I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about a childhood romance I had with a much older man. The sort of romance that’s hard to share in broad daylight, but one that is beautiful all the same. In thinking about it and trying to write about it in a way that’s honest and fair, I keep returning to my thoughts about romantic stories for little girls.
In the context of our current cultural attitudes, it sounds creepy to talk about little girls and romance, but the truth is that little girls like romance. Not your standard, adult romance, with flowers and champagne. Romance for little girls is often dark, scary, snatched out of the teeth of death. Fairy tales are full of it: young girls being alternately wooed and terrorized by men they fear and/or long for. Take your pick: Beauty and the Beast, The Seven Swan Brothers, The Little Mermaid, who felt as though she walked upon knives, all for the love of a man. Pair them easily, not with the sugar-coated Disney versions, but with movies like Labyrinth, where a mysterious man offers dancing, jewels, glittering admiration, oh, but at a cost.
A pall of sexuality hangs over little girls, threatening and bizarre. You know that it does. Even if you want to look away, it’s there when you’re not looking. I don’t believe the threatening nature of sex ever dissipates; it’s just that as little girls grow up, we acclimate ourselves to its dark nature. We learn to avert our eyes and open our legs.
If you’re curious, I’ll add another movie to your roster of romantic films for little girls: The City of Lost Children. I’m sure many people won’t approve of me thinking this is a children’s movie, just as people were horrified by my suggestion that Pan’s Labyrinth would be suitable for a certain kind of child. The things is, I remember how dark childhood was, how unsatisfied I was with saccharine family movies, how false they were. I loved movies like Labyrinth, Legend, and The Dark Crystal, but often wished they were darker, more romantic.
The City of Lost Children, oddly enough, is the sort of movie I longed for at the age of ten. Directed by Marco Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (the twisted pair that brought you Delicatessen), it often gets described as having a convoluted plot, even an impenetrable plot. This is only true if you try to watch the movie in an adult frame of mind, if you grasp at all the random threads and try to tie them up into some macramé whole. Use your child mind and the plot is really quite simple.
Man loses his brother. Man meets girl. Girl helps him. Girl dies. Man is heartbroken, but wait! Girl isn’t dead. Reunion. Man and Girl fall in love, form a family, save his brother.
All the other stuff is stage dressing: mad scientist, clones, a brain in a fish tank, evil conjoined twins, child pickpockets, stolen dreams, Santa Claus nightmares. Fascinating, bizarre stage dressing, but not essential to the basic plot.
If “Man and Girl fall in love” disturbs you, ask yourself, “What are little girls looking for?” Especially little girls who are fatherless. The girl in the movie, Miette, is an orphan, but in this day and age, even girls who aren’t orphans are fatherless. It affects their lives in myriad ways, but most importantly in the way they choose the men they love. When she meets a circus strongman, named One, who is often simply referred to as “the big moron,” there is an immediate connection. He needs her help, but why does she offer it?
It’s as simple as desire. She desires him. She desires what he represents: strength, gentleness, a big man crying over a lost little boy. Who has cried over her? If he is a man-child, enormous but not terribly bright or sophisticated, she is certainly a girl-woman, old before her time and jaded.
What makes it so romantic is that the movie doesn’t shy from it. It doesn’t place a paternal Hollywood distance between the two mismatched characters, but dares to show a physical intimacy between them that is both childlike and portentous of adult physicality. It dares to show a thing you’ll hardly see between two adults in a Hollywood film–a man giving a woman a foot massage. Hovering in the periphery are further suggestions: during a visit to a tattoo parlor (seeking a map), One gets a tattoo of a heart reading “Miette pour la vie.” Miette forever. The sort of tattoo a sailor gets for his sweetheart. As One rubs her feet, she asks what he plans to do after he finds his brother. A job, he answers. A house. A wife. What kind of wife? she asks. There is plenty of time, he assures her, to figure that out. Plenty of time for her to grow up into that wife.
Miette is a dark-haired girl in a red dress, and after her alleged death, One goes on a drinking binge with a dark-haired prostitute in a red dress–an adult Miette. When the real Miette arrives, she is alive but sour with jealousy. On the darker side, when One turns against Miette and tries to kill her (this is part of the elaborate plot, with fleas armed with a brutal potion that produces violence at the sound of an organ box grinder), the violence has the quality of a wedding night deflowering. One doesn’t want to hurt her, but he has to, is driven to it by a force he can’t control. Miette simply accepts it, as though she expects such a thing or deserves it. After one particularly visceral slap across the face, she gets up, crying, and waits to receive another. When he begins to choke her, she hardly resists.
Ultimately, of course, he will save her. She will save him. Together they will rescue the little brother and be a family. That’s what little girls want.
(As an aside, let me note that one of my favorite actors, Ron Perlman, plays the strongman One. His French is serviceable, any deficiencies in pronunciation nicely hidden under a Russian accent. The little girl playing opposite him is Judith Vittet, 9 at the time of filming, and she’s charming, cynical, broken, and strong by turns.)