Screened as part of NZIFF 2002
"Brève traversée’s sexual ferry passage is from Le Havre to Portsmouth, where naïve 16-year-old Frenchman Thomas (Gilles Guillain) is seduced by the much older Englishwoman Alice (Sarah Pratt), whose age is one of few things left unrevealed. As conceptually old-fashioned as Brief Encounter, Breillat’s many-layered, entirely manipulative film is a perfect companion to Fat Girl [À ma soeur], and possibly more accomplished. In both, the intimate brief crossing of one’s first sexual experience is painted as a tortured introduction to the disappointments of adulthood.
Thomas first appears on the run, suitcase in hand, barely reaching the port in time. Stopped at the entry, his identity card is appropriately in tatters. Breillat takes care to establish a realistic veneer, patiently following Thomas along the ferry’s decks, while a woman’s calm voice intones safety announcements over the intercom… In the restaurant, Thomas and Alice meet and share a table. After he wolfs down his food, she manages to direct a conversation towards the vagaries of adulthood. Later, over drinks, a seemingly intoxicated Alice lets spill that she’s recently separated from a neglectful husband, and she rails against the tendency of men to treat women as objects. Thomas resents being bracketed in with the rest of his gender, though when he proclaims his tenderness, he’s stunned that she reacts by admitting she can’t fall in love (‘I fall… that means I lower myself’) with a man who won’t hurt her…
As the seduction unfolds, it’s hard to tell for certain if the film is meant as a woman’s or man’s fantasy, or both. Most up in the air are our concepts of masculine and feminine; Breillat and splendid cinematographer Eric Gautier occasionally blur backgrounds, then bring them into sharp focus, and often shoot Thomas as if he were a young girl. By the end, it’s clearer: on one level, the film tells men that they, too, can get screwed over. In this context, Breillat, for once, creates a partially sympathetic male character, staging another stunner of a conclusion that I’d have seen coming from across the channel if the film weren’t so damned absorbing… The real accomplishment in her filmmaking – and this goes for both Fat Girl [À ma soeur] and Brève traversée – is in the way Breillat blurs illusion and reality. Paradoxically, this deliberate uncertainty, here serving the flip side of grace, emphasizes how much we’ve been under her spell from start to finish." — Mark Peranson, Cinema Scope