Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger ponders the significance of having yellow panties shoved down one's throat. After all, it is exactly what Catherine Breillat wants us to do.
Our review of Fat Girl (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published May 2nd, 2011, is also available.
"You reek of loose morals."—Anaïs
Fat Girl (or À ma soeur! as it is known in France) is a film you could discuss until you're physically sick, and you still wouldn't be any closer to resolution. If you're familiar with the words "Catherine" and "Breillat," chances are you've already made up your mind about Fat Girl. Breillat is indisputably one of modern cinema's most controversial directors; her films, including Fat Girl, are often banned because of explicit sex scenes featuring minors. Pillow talk in her films is intense philosophizing about sexuality, self-reliance, gender differences, and fatalism. No woman can have sex in a Breillat film without exhaustively detailing her moral stance, expectations, and secret fears about the event. If her sexual explicitness, overtones of pedophilia, or gender-based intellectual barbs fail to rally your sensibilities, Breillat usually adds a graphic twist or two that dares you to cry "sensationalist pig!" Breillat gouges such a deep chasm in the sand that you're practically forced to stand on either the "brilliant auteur" or "exploitative hack" side of the line.
Under those terms, Fat Girl is a typical entry in the Breillat filmography. What distinguishes this film is a deeply introspective look into adolescent sibling rivalry that smacks of autobiography. If you're a fan, you will find yourself drawing conclusions about the director's own past after seeing Fat Girl. If you aren't a fan, Fat Girl is more fuel for your argument. If you don't know which side of the line you should stand on, Fat Girl is a suitably divisive film to test the choppy waters that are Breillat. That is probably why Criterion has presented it to us.
Facts of the Case
Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) is a chunky, banana-split-swilling thirteen-year-old, a curious mixture of absentminded, escapist daydreamer and wise pragmatist. She has no illusions about her own desirability, nor about the politics of sexuality.
Her fifteen-year-old sister Elena (Roxane Mesquida, Sex Is Comedy) is a lithe, impeccably molded beauty who "reeks of loose morals." Elena is naïvely optimistic and intensely curious about sex, concerned about love and respect but ready to dive in. Despite her protestations to the contrary, the term "tease" hangs like a cloud above her pretty head.
Anaïs is Elena's parentally designated third wheel on any outings. Despite the crimp in her style, Elena manages to pick up a randy Italian law student named Fernando (Libero De Rienzo, Santa Maradona). In short order, Fernando calls on Elena by sneaking into the bedroom shared by the sisters. Fernando uses every persuasive line in the horny male lexicon to convince Elena to unclench her legs, while Elena professes her deep admiration for Fernando and reluctance to cheapen their relationship. Outwardly uncaring but intensely frustrated, Anaïs listens to their nocturnal fumblings in silent fury.
We might as well get this part out of the way. If you've heard about Fat Girl, it is probably for one of two reasons: realistic sex scenes involving minors, or the incongruous ending that detractors say gratuitously provokes while invalidating the rest of the film.
Any serious critique of Fat Girl must address the film's denouement, but that would spoil innocent viewers. If you have not seen the film, I encourage you to not watch the trailers included with this DVD. I also encourage you to not read the rest of this paragraph. The film ends when the girls' mother cuts their vacation short and drives them back home in fury. Sleepy and distraught, she plays a dangerous game of dodgeball with semi trucks and sports cars. We brace for the inevitable crash, which never comes. Instead, the family parks in a rest stop to get some sleep—where an axe murderer shatters the windshield, bashes Elena's head in, throttles the mother, and then rapes Anaïs after stuffing her own panties down her throat. It is what you'd call a down ending. Critics are completely frustrated because this ending cheapens what has thus far been a character-based exploration of adolescent sexuality and identity. Proponents say that the clues to this finale were present all along. In addition, a DVD Beaver review (linked in the sidebar) states that it is based on an actual event. The ending felt to me like a hyperrealistic fantasy sequence by a non-objective narrator. It is brutal, it provokes the viewer, and it underscores the film's themes with extreme finality. On the other hand, there is very little room to argue that it fits the tone of the film. Antics like this enrage Breillat's critics and show her supporters that she fears no extreme in pursuit of her message. The overall effect is to raise our hackles at the last minute while calling into question the truth of the preceding events. In terms of shocking twists, the ending of Catherine's other 2001 film, Brief Crossing, is more successful.
The other talking point is the sex scenes. Breillat makes us very curious to see how Elena's flirtation will culminate. When the moment arrives and Elena sheds her clothes in bed with Fernando, an extended conversation takes precedence over sexual contact. We see Elena's pubic hair and naked torso, as well as Fernando's erect penis. Even so, their bodies are remarkably inert. Sexual contact is kept to a minimum, mostly relegated to Fernando's clumsy fondling of Elena's covered breast. However, the sex scenes are made graphic in other ways. The camera moves away from the intertwined couple to a closeup of the distraught face of Anaïs. We hear explicit sounds of anal sex while Anaïs covers her ears. The net effect is more disturbing than raw footage would have been, a signature of Breillat's uncompromising style. These scenes are about the effects of sex instead of sex itself, which is the director's focus. Our discomfort is rooted in the characters and the realities of a filmmaking process with minors involved in all forms of sex. Nothing I write here is going to sway your opinion on these two matters, which is why I said above that you could discuss it ad nauseam without reaching a resolution.
Fat Girl's most successful scenes have nothing to do with sex or the outrageous ending. They deal instead with two sisters in strife that nonetheless feel deeply connected to each other. The best scene lies between Elena's introduction to anal sex and her loss of technical virginity. She and Anaïs look into a mirror and exchange frank words about why they love and loathe each other. Later, they lie face to face in bed and insult each other with biting accuracy. This exchange sends them both into fits of uncontrollable laughter. Their open words, faces scant inches from each other, are more intimate than anything Fernando could accomplish. The acting and direction in this scene give us a scintillating peek into humanity; it is one of the most believable and affecting scenes in cinema. This exchange and the other scenes between the sisters are the real lifeblood of the film.
Criterion has given us an unassailable technical presentation. The recency of the film contributes to a transfer that is rich with detail and clarity. Challenging night scenes with layers of shadow and shifting focus are as detailed as the daylight scenes. Flesh tones are accurate. The intense green of the pool, the yellow robe that Anaïs wears, and other highly saturated colors leap from the screen without overpowering us. When compared to Wellspring Media's release of Brief Crossing, the difference is obvious. Of course, most studios suffer in comparison to Criterion's technical handling.
The real treat here is a rare DTS track. Criterion usually doesn't go the DTS route, and I'm puzzled why they chose this film to do so. Fat Girl does rely on positioning in two key scenes, the bedroom scene and the freeway scene, and the DTS track comes into its own at these times. However, the bulk of the film is sonically nondescript. In any case, Criterion has provided the best possible sound experience for this film, whether or not you feel the film need such treatment.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Were it not for the sibling rivalry plotline and the illusion that Fat Girl is somewhat autobiographical (Breillat had a beautiful older sister), it would be hard to recommend the film at all.
The signature pillow talk scenes are caricatures of what young men would say to get a woman to have sex. These scenes are drawn out way too long to maintain our interest, becoming both uncomfortable and taxing. In fact, Fat Girl suffers from an overall pacing problem that confuses the viewer through misplaced emphasis on throwaway scenes. Breillat tends to take her time, but instead of feeling unhurried, this film feels slow and awkwardly balanced.
Aside from a few key scenes, the acting is stilted in Fat Girl. Both Anaïs Reboux and Roxane Mesquida are watchable for different reasons, but the performances seem precise and aloof when warmth would have served better. One of the reasons for Breillat's success is that she employs unknowns; it gives her films a sense of realism and freshness. The down side is that she must firmly direct some scenes, which gives them a workmanlike feel. The net result is a pervasive sense of depersonalization that goes beyond the subtext of the film.
If this were released by another company, the extras might seem adequate. It may be unfair to Criterion to say this, but the extras don't live up to the sense of expectation inspired by their other presentations—particularly because this is the only Breillat film that Criterion has handled. A couple of contrasting liner note essays set the tone well enough, and the interviews with Breillat are characteristically brazen and abstract, but I don't think the extras clearly showed what a controversial and timely director Breillat has become. Surely they could dig up someone willing to rail against this fiercely provocative woman. We are given a look at the alternate ending; it is always a treat to see how films could have ended differently.
There's much more that could be said about Fat Girl. The film begs you to discuss it. The sexual politics angle alone could fill a book. In my limited experience with Catherine Breillat, Fat Girl strikes me as more introspective and personally relevant to her past, while simultaneously feeling less cohesive and satisfying than her other work. The extreme shock aspects might cause you to roll your eyes, cry in outrage, or respect her daring style. The best reason to watch the film is for a sensitive portrayal of sibling relationships, which is almost enough to allow one to overlook the negatives. In any case, Fat Girl is a film you'll want to mull over, either in your own mind or with others.
Fortunately for this judge, international law precludes having to render a verdict on this fiery French citizen. The sensationalism of the trial alone would subvert the integrity of justice.
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