Anchored by a revelatory performance by Alba Gaïa Kraghede Bellugi, The Evening Dress is a keen portrayal of a girl caught uncomfortably in that nervous, confusing, seemingly perilous crawlspace between girlhood and womanhood. Transfixed by the sexual allure of her forthright, impeccably dressed teacher, Mrs. Solenska (Portuguese-born singer Lio), young Juliette begins wearing makeup and pumps at home so as to express the femininity she’d rather reject, stealing a replacement copy of a book Solenska gives her because the original contains mysteries she wants to own for herself: a strand of the older woman’s hair trapped between two pages, and a red, brownish smudge that alludes to all sorts of dirty things. The screenplay, by director Myriam Aziza and Sophie Bredier, shrewdly charts how Solenska’s sensuality—her willingness to flaunt it in front of her students, and to cleverly, sometimes to their delight, turn their inappropriate comments about her foxiness against them—plants the seed of Juliette’s emotional distress, which leads the girl to invent a fantastic narrative, informed by her insecurity and jealousy, in which the object of her confused affection carries on an affair with a classmate, Antoine (Léo Legrand).
Emerging from this blisteringly thorny show of adolescent fears and anxieties is a subtle critique of the boundaries—or lack thereof—between students and teachers within the French school system. But the film is never didactic, and though the story constantly flirts with tragedy, with Juliette dangerously stalking her teacher by night, dodging traffic on her way back home, and finally being tormented by students after she voices her suspicions about Solenska and Antoine’s relationship, Aziza’s obsession is not with death, but with epiphany. Solenska gets hers when she acknowledges, to Antoine’s mortification, the fuzz growing above his lips, and suddenly understands Juliette’s antagonistic behavior, while Juliette’s happens during a runaway trip to a French beach town where her uncle works. There, in a scene every bit as beautiful in its emotional acuity as any passage from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, she strips down to her panties, embraces her curveless, scrawny body, and goes for a swim, welcoming the woman that awaits her just around the corner.