Criterion // 2001 // 86 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 2nd, 2011
A new provocation from the director of Romance.
"I want my first time to be with someone I don't love."
Anais (Anais Reboux) is a quiet, overweight 12-year-old French girl. Her sister Elena (Roxane Mesquida, The Last Mistress) is a thin, attractive 15-year-old. One day, Elena meets an Italian college student named Fernando (Libero De Rienzo, My House in Umbria). The two hit it off immediately and Elena begins to explore her sexuality for the first time. Meanwhile, Anais remains in the background and observes her sister's increasingly messy journey.
Watching interviews with director Catherine Breillat, one quickly gets the sense that subtlety isn't a particularly interesting or effective quality as far as she's concerned. She speaks of directing her actors in either excessively sweet or harsh ways in order to achieve the effect that she desires and of her desire for certain elements of her films to have a very sharp effect on audiences. She is perhaps best-known as a director who explores sexuality in a variety of frank, explicit and sometimes shocking ways, and Fat Girl is unquestionably one of her most provocative films. Whether it's a good one remains a matter of debate.
I think the film certainly has merit, as there are more than a few masterful moments and observations. Fat Girl's greatest accomplishment is arguably the manner in which it depicts Fernando's calculated seduction of Elena, a cringe-inducing yet sometimes painfully funny sequence in which he spews one shameless, emotionally exploitative line after another in an effort to persuade an underage girl to sleep with him. The measured intentions of his words are more than obvious to the viewer, but the sexually inexperienced Elena is forced to take Fernando at his word. For instance, when Elena informs Fernando that she is unwilling to lose her virginity at the moment, Fernando casually suggests anal sex as a substitute. "All the girls do it, so they can honestly say they've never had sex," he claims, acting surprised when Elena confesses that she's unaware of this fact. It's an undeniably persuasive portrait of a very ugly thing, and this portion of the film serves as a valiant defense of Breillat's work as art rather than pornography.
The film partially excels in its study of sibling relationships, as Breillat accentuates how quickly siblings can veer from deep affection to unrelenting spite with alarming ease. Consider the way Elena offers gentle words of encouragement to her sister in private, yet insists on continuing to make fun of her weight in front of others. However, there's a scene midway through the film in which the sisters actually acknowledge the complexities of their relationship, and I'm not so sure that it works. The actual observations the scene makes are spot-on and demonstrate Breillat's keen awareness of sibling dynamics, but I don't believe these characters would actually say the things they say with such precision and elegance. In this moment, it feels as if the characters become pawns of the screenplay (though admittedly, I prefer screenplays to betray characters by depicting them as too intelligent and observant rather than suddenly making them dumber than the film has suggested they are).
The film's controversial ending (which I won't spoil in this review) has been a subject of much debate as well, and I honestly can't say that I'm a fan. I think I see the point that Breillat is trying to make and it's one that perhaps has some sprinklings of truth (even if Breillat's particular portrait of that truth is absurdly hyperbolic), but I think the non-sequitur, wildly over-the-top nature of the conclusion undermines the film's credibility. The point Breillat is attempting to make has less of an impact than the basic shock value of the manner in which she attempted to make it, which is a problem. She was well on her way to effectively establishing these ideas before the conclusion; the ending basically serves as a needless exclamation point at the end of a particularly strong sentence.
Most of the characters are pretty thin, as Breillat is primarily interested in them as objects representative of humanity than as human beings. Elena is a typical 15-year-old in every way and Fernando is a typical young horndog; there's so little to these two leads beyond their surface trappings. Thankfully, Anais is a genuinely complex character and has a lot of deep psychological issues the film explores quite effectively (note the heartbreaking scene in which she imagines a wooden plank and a metal rail as men she gladly gives herself to sexually).
A final note on the film's hotly-debated elements of sexuality: while the scenes involving Elena and Fernando are the ones that flirt with NC-17 territory, the only sexual content that I find really troubling is the material involving Anais. While Elena is playing a 15-year-old character, at least the actress playing her was of legal age when the film was shot. However, Anais is played by an actress who was 13 at the time, and there are a few brief scenes that I feel do indeed cross a certain line. Granted, the Anais material is completely absent of any sort of eroticism, but it would have been very easy to get the point across effectively in a less explicit manner. I have a somewhat liberal attitude toward the depiction of sexuality in film, but when you're dealing with minors it's best to err on the side of caution.
Fat Girl arrives on Blu-ray sporting a sturdy 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. The film boasts exceptional cinematography and offer compelling visuals during scenes that might have been dull otherwise (consider the long car ride in the third act). Detail is excellent and there's a pleasing layer of natural grain present throughout; it's a sharp, pristine image. For the most part, the audio track is very low-key, though there are a few musical blasts (hey, David Bowie!) that come through with considerable strength. It's a sturdy and occasionally immersive mix. Extras include two brief interviews with Breillat (roughly 10 minutes each), some behind-the-scenes footage, trailers and a booklet featuring an essay by Ginette Vincendeau (which surprisingly acknowledges some of Breillat's more troubling tendencies in addition to praising her considerable virtues).
Alternately masterful and misguided, Fat Girl is a memorable cinematic experience but not an easily digested one. Its stronger elements are too remarkable to simply dismiss, but its weak points are potentially destructive enough to ruin the entire film. The transfer is strong, but the supplements are disappointingly light (this is a film which demands in-depth discussion, and Vincendeau's essay is the only thing that approaches the kind of dialogue I was hoping for). I'd advise curious viewers to rent the film before deciding whether Fat Girl should be a part of their collection.
I'm afraid we have a hung jury. I'll leave you in charge of the retrial.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Not Rated