2001, NR, 83 min. Directed by Catherine Breillat. Starring Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Libero De Rienzo, Arsinée Khanjian, Albert Goldberg.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Dec. 14, 2001
Words like “feminist” and “provocative” are frequently bandied about when talking about French filmmaker Catherine Breillat, a writer and director who has built a career around the exploration of sex. Her work tends to move in extremes, between the eroticizing of sex (her last film, Romance, was often derided as arthouse pornography) and the politicizing of sex, as is the case in her latest, Fat Girl, a story of virginity lost. Titled À Ma Soeur! (For my Sister!) in France,Fat Girl chronicles two sisters vacationing for the summer with their parents. Elena (Mesquida), the elder, is a lithesome beauty who plays up a sexually loose reputation, which she hasn't earned, for the benefit of her disapproving sister, Anaïs (Reboux) -- the title's “fat girl,” an overweight 12-year-old shaping awkwardly into a sexually curious/confused adolescent. That process is quickened by Elena's own sexual initiation at the hands of an Italian law student named Fernando (De Rienzo). He's obviously a cad, but in his pidgin-French he knows just how to court the eager Elena. Their initial meeting at a café is an amusing jab at the moony/moody fashion in which lovers tend to woo in Gallic cinema, which Anaïs coolly observes from behind a banana split. Later, Fernando steals into the sisters' bedroom at night, where he and Elena parry and joust in their fumbling adolescent-speak for access rights to Elena's underwear. While Anaïs feigns sleep from across the room, Fernando eventually cajoles his way into anal sex, oral sex, and -- finally -- old-fashioned, missionary-style de-virginizing. In Anaïs' opinion, a girl should never lose her virginity to someone she loves; she intends to get it out of the way with someone she doesn't particularly like, so as to spare herself any heartbreak and to better prepare for her eventual true love. (This from a child still playing little-girl games in the swimming pool, pretending to waver between two suitors -- the diving board and the pool's step ladder.) Both in the sexual encounters and the resultant conversations between the perpetually bickering sisters (portrayed remarkably, bracingly by Reboux and Mesquida), Breillat seems to be dropping hints about a couple of theories regarding sexual politics (let's just say men don't come out smelling like roses). But these theories play with flat feet: too reverse-misogynistic to be forward-feminist, and too well-worn to be terribly provocative. That is, until the final five minutes. Breillat discards her previous languorous pacing for a few violent minutes that shock and confound the system. It's tough to say what the filmmaker is trying to accomplish with this abrupt turnaround in tone and pace -- a dilemma made all the more murky by Breillat's refusal to say whether she intended the sequence to play as reality or fantasy -- and it's just as tough to have something to say about the scene without giving it all away. Simply stated, Breillat unleashes the extreme and extremely ambiguous conclusion to the themes she has hinted at before -- gender power plays, the thin line between rape and consent -- and has chosen to articulate her point using sexual and physical violence. Feminist? Arguable. Provocative? Sure, in a sleazy, sensationalistic way. Ill-conceived? Shocking, for the sake of shock value? Coasting on the “edgy” cachet that comes with extreme, unconscionable violence? Without a doubt.