Background: Catherine Breillat’s 2001 outing, Fat Girl, followed her controversial explorations of sexuality in Perfect Love! and 36 Fillette with aplomb. Whereas these earlier films seemingly fetishized male power over women, Fat Girl explores the fragility of women in a patriarchal society. In this sense, the women of the film are given a voice that evokes empathy and a brutal sadness.
This is Breillat’s only film in the Criterion slate, spine #259.
Story: Fat Girl juxtaposes the life of two adolescent sisters, the overweight 12-year-old Anaïs and the socially approved, 15-year-old beauty Elena. The sisters share a deep sibling love for one another, but they see their affection torn apart when Fernando, a suave Italian law student, courts the interest of Elena. From here, we see the brutality of sexual desire in adolescence.
The Film: From the offset, Breillat’s exploration of sexuality shows similarities to her other films. While French cinema has always been a consistent cog for exploring pornography, nudity and female sexualisation, Breillat appears to go against the grain for the first time in her career.
Anaïs is framed as a serial comfort eater. Every time she consumes food, it is amidst anxiety, whether that be a small conflict with her superior sister, or seeing the way that Fernando sexually manipulates Elena. This latter idea–the sexual manipulation of Elena–is presented through one of Breillat’s textbook and patented long-takes.
In their first sexual embroilment, Breillat spends 27 minutes of the film bouncing the camera between Fernando and Elena, and then Anaïs pretending to be asleep. This small bedroom harbours a lot of pain for both sisters. While Elena’s stems from not wanting to lose her virginity due to social stigma (“being a whore” as she aptly puts it), Anaïs’ more cynical approach to sexuality means that she fears her sister is being manipulated. This is presented through the camera always being focused from Anaïs’ side of the bedroom, or directly on her face with the flailing legs of Fernando and Elena in the background.
As Fernando speaks with his Latin and sexually charged tongue, he influences Elena deeply. Sentences such as “this is the greatest act of love” and “if you love me, we would do this right now” sound like something out of a soap-opera, which would usually weaken the scene if not for Breillat’s firm satire of the familiar form. By playing on these words, the focus is placed on how young and easily influenced adolescents can be.
This scene is the pinnacle of the film, both artistically and emotionally. Women in society are often conditioned to flaunt their sexuality and yet, once virginity is lost, they are often, in the words of Breillat in Criterion’s Special Features section, “dubbed whores.” Men, on the other hand, can lose their virginity and flaunt their sexuality without ever being called into disrepute for their promiscuity.
Once this point of view is established, the film is allowed to run its course and bubble into what is one of the most brutal and climactic endings in the history of film. Because, when the frame freezes on Anaïs, her eyes speak of the horrors of a patriarchal society. It is a terrifying and courageous way to end the film, but Breillat, true to reputation, revels in controversy.
The structure of the Fat Girl can be perfectly divided into three, making its already short runtime even more digestible. Yet these acts do not succeed without the performances being executed to near-perfection.
Anaïs Reboux, who plays Anaïs in the film, gives a performance that is not only cynical and darkly comic, but also layered enough to manipulate audience emotion. Sadly, she hasn’t acted since Fat Girl, which is a tragedy for French cinema. Part of her attraction to the role, and why she executed it to such a high level, is because she was a victim of attempted rape before taking on the role. She was able to draw from that fear, that sheer horror, to bring a potentially vapid character to life.
Roxane Mesquida has, unlike Anaïs, had a more fruitful career since her performance as Elena. While it might be easy to read her turn as a simple vessel for a thematically useful character, many would argue that her liberal and free-flowing sexuality help in engaging the audience. While Fat Girl is carried by Anaïs Reboux, the complicated sibling relationship would feel lopsided if not for Roxane’s devotion to the role.
Fat Girl really is a film that flourishes due to its performances. The subject matter and social commentary would fall flat if the dialogue were not delivered to sheer excellence by the cast.
Supplements: There are different ways of reading this film.. In Criterion’s typically stacked special features, we get Breillat’s personal reading of her own film. While she freely admits to there being a liberation to rape, which may be mind-boggling to many, it highlights why her films are endlessly discussed. With an interview from 2001, intertwined with a more contemporary one, it is interesting to hear the female director’s reluctance to explain her regular fetishizing of patriarchy.
The special features are incredibly provocative and offer endless hours of personal discussion. Also included is an excellent short essay by French film professor Ginette Vincendeau, in which she delves into Fat Girl’s style and aesthetic.
Overall: You will likely never re-watch Fat Girl. It is disturbing, undyingly brutal, and manipulative. The ending is enough to have you eject the disc before the credits even roll, forcing you into a pensive and reflexive state. The more you think about Fat Girl, the more you question society. But that all makes Fat Girl Breillat’s best film to date, both as a director and writer.
Film Grade: B+
Criterion Grade: A-
Featured Image: The Criterion Collection