Fat Girl (The Criterion Collection) Review

The Madonna/whore dichotomy has laid the groundwork for Western thinking about female sexuality since the birth of classical literature (reaching its apex with the most famous book in the world, the Bible), as well as provided generations of artists and grad students with a context with which to understand their forebearers. Unfortunately, it’s also provided them with an entirely unhealthy way of looking at each other, and of propagating those ideas in their work whether they intend to or not. Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl doesn’t seek to overturn any of that, or even refute it, but does seem to want to expand our understanding of it. Sisters Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) and Elena (Roxane Mesquida) are only three years apart in age, but are miles apart in terms of what their world expects of them, and what they expect of themselves. But rather than look at them as static poles, Fat Girl demonstrates how the two girls’ identity evolved largely in response to one another.

Anaïs is 12 years old and fat; not grossly obese by American standards, but certainly frumpy, and certainly not attractive. Moreover, she seems to be comfortable with this, eating at every chance she gets and ignoring the slings and arrows of those who insist that she stop. Elena is 15, and beautiful by any standard, but she wears a wardrobe suggesting that her control over her self-image is not dissimilar to a six-year-old first handling a loaded gun. While on vacation with their family, the girls meet Fernando (Libero De Rienzo), a young Spanish man who takes an immediate prurient interest in Elena. So versed in his own B.S. he probably believes it himself, he works his way into the bedroom that Elena and Anaïs share. Though Elena is going through the acts of her own first seduction and heartbreak, Anaïs is taking the whole thing in stride, watching events unfold with a detachment that’s frankly chilling, but also an interest in guiding her older sister, who’s proven to be in way over her head.

Fat Girl isn’t so much structured as held up by several very long scenes, with several shorter scenes in the interim to provide context for them. They give the film a shape that could be called naturalistic, but only in filmic terms; there is no voice but Breillat’s speaking here. The most notorious is the one that climaxes the film, an uncommonly ugly(and arguably gratuitous) scene that has effectively divided the film’s detractors from its defenders entirely on its own merits. In another, Fernando attempts to seduce Elena while Anaïs watches, and the resulting push and pull toys with the audience’s expectations in an almost Hitchcockian way, only letting you know after about ten minutes whether he succeeds or not. But in the most telling, Anaïs and Elena lie in bed together and shed their respective defenses and see one another for what they are: sisters who never picked each other, and certainly never asked to be thrown into this lot together, but all things told, sure could have fared a lot worse. They spout lines that only a screenwriter could have written, but Breillat lets the scene breathe, and extends it to such a length that it attains a rhythm that it effectively mimics real-life, or at least seems like what that must be. Though it’s doubtful how clear anything can be in a film with an ending as out of left field as this one is, one thing is clear from this scene: Anaïs and Elena share a profound connection that cuts far deeper than blood or circumstance alone, and they only fight when other people seem to want them to.

The ending (once you’ve seen it, that’s all you’ll be able to think about too) certainly reinforces the film’s grim aesthetic, and it forces you to reevaluate everything that has come before it, but the question has to be asked: does it ruin the film? It depends. On one level, it turns it from merely uncomfortable (nude breasts of underage girls are shown without hesitation) to the deeply disturbing and confrontational, perhaps even tipping Breillat’s hand just a little too obviously as an agent provocateur rather than a person who actually thinks about what she’s doing. But on another, even if it is so ungrounded that it obscures much of the larger context of the film, it confirms everything that we’ve suspected about Anaïs. Even in the face of overwhelming horror and social pressure, absolutely none of her happiness rests in the hands of those around her, or even an extrinsic goal that she could potentially achieve. Whether or not she will ever be able to find it isn’t for Fat Girl to answer, and Breillat doesn’t seem to care if you know, but what she does (and does with great accuracy) is show you someone whose inner life in no way connects to the one that has been laid out for her, and just how detached you might have to be to get there.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

The Criterion release of Fat Girl contains The Making of ‘Fat Girl’, compiled of home footage shot during production of the film. Like the film itself, it’s surprisingly frank, with Breillat summarizing her approach thusly: ‘I don’t tell my actors a thing. I throw stuff at them.’ There’s also an interview with Breillat from the Berlin Film Festival, and Fat Girl’s French and American trailers. Believe it or not, they’re very similar.

"Fat Girl (The Criterion Collection)" is on sale May 3, 2011 and is not rated. Drama. Written and directed by Catherine Breillat. Starring Anais Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Libero De Rienzo.

Anders Nelson • Associate Editor


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