The blog of author Dennis Cooper

5 of Catherine Breillat’s 15 films and 1 of her 5 books *

* This post would not have been possible without the generosity and brilliance of Dorna Khazeni
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‘I am the pariah of French cinema. That can make things complicated for me: it is never easy to drum up a budget or to find a distributor for my films in France. Some people refuse even to read my scripts. But it also makes me very happy because hatred is invigorating. All true artists are hated. Only conformists are ever adored.’ — Catherine Breillat

‘In gonzo sex you see a camera man, and the camera man tells to the actors, ‘move like that,’ and a woman who is being screwed slides to the camera and asks ‘am I ok like this’ and they make fun… I think this is the high point of censorship. They are afraid of even a minimum of narrative. No wonder that the French cinema director Catherine Breillat, who tries to do precisely this both — emotionally engaging serious drama, plus full sex — cannot somehow really penetrate the big market.’ — Slavoj Zizek

‘(Breillat’s) filming and selling actors, rather than words, produces an argument that splits her Dworkinite theory into less passionate responsibilities that is seemingly at odds with the narrative. And her writing feeds off that exposure. Breillat is one of the few filmmakers who looks hard at what her films throw back at her. Her work is extremely self-referential but not blind to the salesmanship, collegiate dialectics or feminist lore she seeks to expand beyond Unica Zurn and Shirley Mills.’ — Peter Sotos

 


Catherine Breillat on intimacy (French w/ English subtitles)


Catherine Breillat & Chantal Akerman discuss their work (French)


Catherine Breillat discusses Audrey Hepburn (in French)


Salò ou les 120 jours de Sodome. Présentation par Catherine Breillat (French)

‘The central preoccupation of Catherine Breillat’s work is the sexuality of women. That is, in and of itself, no major accomplishment. How many male directors, by contrast, are not in some way preoccupied with women? Of course, the preoccupation with female sexuality in most forms of cinematic production is marked by exhibitionism rather than introspection; it reassures where it could tear apart. Her films are uniquely concerned with a woman’s understanding of her own sexuality. Although, Breillat’s films tread a very fine line between exhibitionism and introspection—she admits that they are, after all, always about sex—they do so under the guidance of a fundamental difference in conception. In Breillat’s own words: “I take sexuality as a subject, not as an object.”

‘However, the films are also sexually explicit; contrary to Breillat’s assertion, sex is an object as well as a subject in her films. Moreover, the sexual acts on display in Breillat’s films are not only explicit, they are often unsimulated, a characteristic of her films that has contributed to her unflattering (in my view) international reputation as the auteur of porn. For Breillat, the visual display of sex is inseparable from the representation of the consciousness of her female characters. The representation of sex is also central to the development of her visual style—a level of innovation that has been grossly overlooked in contemporary film culture. And herein lies both the challenge and the controversy of her work.

‘One of the unfortunate consequences of Breillat’s reputation as the auteur of porn is that it has obscured the much more interesting fact of her engagement with the history of modernist filmmaking. Breillat is a central figure in European film culture. In addition to her acting stint in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, Breillat has written screenplays for directors such as Maurice Pialat (Police, 1985), Federico Fellini (And the Ship Sails On, 1983), Liliana Cavani (The Skin, 1981) and many others. Likewise, her own films have shown an interest in the expansion of genre, a major characteristic of European modernist filmmaking, as in her renovation of the policier in Sale comme un ange (1991). Moreover, Breillat is vocal about the filmmakers who have shaped her conception of cinema, consistently praising the work of figures such as Warhol, Pasolini, Oshima, Dreyer, and Bresson—all of whom can be felt in Breillat’s films in very interesting ways.

‘Breillat’s work is obviously the product of a major auteur. Her dismissal as the auteur of porn, then, speaks volumes. For one, it excludes her from the accolades with which her male counterparts have long been lavished, and to whom she bears a resemblance. But also, to deny the importance of Breillat’s work, to relegate her to a realm outside of art, would be to demand that art merely confirm our ways of thinking instead of challenging them. And this is, I would imagine, what Breillat had in mind when she told an interviewer, “I don’t really think about my audience very much.” The point, in other words, is not to satisfy expectations, but to confound them. And thus new ideas, new ways of seeing, can emerge.’ — Brian Price, Senses of Cinema

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Exclusive: the first chapter of Catherine Breillat’s latest book Abus de Faiblesse (2009), introduced and translated by Dorna Khazeni

In 2001 when I presented a tribute to Catherine Breillat’s cinema at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, she had not yet made ANATOMY OF HELL her film adaptation of her novel Pornocracy. It was a career-defining film, some would say in the worst possible way. Many of her advocates turned from her, said she was too extreme and called the film unwatchable. Decidedly, it was unpleasant viewing, but it was also gripping, unforgettable. In it, she again attempted to work out the conflict of desire, vulnerability and violence.

It was after making ANATOMY, in 2004, while she was preparing to shoot her next film, based on the 19th century novel by Barbey d’Aurevilly, UNE VIELLE MAITRESSE, that she had a stroke. It paralyzed half her body. I happened to be in Paris and went to see her at Lariboisière hospital where she had been for about three weeks. “They told me I am not going to be able to walk. “Of course I’m going to walk,” I said, “I have a film to make.” She dragged her body through space by imagining its missing half, fell, broke bones, but carried on and made the film. Starring Asia Argento, the film premiered at the Cannes festival in 2007 and was a success.

What followed was like a chapter from a crazy daytime soap. Sort of. Catherine, still a cripple, forging ahead on sheer will-power, happened across Christophe Rocancourt, a known crook, who had served time for larceny and embezzlement, but who now, was purportedly reformed and in France, at least, a celebrity of sorts. He had published a memoir and was living in conjugal bliss with an ex-Miss-France, Sonia Rolland. Breillat decided he should be the star of her next film, tentatively titled BAD LOVE, alongside Naomi Campbell. Two years later, she found herself on the brink of destitution having signed her material wealth, a sum of about 800,000 Euros, over to Le Roc as she calls him in her book, Abus de Faiblesse. This book, in which she sets down an unflinching account of the story of her undoing, as unsparing towards her own conduct, as it is towards his, is a testament to her fierceness–in case there was any doubt, she’s not going down without a fight–and to her extraordinary ability to confront truth. The title refers to a clause in French law that protects the feeble from criminal abuses to which they may be more vulnerable than those who are not handicapped, ill, aged. The book’s publication resulted in Rocancourt being charged. The case, it is my understanding, is still pending.

“I’ve made films, written books. I’ve received blows, often. A stroke turned me into a semi-cripple, but of all the things that have happened to me… Christophe Rocancourt has been the most terrible.” — C. B., Abus de Faiblesse

In addition to writing the book, over the last two years she has made two feature films, the first and second parts of a triptych based on Charles Perrault fairy tales for Canal Plus. Her BLUEBEARD received positive reviews in 2009 and played major festivals internationally, while her latest, SLEEPING BEAUTY, just opened at the Venice International Film Festival to acclaim.

The indomitable Breillat.

 

9782213651699FS Abus de Faiblesse
by Catherine Breillat (Fayard 2009)
Translated by Dorna Khazeni

 

Chapter One

That night, something happened. A natural event, ultimately. In my bed, as I slept, half of my body died. Without waking me, without making me suffer, this death passed like a feather.

Why that night? Had I lived differently over the previous days, had I slept somewhere else or with a man, would it have happened? Did it only take a few seconds, or did it take a slow and silent while?

No one knows.

When I woke, my left hand was a dead hand, the hand of my mother’s cadaver reaching out of a grey green tomb. It took me two hours, alone in my bed, to understand what was happening to me. What was befalling me. Two hours of watching the ceiling and concentrating. Trying. Trying to do something. Anything. With my self.

With my body.

I’d always felt cut in two horizontally across, I mean to say my head was separated from my body, my head came first and the rest afterwards. Now I’m cut vertically down the middle–it’s no better or worse. Lying down as I am, I feel the exact boundary between my dead body and my living body, a line from the top of my skull to the ends of my feet cuts me in two, like the wire that cuts butter.

*

I don’t look for known actors. I find them on the street. They have to be a burst of oxygen, prepared to give their all, a transparent bubble for the film. Afterwards, it’s too late, their presence turns into a job–a card trick. You have to find an actor just before cinema does, so you can throw him into the magic film can. So he becomes its prey, like I myself am. I can spot them in the street, sitting at a sidewalk café, and lift a finger towards them and say, “That’s him, that’s her, I’m almost sure.” I can come across my actor anywhere or anytime. A film is a sect, the sect of innocence and of passion.

When I met Christophe Rocancourt, one of the first things he said to me was, “My father was a gypsy and my mother, a whore.”

That night, boredom had slugged it out and won against time. The TV is what I call the devil. At my place, there’s a lit one in each room and I sleep in front of the devil. Waking up abruptly, in the box, I saw a man. A fellow, a crook, a thug. His remnant of a Normandy accent made him come off like a young peasant. But this yokel had a way about him, brusquely, he put the host in his place. I’ve always preferred thugs to TV hosts that sermonize to make money and build their image. But this fellow didn’t let them get away with it, he shafted the nighttime host. His arrogance appealed to me. Arrogance can be ruinous, almost no one can afford it any more these days. “I’m an ex-con, I got away with $35 million, I was supposed to pay it back, and I paid, so I don’t owe anything else…” This man wasn’t speaking with the dulcet modesty of a repentant, but in the clipped syllables of a thug. Not handsome, a yokel, a boor, he could be my protagonist.

That’s who he was.

The following day, I called my assistant, Milo, asking him to look for the man’s number: Christophe Rocancourt.

“Find him for me.”

“Why him?”

“Because he’s brutal. You know me, I’m under his spell… I have to meet him. For the film, I’m interested in him. I want him.”

Miko likes a challenge. This young man, whom I’ve forbidden from growing up, has been my first assistant for ten years, Cat Woman’s Dog. Nothing is impossible for my “lost soul,” as I call him, before kissing him on the mouth just to fuck with those who wonder if we sleep together. But he and I sleep with cinema: that’s the desire that gnaws its way through to our bones. So, Miko, laughing, set about on the quest for this new desire: Rocancourt, the thug.

My superb actor.

One detail bothered me, maybe it was just a media construct. In the TV segment, Rocancourt introducing himself had said, “Now I live with a woman in the 16th arrondissement.” You saw images from the Lisieux cemetery. Rocancourt had been born there, his father had died there… “Died like a beggar on a bench at the foot of the basilica.” A beautiful young woman walked among the tombstones.

“Your companion is Miss France 2000. Have you finally found happiness?”

“Yes,” he replied, suddenly leashed to convention. “We are going to start a family and I’ll soon be a father.”

This, this was not appealing.

I wanted a jerk. My character in Bad Love was a jerk who dragged a magnificent woman, a star, down on to his territory where he reigned, an illiterate sovereign.

Miko was quick to find a number. Through Sonia Rolland’s agent. She picked up. She and Christophe Rocancourt were evidently nesting together. The offer was not for her. Somewhat intrigued, but enthusiastic for her lover, she passed along the deal.

Miko said, “They’re in Normandy. They must be in love.” We lingered momentarily smiling at the thought, happy about the photo-novella.

And I called back.

*

In a dream, the dead hand takes hold of me and strangles me.

I wake up.

My hand is squeezing my mother’s cadaver’s like in a living dead film. I’m no longer dreaming, yet this hand remains on my neck like a dead bird. Time passes. I fall. I don’t know why I’ve fallen from the bed. I wait. I lose consciousness. I no longer know if I’ve lost consciousness. I try to get up. Time passes like a sheet. Hey, move your ass, lazybones! I feel the gravity of it, I remain stoic. The more grave it is, the more stoic I am. It’s neither a matter of my laziness, nor of my will. I’ll never be able to reach my cell phone, over there, in the kitchen, with all the numbers of those that matter to me and to whom I matter… Give up on pride, be sensible!

Those I love are phone numbers I no longer know. Why am I on the floor? Thank God, there’s the phone on the bedside table, a good old black ebony phone. The number for emergency services. I don’t know it either. By dint of the living half-body I drag myself on to the bed and call information. 12. I dial 12 and ask for emergency services.

“Ma’am, this is an emergency call. I woke up, my body’s half dead.”

“Oh, I can’t connect you to emergency services. You have to call their number.”

“Listen, I can’t. This is a cry for help. The left side of the body is dead.”

“You’re not dead since you’re talking…”

It’s enough to make you weep, or laugh yourself to death.

“If you can’t open the door for them to come in, what’s the point of my calling emergency services.”

She’s about to hang up on me, this great clairvoyant, proud of her pronouncements, stating the obvious, as she sits on two haunches well-separated by an asshole, I, meanwhile am separated by death and by life.

“Listen…”

She’s hung up.

12. Twelve. Dial 12. Stubborn, not dead.

“You have to send the emergency services! Don’t hang up, I woke up with my body half dead.”
Because suddenly I’m begging, because I’m sobbing, this young woman’s voice deigns transfer me to the emergency services.

“We’re coming straight away. Don’t worry.”

Two hours. A hundred and twenty minutes. Seven thousand two hundred seconds to get to the door downstairs. I wait. I have time to think. It’s really me to whom this is happening. I am living through a new adventure. I discover what used to happen to my sister so frequently–and not to me. My childhood without any illnesses. Asthma, staggering staph infections, or algodystrophies that I saw Marie-Hélène endure. And me… nothing! Nothing to explain my deviations, my refusals. Emergency services. I feel hatred, buried, dark. It’s over now, there will no longer be a big nor a little sister. No need to grind your teeth, my highs and lows don’t frighten me, if my half-living body does not die, this fiction will flow between the pages of my imagination. Emergency services. Am I sick? I am living, I’m on the edge. I think about Paul. Illness is not an interesting subject. If everyone recounts it, it’s because that’s where you end up in an attempt to save yourself. I don’t want to save myself. I think about Paul, I think only about him. My son is little, I don’t want him to see me like this. Paul spent the night at a friend’s. It’s ok. It’ll do. The ceiling of my room is a calm, deep screen on which my son floats. My heart is beating hard. My eyes follow lines of shadows without moping. I’m not dying. From time to time, I grip the dead arm with my living hand, the unknown arm that’s in my bed, and I shake it. I experiment with this new sensation which won’t last. Finally nothing has happened, I went to bed like you and woke up like me. Do you understand? Before, I felt cut in half horizontally, a head separated from the body, a head held high. This body that cannot be entirely mine, since the body is obscene. I had known that beforehand. Every living being possesses two hemi-bodies. Now I would know it too, and you, you do not feel it. To be normal, is to feel little.

Yesterday I was living, I was me, we were with Laure. The men, their boots, their jackets, arrive with my concierge. So that they find me quickly, I cry out, with all my might, “Here!” in a voice that to me sounds like that of a little girl hiding under a bed.

“HERE!”

 

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Catherine Breillat @ fluctuat (in French)
Catherine Breillat Complete Biblography
Catherine Breillat @ Semiotext(e)
Catherine Breillat @ IMDb
Catherine Breillat: un cinéma du rite et de la transgression (in French)
Catherine Breillat on Oshima’s ‘In the Realm of the Senses’

 

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36 fillette (‘Virgin’), 1988

‘With boring regularity, Hollywood has churned out films focusing on teen-agers and their rampaging hormones. Yet Breillat’s 36 fillette is a different, and decidedly more adult, take on this theme. Breillat tells the story of Lili, a restless, alienated fourteen-year-old who attracts the attention of several men—and, in particular, a middle-aged playboy—while on vacation with her family. As the story unfolds, the question arises: Will she or won’t she lose her virginity?

‘What sets 36 fillette apart from other teen coming-of-age films is the way in which Breillat presents her lead character. Lili’s sexual curiosity does not lead her to boys her own age; instead, she is involved with males who might be her father. The focus of the story is on her, and not her potential sexual partners; she is depicted as being just as much of a sexual predator as any male. Despite her age and lack of sexual experience, Lili is no tentative, blushing innocent. Neither is she a sexual victim. She is instead an indecisive young woman whose fully developed body mirrors her craving for sexual initiation. As Breillat explores the social and sexual realities of the character, the men with whom she deals serve as mere props; they exist solely as a means for Lili to explore the power of her emerging sexuality.’ — Film Reference

Download a torrent of ’36 fillette’
’36 fillette’ @ Ace Photos
’36 fillette’ tribute page @ Myspace
Alone Together: Catherine Breillat’s ’36 Fillette

 

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Parfait Amour! (‘Perfect Love!’), 1996

‘The film is a baroque but witty examination of sexuality, which happens to be her specialty. The exclaimed title even has a hint of sarcasm to it. At first, Breillat appears to contend that there is no such thing as a perfect love; however, this bitter sentiment is just the shallow end of a much deeper work. She doesn’t explicitly deny its existence, but rather laments the notion that anyone could expect to find a perfect love in an imperfect world. The disparity in age between Christophe and Frédérique is irrelevant to the demise of their relationship. It’s that they become caught up in the pursuit of unattainable perfection. This inevitably generates constant disappointment and mutual destruction, which ultimately leads to their undoing. Parfait amour! is neither romantic nor entirely realistic, but it’s not outrageous enough to be dismissed entirely.

‘The musical score is most notable for it’s near absence. The sex is never trumpeted with riveting piano or a blaring saxophone. The silence is demonstrative of the way that the sex scenes are true to life, something that endears Brelliat’s works to its fans. She never compromises the truth for salaciousness. Sex isn’t romanticized. It’s two naked bodies put face-to face with all of their beautiful awkwardness. There are one or two occasions when the score barges in with an upbeat piano, but its cheerfulness betrays the darkness of the drama. The conspicuous alterations in the composition somehow work for the film, not unlike the betrayal of the characters. The sexual content is generally kept R-rated, although there is an unedited blowjob occurring in the background between characters unknown. There is plenty of nudity, which is a trademark of the infamous provocateur in Breillat.’ — tbthorn

Download a torrent of ‘Perfect Love!’
‘Perfect Love’ @ Cinema of the World
Perfect Love?
‘Parfait Amour!’ @ Allocine

 

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Anatomie de l’enfer (‘Anatomy of Hell’), 2004

Anatomy of Hell plunges deep within the world of Catherine Breillat, which is a disturbing and sometimes darkly funny place to spend some time. It’s pretty easy to see why many critics hated this film upon its release; it is a straight-faced provocatation that condemns all men as being repulsed by women and on top of that it also contains some gross-out moments that recall the sleazy early days of John Waters. However, as a commentary on both Breillat and her films to date, this film is fairly indispensable and it contains some of the most startling images of her career. The film is based on her controversial novel Pornocracy.

‘Female blood is a recurring motif in the film, both with the woman’s early suicide attempt and later with her menstrual blood, the blood is useful for Breillat because it represents a way that the woman’s body stains the male body, leading to one of the film’s crucial images where a post coital Rocco strokes his blood drenched penis. The film positions this scene as oddly the most violent scene of the film and the blood is a stark contrast to what would normally be an erotic image. Another shocking moment of the film revolves around a soiled tampon which has been stuck in a glass of water as if it were a tea bag and then consumed. Watching the blood taint the pure glass of water actually forms an acute metaphor for the proceedings. If the female vagina is the star of the bodily horror of this film, the menstrual blood is the scariest ghoul in the haunted house.’ — bentclouds.com

Download ‘Anatomie de l’enfer’ in its entirety
CB interviewed about ‘AoH’ @ Senses of Cinema
CB’s novel ‘Pornocracy’ @ The MIT Press
‘Anatomy of Hell’ Facebook page

 

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Bluebeard

 

Barbe bleue (‘Bluebeard’), 2009

‘In Bluebeard, a sly rethink of the freakily morbid fairy tale, the filmmaker Catherine Breillat makes the case that once-upon-a-time stories never end. Divided into two parallel narratives — one focuses on Bluebeard and his dangerously curious wife, while the other involves two little girls in the modern era revisiting the tale — the movie is at once direct, complex and peculiar. It isn’t at all surprising that Ms. Breillat, a singular French filmmaker with strong, often unorthodox views on women and men and sex and power, would have been interested in a troubling tale about the perils of disobedient wives. Ms. Breillat never behaves.

‘All fairy tales have morals and the one in Ms. Breillat’s Bluebeard is brutal, suitably bloody and, like all good retellings, both similar to and different from earlier iterations. Like Ms. Carter, Ms. Breillat does not let women off easy: they are rarely if ever simply (or simple) victims. And to see Marie-Catherine as purely Bluebeard’s victim is to forget that she has a part in how the story not only ends, but also how it develops, for good and for bad. For her part, Ms. Breillat narrates the fairy tale three ways: in the period story, through the little girls and, finally, through the overall film. None are fully satisfying, but together they offer a sharp, knowing gloss on how our stories define who we were and who we become.’ — Manohla Dargis, NYTimes

CB interviewed about ‘Bluebeard’ @ mubi Europe
‘Bluebeard’, a critical overview @ Twitch
‘Sex is a Hen Decapitated: Bluebeard and the Eroticism of Catherine Breillat’
‘Rules of Attraction: Catherine Breillat’s ‘Bluebeard’

 

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Une Vieille Maîtresse (‘The Last Mistress’), 2007

‘Perhaps the last thing anyone expected from French writer-director Catherine Breillat (Romance, Fat Girl) was a stately costume drama based on a musty old mid-19th-century novel. But The Last Mistress, in spite of its frilly couture and horse-drawn carriages, is no middlebrow Merchant-Ivory production. As Breillat herself acknowledges in the conversation below, the film, adapted from Jules Amédée Barbey D’Aurevilly’s 1851 novel, was a pet project that extends many of the themes that have interested her since the beginning of her career as a novelist and filmmaker. Completed after a devastating stroke that left her partially paralyzed, it is her first collaboration with Asia Argento, the now ubiquitous wild child known for chewing up lurid sexpot roles, most recently in work by Abel Ferrara (Go Go Tales) and Olivier Assayas (Boarding Gate).

‘Passion devours and destroys in Breillat’s film, precisely because it is an irresistible, irrational force that the rigid morals of a prurient society cannot control or contain yet still manage to spoil. In that sense, the film is of a piece with the director’s art-porn provocations in advocating the liberation of love and sexuality — female sexuality, specifically — from the constraints of bourgeois moral law and public consensus. It is no accident that The Last Mistress is set in 1835, a time when the hedonism of aristocratic society was beginning to give way to the zealous, narrow-minded orthodoxies of a newly empowered middle class.’ — Bright Lights Film Journal

CB interviewed about ‘The Last Mistress’ @ Bright Lights Film Journal
Break My Body: Catherine Breillat’s ‘The Last Mistress’
Catherine Breillat: ‘I Love Blood’
CB discusses ‘The Last Mistress’ @ Nerve

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p.s. Hey. I thought giving you quality time with some of the works of the awesome firebrand French writer and filmmaker Catherine Breillat this weekend would be a good idea. I hope I was right. You guys good? Since I’m writing this the night before I leave for the music video shoot, I have no idea if I’m currently good, but I think I probably am.

8 Comments

  1. steevee

    You left out my favorite Breillat film, FAT GIRL, and included her nadir, ANATOMY OF HELL, but it’s good to’ see the return of this day anyway. I wish more of her writing was translated into English.

    • Michelle

      I also think “Fat Girl” is perhaps her best.. also “The Abuse of Weakness,” with Isabelle Huppert as Breillat’s stand-in.

  2. Bill

    Think I missed this one first time around. I’ve only seen the more goofy films (Bluebeard, Anatomy of Hell, Sex is Comedy), will definitely have to check out Perfect Love.

    Hope the video shoot is going great, Dennis!

    Bill

  3. Ferdinand

    A director who’s films I want to see more of definitely. I liked Fat girl a lot.

    After commenting on the first Film post here (Queer cinema) I was inspired to write a short story. I thought of it as an exercise in writing more than say as a story with some kind of moral. It’s my third short story and I thought of sharing it here.

    If anyone sees any missing coma’s or feels like saying yeah ok I read it whatever, feel free to write a comment where it appears here on my blog.
    It’s called Family vacation and I hope it’s not boring, the style its written in. The word count is exactly 1001, so its a very short read.

    http://ferdbird77.blogspot.co.za/2016/09/family-vacation.html

  4. _Black_Acrylic

    Another Fat Girl fan here, and Breillat is supreme.

    I seem to be shaking off this cold thankfully. Tomorrow I’ve an LGI appointment for a scan of the spine, then Tuesday it’s the Orthopaedics clinic to hopefully be rid of this brace. Who knows, later this week I may finally be back in Dundee?

    This has been all over the internet recently but just on the off chance you’ve not seen it – Ian Curtis rides a rollercoaster.

  5. h

    Hrmm, I also want to watch Perfect Love.

    Hope your trip is going well.

  6. Milk

    Thank you:)

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