When we talk about revenge flicks, they’re usually violent and involve someone like Charles Bronson, or Uma Thurman with a samurai sword. But there is another type of revenge flick: the autobiographical one, in which the whole raison d’etre of the film is the director’s desire to settle an old score.
“My Little Princess” falls squarely into the “mommy, you sucked” subgenre. Just as Lori Petty did in her 2008 film “The Poker House,” director Eva Ionesco takes aim straight at her mother — artist/photographer Irina Ionesco — by portraying her traumatic childhood.
Eva grew up fatherless, like Petty, and was mostly neglected by her Parisian art-scene mother — who became known in the ’70s for her distinct brand of dark, fetishistic erotica — to be raised by her grandmother.
Eva was photographed by her mother from an early age. The catch was that mommy dearest courted notoriety, shooting her pre-pubescent daughter in sultry, often sexualized Goth-Loli images.
Viewed today, the photos are striking. Eva displays an uncanny ability to play to the camera, yet the troubling pedophile appeal is undeniable. By age 11 Eva would be posing nude for Playboy magazine — their youngest model ever — and getting cast in Roman Polanski films.
“My Little Princess” dissects the complicated love/hate relationship between mother and daughter with a thin veneer of fiction, presumably to avoid lawsuits. Isabelle Huppert, in a rigid bottle-blonde perm and deep red lipstick, channeling the ghost of Joan Crawford, plays the role of Hanah, a mother who can inspire a decade of future psychotherapy in a single afternoon. Self-centered, manipulative, a bit desperate and of the opinion — one shared by many filmmakers — that the work is more important than treating people decently. She’s complicated but rarely sympathetic, due to a grating, diva-hysteric-ridden performance from Huppert.
Strangely, the daughter, Violetta, played by Anamaria Vartolomei, also fails to gain our sympathy. Vartolomei conveys her desire to please and become close to her often-absent mother, and her confusion at being pushed into territory she’s not very comfortable with. Yet despite her resistance to Hannah’s excesses, she attends elementary school dressed like Jodie Foster in “Taxi Driver” and then wonders why the other kids tease her. Whether she revels in her Lolita image or loathes it remains cloudy, and the film descends into a tiresome cycle of bickering between Hanah, Violetta and her grandmother.
“My Little Princess” is specific in its rage but also stands as a more generalized critique of so much modern art, where critics feed all too predictably on controversy and transgression. (Just witness the career of Lars von Trier for one example.) Thus, a photo of a naked pre-teen girl with legs spread is treated entirely as a commodity and on an aesthetic basis, while little thought is given to whether sexualising children is a good idea or not. Sometimes, it seems, bourgeois morality does get it right.