother quickly points to the financial cost of such a decision. When the State inevitably interferes, her artistic friends assure her, “They don’t understand your art.” It’s almost bitterly hilarious that she ends up selling to the gutter press to maintain her standards of living. “Would I find myself in a porn shop?” her daughter asks, and it’s a question the mother never answers.

Strike a pose!

It’s stark, and it’s cringe-inducing, and it’s awkward – all of which a movie like this really should be. After all, it’s probably impossible to make a movie about this sort of exploitation without seeming a little crass. However, there are points at which the movie strays just a little bit too far into the realm of melodrama, as Isabella Huppert finds herself portraying the mother as a heightened parody of vacuous money-hungry monster mother, wearing silly outfit after silly outfit. There are times when this approach works, but it also undermines any real sense of ambiguity or tension – there’s no redeeming feature to this woman at all, no sense of complexity or depth.

Similarly, the script does run into a bit of bother characterising Violetta herself. Young Anamaria Vartolomei does a great job in the role, but we don’t get a chance to see her transitions in action. She starts as a normal girl, does a photo-shoot and then immediately becomes this spoilt fame-hungry brat. It’s obvious that it’s a coping mechanism, but there’s never any intermediate stage. There doesn’t seem to have been any point after she first went to her mother’s studio that she might have adjusted her course or trajectory.

Back in black...

It’s a shame, because the movie is a deeply unsettling experience, and one that manages to feel as raw and uncomfortable as a movie about this sort of topic should. The scenes in the studio do seem almost gothic in their unpleasantness, with Ionesco using none-too-subtle imagery like funeral wreaths and skulls and creepy dolls to add to a palpable sense of unease about the whole thing. It is, of course, heavy-handed, but I don’t think it’s possible to tackle this sort of material in a way that isn’t heavy-handed.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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