Fat Girl (À ma soeur!) [DVD]
Director : Catherine Breillat
Screenplay : Catherine Breillat
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Anaïs Reboux (Anaïs Pingot), Roxane Mesquida (Elena Pingot), Libero De Rienzo (Fernando), Arsinée Khanjian (Mother), Romain Goupil (François Pingot), Laura Betti (Fernando’s Mother)
This review discusses some aspects of the film’s ending that contain spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want any hints about plot development, you might want to see it first before continuing.
With Fat Girl (À ma soeur!), controversial French provocateur Catherine Breillat returned to the subject with which she began her cinematic odyssey nearly 30 years earlier: adolescent female sexuality. She started on the trail of infamy in France when she was 17 and published her scandalous first novel, L'homme Facile, but her international notoriety reach full-blown status with her 1998 film Romance, a feminist parable about a woman’s unsatiated sexual desires that was part of a wave of mainstream European productions to incorporate hard-core sexual imagery. There is no hard-core imagery in Fat Girl, but the film is no less provocative, and how you view Breillat’s frank attitude toward sexuality—as cynical exploitation or brave exploration—will largely determine your response to her films.
Although sex is a central component of Fat Girl, it is really a story of sibling rivalry. The two protagonists are a pair of sisters, 12-year-old Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) and 15-year-old Elena (Roxane Mesquida). In one scene late in the film that visually recalls Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), Elena says that she and Anaïs are nothing alike and that no one would ever think they were sisters. In a sense, she is absolutely right, especially in terms of their physical appearance: Where Anaïs is chubby and awkward, Elena is lithe and beautiful.
But, this sibling dichotomy goes beyond a simple physical distinction in that each girl’s physique inform her outlook on life. That is, because Elena is attractive and sought after by men, she views sex in a romanticized light. She can afford to do this because her opportunities are extensive, and holding out only makes her that much more attractive and desirable. Sex and love and romance and passion are all synonymous for Elena, therefore in Breillat’s worldview she is the fool. Anaïs, on the other hand, has a darker view of sexuality, one that might be termed “practical” if it weren’t so despondent. Instead of romanticizing sex, especially the fabled “first time,” Anaïs sees it as nothing more than a physical act that only has as much meaning as you ascribe to it. She even goes so far as to declare that her first time will be with someone she doesn’t even love so that she can get it out of the way and move on to someone she does love, a proclamation that, by the end of the film, turns out to have been eerily prescient.
The story takes place in a seaside town in the south of France where Anaïs and Elena are on holiday with their parents, a self-absorbed mother (Arsinée Khanjian) and workaholic father (Romain Goupil). Anaïs and Elena are always together because their parents won’t let Elena out alone; the unspoken assumption is that they know she is sexually desirable and having her unattractive kid sister with her all the time will discourage would-be suitors. This plan doesn’t work because Elena meets Fernando (Libero De Rienzo), a sexually experienced Italian law student who wastes no time crawling through Elena’s window at night and trying to coax her into sex.
The easy criticism of Fat Girl is that it’s yet another dig at crude male sexuality, with Fernando playing the part of the guy who’ll say anything to get laid. The fact that Elena is a 15-year-old virgin makes his often aggressive (at least rhetorically) sexual advances seem that much more obscene. Yet, Breillat doesn’t allow the dynamics to be that simple. While Elena plays up the part of the virginal prize to be coerced, there is plenty to suggest that she wants it as bad as Fernando. Thus, she is merely role-playing as society has taught her. She wants to give it up, but not too easily, and she and Fernando are simply going through the motions of a well-rehearsed dance. Men and women may view sex differently, but they’re not ignorant of how the other person sees it, even if they willfully draw the shades over their own eyes.
This doesn’t stop Elena from becoming emotionally attached, though, which is exactly why Anaïs proclaimed that her first time will be with someone she doesn’t love. That way, she doesn’t risk heartbreak. Unfortunately, though, that’s a truly despondent view, one that admits defeat before even stepping in the ring. It’s a deeply disturbing cynicism, particularly coming from the mouth of a preternaturally mature 12-year-old. Yet, just as Elena role-plays her good-girl virginity, there are suggestions that Anaïs is also role-playing, perhaps to compensate for her physical appearance, especially in light of her beautiful older sister. In one scene, Anaïs blissfully playacts a poignant tug-of-war love affair in a swimming pool in which a metal ladder and wooden pier represent competing lovers, each of which she tempts and kisses—in other words, like everyone else, she wants to be wanted. When Anaïs cries in bed while Elena loses her virginity, it’s hard to know whether those are tears of sadness or tears of envy.
The final act of Fat Girl has caused no end of controversy, as its suddenness and apparently arbitrary nature alienated some and enthralled others. Yet, if you watch carefully, it’s clear that Breillat has been building up to this climax, even in the very first moments of the film in which Anaïs sings to herself a song that foreshadows the violent events to come. While much of Fat Girl is aesthetically dull, with Breillat relying on static long takes and simple compositions, the last quarter of the film is a small masterpiece of encroaching dread spun out of the seemingly ordinary act of driving down the highway. In terms of tension, Fat Girl turns into a horror movie.
The weighted silence between Elena and her mother, who is furious at her daughter’s affair with Fernando, casts a pallor over the sequence, but Breillat intensifies the emotions metaphorically by casting their small car into a sea of omnipresent and threatening 18-wheelers. And, when violence erupts, Breillat stages it in such a deliberately shocking manner that it sticks with you in the way real violence does; it’s impossible to get the images and the sounds out of your head. Whether such an extreme final act was necessary is certainly debatable, but its effectiveness is undeniable.
|Fat Girl Director-Approved Criterion Collection DVD|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||October 19, 2004|
|For its debut on DVD in the U.S., Criterion has given Fat Girl an excellent, director-approved anamorphic transfer. The image is clear and sharp, with good detail. The only time the film looks at all grainy is during the night scene at the end of the film, and in that instance it is only a few shots. The film’s color palette is fairly subdued, but well rendered. It should also be noted that this is the fully uncut, unrated version of the film as Breillat intended it to be seen.|
|Rare for a Criterion disc, the soundtrack is available in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 surround mixes. As most of the film is dialogue and background sound effects, the surround speakers are not given much of a workout. However, Breillat does include some pop music on the soundtrack, which is nicely presented in the multiple-channel mix, and surround tracks are well used to envelop the viewer in the highway scenes at the end, adding to the film’s tension and dread.|
|A brief five-minute featurette on the making of Fat Girl includes behind-the-scenes shots and interview with Breillat and her two stars, Anaïs Reboux and Roxane Mesquida. Also included are two video interviews, one recorded during the 2001 Berlin Film Festival and a second recorded for French television that includes a glimpse at an alternate ending (it’s not so much an alternate ending as it is an extension of the ending as it currently exists). Lastly, the disc includes both French and U.S. theatrical trailers. The insert booklet contains an essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau and an interview with Breillat, which was translated from the French film journal Positif.|
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 The Criterion Collection