Friday, April 15, 2011

Fat Girl

Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl is a chilling and disturbing movie, an in-your-face provocation that presents a devastating portrait of the kind of insinuating sexual exploitation that goes on everyday. It's a film that's deeply suspicious of the concept of "love" and the things that are done in its name, and it's all leading towards an unforgettable final line and final shot that forces the film's moral to snap into place with unavoidable clarity. The film focuses on the relationship of the young sisters Elena (Roxane Mesquida) and Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), the former pretty and poised between girlish and womanly, the latter chubby and sullen. During a summer vacation, Anaïs watches as Elena gets an older boyfriend, Fernando (Lorenzo de Rienzo), and hesitates before losing her virginity to him.

The film's centerpiece is a very difficult-to-watch, discomfiting sequence in which Fernando relentlessly tries to convince Elena to have sex with him, while Anaïs watches from across the room in her own bed, pretending to sleep, covering her eyes then spreading her fingers apart to peek through. The scene is so disturbing because it's so real, so believable, and because it's pretty much rape. Elena keeps resisting, telling Fernando she doesn't want to, and he just keeps on verbally wearing her down, telling her it will be a "proof of love," telling her that if she doesn't give him what he needs, he'll have to go with another girl, someone he doesn't love like he loves her, and he doesn't want to do that. It's icky and scummy, and one wants to watch the way Anaïs does, half-covering one's eyes, wanting to turn away but unable to despite the burgeoning sick feeling that the scene inevitably produces. Breillat is as relentless as the boy, holding her camera on the duo as they awkwardly wrestle and turn around, Elena looking increasingly upset and confused beneath the barrage of Fernando's words. Her face suggests that she feels assaulted even before he actually does anything to her, and the contrast between her tormented visage and his smug smiles and flowery speeches is nauseating. It's a raw, unsentimental depiction of "love" as predation and exploitation, and it has the searing force of an uncomfortable truth.

This scene — in which Elena eventually relents, more or less, to anal sex, then feels ashamed afterward — reverberates throughout the entire rest of the film. Breillat is ultimately more interested in the relationship between the sisters, and especially in the lessons that Anaïs is learning by watching her sister's miserable introduction to sexuality. Anaïs, though younger, often seems more mature and cynical than her romantic older sister, who buys into Fernando's promises and professions of love completely. Anaïs isn't so sentimental, because she's watched her sister from a more objective viewpoint, outside of this relationship, and she sees how tawdry and ugly it all is. As she says at one point, the benefit of being the second child is that she gets to advance at a faster rate, to learn from the mistakes of the older child, and though she's talking about their parents' increased permissiveness with the younger daughter, her words also apply to her understanding of sexuality. She gets to learn about sex by watching her sister, and what she learns is that guys exploit girls for sex, that girls are often forced into doing things they don't want, that sex is somewhat violent. When Elena says that she's going to "give herself" to Fernando, Anaïs says that her expression is strange; it's likely that Anaïs, from her vantage point, sees the transaction as one where the guy takes rather than one where the girl gives.

The relationship between the sisters is always at the center of the film, and Breillat presents them as opposites in many ways, but bound together by sisterly affection and rivalry, by equal parts love and hatred. There is a surprisingly touching scene in which the two girls lay in bed one night, their heads close together, talking and laughing, reminiscing about their childhoods and their fights, giggling like the little girls they are. It's the one moment when they really seem like children, with their girlish giggles and their innocent banter — elsewhere, they seem to be growing up very quickly. Anaïs spends much of the rest of the film quietly glowering from afar, watching everything with alert and somewhat angry eyes, her face locked into a permanent scowl, her features small and delicate within her moon-like face. It's rather poignant, and also cruel, when Breillat repeatedly films the two actresses with their faces pressed together, emphasizing the differences between them, calling attention to the gulf between the sexualized Elena (and Mesquida was nineteen at the time, but believably looks much younger, like a Lolita-esque little girl trying to be sexy and provocative) and the younger, asexual Anaïs.

The girls are left to learn their lessons on their own, as their parents (Romain Goupil and Arsinée Khanjian) seem totally disinterested in anything the girls do. When Anaïs breaks down crying at breakfast one morning, the girls' parents make a cursory effort to ask what's wrong, and then the father storms off in annoyance while the mother simply writes it off as "adolescence." They're totally incompetent parents, wrapped up in their own lives and ignoring their daughters completely, blind to what's going on. They even meet Fernando — who's obviously so much older than Elena — and chat with him as though he's simply a nice boy but then, later in the film, they act as though they're shocked and disgusted when they learn that Elena actually had sex with him. They blame the girls for everything and, in that case, the subtext is that guys are expected to act like this, that guys are expected to want sex and to do anything to get it, so it's the girl's fault if she gives him what he wants.

All of this unrelentingly ugly depiction of sexuality is leading towards the shocking ending, in which Anaïs finally gets to apply the lessons she's learned in an unexpected way. Breillat subtly builds the tension leading up to this climax, as she extends the long drive home from the vacation, with the mother, who hates driving, at the wheel and the teary, worn-out girls sullenly sitting in the car with her. The tension builds and builds as the mother drives angrily, and the uncomfortable silence in the car is occasionally broken by bouts of recrimination and tears, or by the mother's blasting of a glam David Bowie rocker. The highway, crowded with trucks and impatient speeders, adds to the tension, and several times Breillat's staging of the long drive suggests that the film is going to end with a car crash, with a horrible accident. Instead, it ends in a rest stop where the mother and her daughters are confronted with an even more blatant depiction of predatory male sexuality than Fernando had been, and in the final line, and the final freeze frame on Anaïs' chillingly empty face, Anaïs suggests that what she's learned from watching her sister is that a guy forcing himself on a girl is normal, to be expected, that in fact it's not even rape, really.

This is a film with a very clear point of view about sex, that it's something forced upon girls by the guys who claim to love them and simply use them instead. It is, of course, a pretty limited view of sex, but that's part of the point: the film is intended as a cautionary tale, as a film to excite fear and reprehension. It aims to teach a lesson, not the same lesson as Anaïs learns — to accept rape — but the lesson that the danger of a society in which Fernando's behavior is accepted and even considered normal is that rape will be accepted. In order to reach this conclusion, Breillat has to make everyone other than the two central girls either clueless or borderline sociopathic, and the startling violence of the final scenes especially feels somewhat contrived and artificial, on the level of the fearmongering everything-is-dangerous attitudes of the American Law and Order shows. Breillat, from her very radical feminist perspective, winds up treading pretty close to the conservative outlook on sex as dirty and shameful. Another way of looking at the film, however, is that it presents sex as dirty and shameful within this context, in this exploitative situation where guys force themselves on girls who have few real defenses and no one to turn to, especially not judgmental adults who don't want to hear about their kids having sex and are quick to place the blame on the most blameless party.


Shubhajit said...

I wasn't as mightily impressed with Fat Girl as you. But I'd agree with most of your viewpoints on the film. This is undoubtedly a disturbing and frank exploration of sexual awakening and exploitation, which are used to add complex layers to the relations between the two sisters as well as to their characters.

I too had found the scenes you've chosen to describe as highly discomfiting. It didn't just depict, what you aptly mentioned, a variation of rape, it also gave us disconcerting peeks into who these two girls really are.

Though I did like the film, I felt some of the plot developments could have been made less in-your-face. I know that Breillat loves challenging her viewers' middle-class sensibilities, the impact might have been more palpable had, instead of graphically displaying everything, a few of the aspects had been just subtly implied leaving the rest to the viewers' intelligence in deducing them.

The script was really good, but filming, for me, lacked the kind of power, emotional depth and fluidity that was perhaps necessary to make this film one for the ages. But then again, that's just my personal viewpoint.

Nonetheless, as I said, I did like the film, and the climax scene indeed was chilling. Terrific review of this Breillat film, Ed.

Leroysghost said...

i agree with you that Breillat frequently trends towards a conservative view of sex, but i don't necessarily think she does so here, or that we are supposed to see Anaïs as accepting rape. true she has learned from her sisters example, but she has learned to take control of the situation instead of having it forced upon her. it's been quite some time since i've seen the film, but i recall being most shocked by the perverse seduction of the climax. "you don't have to kill me, i can have sex with you because you don't matter."

it's a depressing message, no doubt (let alone the fact that when push comes to shove a person might not mind if their family was murdered, although it's easier to believe with a family as pathetic as the one in the film) but one with a lot of truth in it.

Leroysghost said...


still the worst english re-titling of a foreign film ever.

Sam Juliano said...

Outstanding piece as always, and one I can stand behind. I am a big fan of Breillat, and thought both THE LAST MISTRESS and BLUEBEARD exceptional. As I recall you posed a very interesting idea for an interpretation of the former a few years back, but your view here is more straitforward. As you well delineate here it's probably the director's most disturbing work. Criterion has done a terrific job with this one.

Ed Howard said...

Shubhajit, I wouldn't exactly say I was "mightily impressed" by this film, though I did like it - if "like" is even the word to apply to such a troubling experience. It's very in-your-face, and some of the plot contrivances are pretty blatant in their manipulation, but then, that seems to be the point. Maybe it would've been better if it was more subtle, but subtlety doesn't seem to be on the table here; it's a nakedly manipulative and polemical film, and within those boundaries it absolutely excels at what it does.

Leroysghost, that's an interesting way of viewing the climax, but I'm not sure I see Anaïs as really taking control at the climax. She's accepted that she lives in a society where women are taken advantage of in this way, and she's decided to embrace it and make what she can of it by not caring, by being defiant about it - but she doesn't exactly have a lot of control or power available to her, which is part of the movie's point. Her options are limited by the examples available to her in her family. And Breillat, by the way, is said to prefer the English title. I think it works to convey the provocations of the film.

Thanks, Sam. I need to see more Breillat myself, since she's obviously a pretty fascinating director. I've only seen the 2 I've reviewed here so far, but I'll definitely be exploring more of her work, and Bluebeard sounds great.