After discussing Maladolescenza starring Eva Ionesco, I thought it was important I revisit her recent film, My Little Princess. After a closer look I now think this film makes a critically important contribution to the debate around the sexualisation of children. This is because it is a semi-autobiographical account by the one person who pushed the boundaries much, much further than anyone else. Not only did she pose nude for her mother, photographer Irina Ionesco, she notoriously appeared in Italian Playboy at age 11 photographed by French glamour photographer Jacques Bourboulon. He posed her as he would an adult model. I will publish just one of the more modest, semi-nude images – there are more explicit full nudes (this image has been legally available on Google images for some time) to indicate the exact nature of her work with Bourboulon. Obviously the intent was to sexualise Ionesco. Can there be any doubt?
Bourboulon was not the only noted photographer to work with Ionesco. She also worked with artists Pierre et Gilles. I have already published Adam and Eve but for good measure here is a set mimicking a photo booth and one of her with none other than Dali.
As a result of her modelling and acting she became a celebrity in Europe. Yes, there was moral disapproval but there was also significant praise. Despite the controversy Ionesco continued to act. Indeed, one might argue that her notoriety aided her career. The photos below evidence her connection with the famous Parisien nightclub, Le Palace. This was at the height of notoriety, just a few years after appearing in Maladolescenza and posing for Bourboulon. It is highly likely that the people who frequented Le Palace were well acquainted with her modelling and acting work. This was in the very early 80’s when she was aged 14-16, a time at which we might expect her to be highly sensitive about her sexuality. Isn’t the last place we would expect to see an ashamed teen is at a famous nightclub being photographed by paparazzi?
Of course she was always a controversial figure. In 1977 her mother was considered an unfit parent and she lost custody of Eva, who went to live with noted shoe designer Christian Louboutin. She continued to model and to act, attending the prestigious acting school, Ecole des Amandiers de Nanterre. It is also obvious that she continued to mix with the glitterati of Paris. And it is also clear that the break up with her mother did not stop her ambitions.
Her relationship with her mother has been bitter and this is the subject of My Little Princess. She has been involved in a long running legal dispute with her mother for control of her mother’s images of her. The final court hearing was held in November 2012 and the judgment is expected in a few weeks. Ionesco has sued for €200,000 (a trivial amount) compensation for emotional distress and for control of her mother’s negatives.
As the film more than adequately demonstrates, Ionesco’s mother exploited her daughter. She was pushy and controlling, pressuring Eva to pose and perform when she clearly did not want to. She is portrayed as the stage mother from hell, using her daughter for fame and fortune. We might assume that Eva is embarrassed at having posed nude but a close reading of the film indicates that this is in fact not the case. It seems that the issue is the fact that her mother profited from the images and that Eva wants just compensation. In one of the final scenes of the film the Eva character, Violetta, watches her mother take money from a gallery owner. It is this moment that she realises that her mother is exploiting her and that her images have value. There is no evidence that she has attempted to stop the further publication of the more explicit Bourboulon images, the distribution of Maladolescenza, or the nudes taken with Pierre et Gilles (taken when she was living with Louboutin).
But the most telling fact of all is that she references and uses many of her mother’s images in her film. If she were indeed embarrassed by those photos why would she include them in the film, thus potentially introducing a whole new audience to them? Isn’t she exploiting her own image?
It is here we come to the moral dilemma of this film, the paradox. How do you portray the sexualisation and exploitation of a child without drawing further attention to that exploitation? And how do you direct a young actor (Anamaria Vartolomei) to play a sexualised, exploited child without sexualising the young actor? Well, the answer is you can’t. In fact Ionesco places Vartolomei in many of the problematic situations that her mother placed her in. She has to do this to tell the story.
Ionesco asks a lot of Vartolomei, who was 10 at the time. She does not ask Vartolomei to pose naked. She understands that times have changed. She also understands the relationship between ratings and bums on seats, so she only shows enough to keep the film within a given rating. This may sound cynical, but film makers need to have a clear understanding of where the current line exists. Nonetheless, she asks Vartolomei to act in a highly sexually provocative manner and to dress in provocative and revealing clothes.
One of the pivotal scenes in the movie is a photoshoot with a British punk rocker played by model Jethro Cave (son of Nick Cave). When Violetta finds out that the shoot has been arranged she is excited. The night before she has an erotic dream in which she and Cave take opium and kiss. The next day she is again excited and nervous because of her crush on Cave. Her mother asks her to cuddle with Cave and they kiss again. Her mother then asks her to take her dress off. She is embarrassed and resists, but her mother reacts angrily and pulls her dress off, revealing sexy, silk lingerie. She again poses intimately with Cave but this time she is increasingly embarrassed. She allows him to place his hand on her breast but when he attempts to place his hand further down, she slaps his hand away and gets up, furious at what she has been asked to do.
The intent of this scene is to demonstrate that the mother is quite prepared to push her daughter into highly sexualised scenarios. We feel embarrassed for Violetta. But if we take a step back from the illusion of film we have to realise that Ionesco, as director and co-writer, has created this scene and is in fact the person directing both Vartolomei and Cave to act in this highly sexual manner. Vartolomei actually handles having to act in intimate scenes with Cave exceptionally well. She initially portrays young adolescent infatuation and manages a convincing transition to embarrassment and anger.
Why did Ionesco include an erotic dream sequence if not to indicate that the young Violetta was becoming aware of her sexuality? If this film is semi-autobiographical, is Ionesco telling us of her sexual awakening at a young age? Doesn’t this put her role in Maladolescenza in an interesting light?
Far from condemning her sexualisation as a child, Ionesco seems to romanticise it. As a director she often looks at the young Vartolomei as her mother looked at her. It doesn’t matter that Ionesco never shows her naked. She doesn’t have to. She directs Vartolomei to ooze Lolita-esque sexuality. Isn’t this as problematic as her own sexualisation? Isn’t she exploiting Vartolomei to explore her own artistic vision as her mother used her?
Clearly the answer is yes. But is it necessarily a problem? Was Ionesco harmed by her early sexualisation? And has Vartolomei in turn been harmed? Vartolomei has since started modelling and she has been appearing on the red carpet to promote the film. I rather suspect she is having the time of her life.
In the film Violetta eventually pushes her mother away. She is portrayed as a strong character. In real life Ionesco succeeded in ‘divorcing’ her mother and building a successful career. No doubt Vartolomei will go onto act in more films. There is actually no evidence that these experiences have harmed either Ionesco or Vartolomei. In many ways they are triumphant, successful. Ionesco’s problems seem to stem from her toxic relationship with her mother, not her controversial modelling work. In fact Ionesco seems to have something of a charmed life, one that many would envy. She got to meet many famous people (musicians, artists, actors, fashion designers, writers, etc).
In this sense both Vartolomei and Ionesco are transgressive. They are proof that children and adolescents can be sexualised and thrive. When Ionesco chose Vartolomei for the role of Violetta, she understood that at age 10 she would be able to understand what was required. Clearly she was right and Vartolomei’s performance has been widely praised. And by choosing to place such a burden on such a young actor, isn’t Ionesco telling us that she also understood what she was doing at that age; that she had confidence in Vartolomei because of her own experience as a child actor? To be precise, because of her experience being a child asked to act in a sexual manner, doesn’t Ionesco have a unique insight into what a child is capable of understanding and achieving? Out of anyone, wouldn’t she have a good idea of the dangers of asking Vartolomei to play such a sexualised role? Would she have written the role if she had thought it was problematic?
Isn’t she saying, in this case, that a child can be sexualised for the sake of art – her art?
Far from condemning her controversial images, Ionesco actually seems to be attempting to take control of them. If anyone should benefit from her notoriety, shouldn’t it be her? Why else revisit so many of the most iconic of her mother’s images in this film, if not to take control of those images? Why revisit the issue at all, if not to profit from it, either emotionally or financially? To finally clutch her image from the memory of her mother?