This lighthearted, sensual romp -- a kind of contemporary erotic fairy tale, inspired by the teenage marriage of Emmanuelle Arsan, and adapted from one of Arsan's novels -- never ceases to delight. It benefits from a spirited central performance by young Ann Zacharias, hefty doses of irony and wit, evocative onscreen atmosphere, and -- most of all -- Nelly Kaplan's trademark, feminist-infused sexual politics. As in her unsung masterpiece Fiancée du pirate (A Very Curious Girl, 1969), Kaplan builds the central narrative around a cunning female character of almost preternatural intuition and instinct, who teeters on the edge of victimization at the hands of the men around her, but suddenly reveals theretofore unseen strength and outwits her proverbial male captor. It's more or less the same story as Pirate (justifiably so, for the themes merit and withstand further exploration) but Kaplan distinguishes this work from Curious Girl by shoving the erotic quotient into hyperdrive. She doesn't back off from filming the nymphette Sibyl (Zacharias) completely nude (with sensual, soft-focus photography), or from incorporating a sensitively handled, prolonged, extremely erotic love scene between Sibyl and her editor, Axel (Sami Frey), that leaves virtually nothing to our imaginations. To approach this film sans any knowledge of Zacharias's off-camera age will inevitably shock the audience (and may induce feelings of queasiness), for, with her flat chest and baby face, the actress looks about 13 or 14 at the most, and plays a character of sixteen. The viewer can rest assured: Zacharias was 19 during the production.
As a footnote: several of the previews on the Pathfinder DVD issue of Néa: A Young Emmanuelle -- mostly trailers for terribly dubbed soft and hardcore French sex films -- are real gutbusters, unintentionally funnier than even John Landis's "Catholic High School Girls in Trouble" trailer in The Kentucky Fried Movie. Although the material's inclusion on the disc feels inappropriate given the comparative depth and intelligence of Kaplan's film, these previews must be seen to be believed.