One of the penalties of having so many films you have to see is that it’s possible—even inevitable—that you miss films you ought to see. Until two days ago, I’d never heard of Fat Girl (2001), and until I looked up Catherine Breillat, I’d never heard of its maker either. I was surprised to find that not only had Fat Girl not played in Asheville, but neither had Breillat’s four subsequent films. Possibly her latest film, Bluebeard, will be different. What surprises me is that the scandals that have surrounded her films—because of their brutally frank sexuality—has prompted no great degree of local curiosity. Having now seen Fat Girl, I can say my interest is piqued—as is my trepidation. This blunt coming-of-age tale of sibling rivals is one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen.
Fat Girl was called by the less abrasive title À Ma Soeur! (For My Sister!) in France. Somehow Fat Girl seems more apt, though it lacks the ambivalence of the possibly ironic—and possibly not—original title. At the same time, nothing is going to make the film any less unsettling. The basic premise follows the lives of two sisters on holiday with their parents. Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) is the younger of the two, but in many ways this overweight 12-year-old is more savvy than her 15-year-old sister, Elena (Roxane Mesquida). She is certainly—and strangely for her age—more world weary and cynical. Both girls are obsessed with their virginity. The flirtatious and attractive Elena is romantic on the topic, wanting to give herself to someone she loves, while Anaïs views her virginity as something to be “gotten out of the way” so she can get on with life—and she’d prefer it happen with someone she hardly knows.
Elena’s opportunity comes much sooner than she expects when she meets a law student, Fernando (Libero De Rienzo), at a cafe. In no time, the two are kissing passionately, while Anaïs occupies herself with a banana split. (Yes, the choice of that particular treat is symbolic.) Soon Fernando is sneaking into the girls’ room at night and working his way toward deflowering Elena—with Anaïs as unwilling, yet fascinated voyeur. These scenes are unflinching in their realism and unusual in their matter-of-factness. Breillat shows everything—and by that I mean everything—in a wholly casual manner. She doesn’t leer, but neither does she skirt the naked actions of her actors. She merely observes—and she takes no sides. Neither Elena nor Fernando are judged. They simply are.
The effect this has on Anaïs is difficult to judge, because the film never explores the reasons behind her reactions to the first scene or to the companion scene when Elena and Fernando actually go through with the complete act. Anaïs is upset, but it’s never clear whether this is due to her sister taking a step that further separates them, or if it’s because Elena has lost her virginity first, or if the reality of sex is more than she’d imagined. Frankly, I think it’s all of those things, but Breillat leaves such decisions to us.
The remainder of the film—which is a brisk 86 minutes—involves the fallout from Elena’s involvement with Fernando, which is brought about because he steals a valuable ring from his mother to give to her. The upshot of this is a visit from his rather crude mother (Laura Betti) that prompts the girls’ mother (Arsinée Khanjian) to drive the family back to Paris. This event is what makes up the film’s final section. And before I address that in even guarded detail, I’m going to note that readers might want to stop here and read on only after they’ve seen the film.
I’m of two minds as to whether or not knowing that the film has a supposedly out-of-nowhere shocker of an ending is actually detrimental to it. Most of the reviews address it (especially the ones from critics who hated the movie)—and I knew it going in. In some respects, I think knowing that much has a plus side in that it makes the last stretch of the film unbearably suspenseful, but it does prevent the film from completely blindsiding the viewer—even though the chances of the viewer hitting on what actually happens are slim. And nothing is likely to prepare you for it—or for the way it’s handled. But the interesting thing here is that Breillat has carefully built to this ending all along. It’s hinted at in the morbid songs that Anaïs sings to herself throughout the film. It’s virtually telegraphed by having the song on the car radio be David Bowie’s “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” a fact that’s underscored by that being the only song we hear and the fact that it remains on the sound track after the family gets out of the car at a convenience store. And the most chilling, disturbing and probably controversial thing is that the very final moments are grounded in Anaïs’ desire to lose her virginity to someone she doesn’t know.
Am I recommending this movie? I’m not sure that I am. I don’t deny its power or its keen observations. But it’s also a nasty bit of goods—which is intentional. Intentional or not, however, it’s unpleasant and deeply troubling. I have no trouble understanding the reviews that vilify the film and suggest that Breillat seek psychiatric counseling. But I also find the film impossible to dismiss.