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Brief Crossing
cast: Sarah Pratt, Gilles Guillain

director: Catherine Breillat

80 minutes (18) 2001 widescreen ratio 16:9
Second Sight DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Lucinda Ireson
Catherine Breillat has become known for her uncompromising approach to filmmaking, most notably, in the controversial and ironically titled Romance (1999). Brief Crossing is another frank depiction of a relationship - in this case, that of a 16-year-old French boy, Thomas (Gilles Guillain), and a 30-something English woman, Alice (Sarah Pratt), who embark on a brief but intense liaison during a ferry crossing from Le Havre to Portsmouth.

Virtually the entire film takes place during the course of the ferry crossing and, as one may expect, it's a fairly stagy, talky affair. However, this approach suits the material perfectly, and the consistently involving dialogue between the central couple makes for an intimate character study. Moreover, the dialogue-heavy sections are balanced out with wordless scenes that convey just as much, if not more. One scene, for example, sees the characters sitting in a bar watching a magic show, during which Thomas moves his hand tentatively towards Alice's in a long take that's acted and directed in a beautifully subtle manner. Likewise, when the characters first meet and share a table at one of the ferry's cafeterias, the film features lingering close-ups of them as they exchange glances, with protracted periods of silence interspersed with the occasional pleasantry. So, we feel a sense of awkwardness as we wait for the moment when one of the characters initiates a real conversation.

That the film is directed by a woman is no surprise, with the majority of the dialogue focusing on relationships from a female viewpoint as Alice reveals her bitter attitude towards the opposite sex (a result, she says, of being hurt so many times). The film uses this in order to comment on sexism and double standards, and includes some blunt and sometimes amusing statements such as Alice's remark on the perceived effect of ageing on females: "Contrary to belief, they age better. Women never become bald, paunchy or full of themselves at 40, do they?" This culminates in the ultimate reversal in gender roles at the end of the film, when we see that Alice has been the one in power all along. However, accusations of misogyny are diffused in that Thomas is an innocent, perhaps even naïve, young man, and so we are left sympathising with him by the film's conclusion, whereas we look upon Alice as someone who's fascinating but difficult to like.

The film favours a documentary approach, with grainy footage, handheld camerawork, naturalistic lighting and the lack of a musical score allowing us to feel as though we are observing a real situation rather than simply watching a movie. One scene, for instance, shows Thomas and Alice standing on the outer deck of the ferry, not speaking but simply holding each other and looking out to sea. A sweeping score is not needed here, as the moment is effective enough as it is - to add to this would detract from the simple beauty of the scene. As it is, the film gives the viewer enough credit to appreciate this without being 'told' what to feel. The film's sex scene is also shot in a documentary style, yet at no point does it appear sordid - just realistic. Indeed, while Brief Crossing is undoubtedly candid and its ending is hardly that of a fairytale, it's peppered with moments of genuine sentiment that make it one of Breillat's more humane character studies.

With no secondary characters of note, the film's success rests to a large extent on its two key performers, whether it's in wordless scenes or those that feature in-depth conversations, and both actors do an admirable job. Guilles is completely believable as the inexperienced teenager who, despite his cocky attitude, is the weaker and more innocent party in the relationship. Pratt, meanwhile, has the more complex role, veering between melancholy, romanticism, overt sexuality, masochism and anger, thus creating a character that's hard to define and who we feel that we can never really know, least of all after the film's concluding revelation.

At just 80 minutes Brief Crossing's runtime is disappointingly scant, but that's the whole point - the relationship between Thomas and Alice is transitory and the film serves to reflect this. Still, while it may be short, it certainly isn't lacking in impact, and the film contrasts subtlety with frankness and verbosity with quietness in a skilful manner that compliments the mesmerising performances, documentary style visuals and consistently engrossing observational dialogue. The no-frills approach is also beneficial in making the scenario believable, while the conclusion proves both startling and thought provoking. All in all, then, the film itself is much like the relationship that it depicts - a brief but powerful experience.

DVD extras: sadly, the director interview featured on the region one version of this film disc isn't to be found here. There are no other extras, either, which is disappointing in that the film lends itself so well to discussion. On the plus side, the film speaks for itself and the viewer gets to find their own meaning in the story, but it would have been nice to have heard some insight from the director and actors all the same.

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