Ah, yes. So now we talk about sex.
When you endeavor to talk about the full world of film, one topic that’s going to come up is sex. Inevitably. As long as people have been using cameras to film other people, sex has been part of the deal. Obviously, there’s a huge subculture that consists of real people having real sex on film. And obviously filmmakers have been wrestling with the drama of sex, the emotion of it, since the very start. And one of the ideas that seems to always get filmmakers worked up (all meanings intended) is including graphic real sexuality in “real” dramatic films.
Which brings us to Catherine Breillat.
She’s that little girl who figured out that if she lifts her dress over her head at the party, all the adults will laugh and clap. She’s grown up smart, good with actors, and with a real eye for composition… but at heart, she’s still that same little girl, loving the attention.
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And of her films to date, “Fat Girl” is the one that most powerfully deals with the connections between sexuality and self-worth in young women. It’s a raw, angry film, one of the best films I’ve seen about female adolescence in general. You know the scene at the start of “Carrie,” when the girls pelt her with tampons? The real friction there comes from the fervor with which those girls all recoil from Carrie’s ignorance about something so essentially female. They’re angry at her because her ignorance or her appearance or her passivity remind them of something they’ve learned to sublimate. They’re angry at her for not suffering the same process they have. That same friction fuels the relationship between sisters Elena and Anais in “Fat Girl.”
Elena, played by Roxane Mesquida, is the older sister. Fifteen and already beautiful. Are you a fan of young Jennifer Connelly or young Ione Skye or young Eva Green? Well, you’ll love Roxane Mesquida in this movie. Elena’s well aware of the effect she has on men, and she knows she’s going to have sex soon. She’s just scared of it, and at fifteen, why shouldn’t she be? As a college-aged boy named Fernando says to her, “You’re a little girl. A little girl who looks like a woman. You have to forgive men.”
Anais, on the other hand, is a fat thirteen, decidedly unfeminine. She eats in an angry mechanical glass-eyed manner, knowing she won’t like the results, but unable to eat any other way. It’s a very adult performance from Anais Reboux. She’s got a very different outlook on sex than her older sister. She’s decided that she wants to lose her virginity to someone she doesn’t love, someone she’s not even dating. Just do it and be done with it. Set aside the pretense of significance in favor of just getting some practical experience. And when she’s alone in the pool, she imagines herself in heated romantic tangles with various lovers, talking to them of heartbreak and erotic sorrow. It’s sort of creepy, sort of sweet, and sort of sad. Anais doesn’t believe that love is going to be a big part of her life, but she’s convinced she can have sex if she’s direct about it.
But for all the two of them think and talk about sex, the actual act itself is still an abstract to them at the start of the film. They’re on vacation together, along with their mother and father, and they’re always together. Elena resents having to take Anais everywhere, upset that Anais gets to do whatever she does by default even though she’s older. And when she meets a guy, she wants to shake her sister loose but knows she can’t. Fernando (Libero De Rienzo) is charming, good-looking but not threatening, a college-aged Italian whose halting French is just good enough to win Elena over. Anais has to bear witness to every fumbling step in the courtship between these two. She’s there when they kiss. When they make out. When they say goodbye with a little petting.
And in the first major set piece of the film, Anais is in the room when Fernando sneaks in late at night to see Elena, the two of them sharing her bed. He wants to have sex, but she’s a virgin, and she absolutely won’t do it. The back and forth between them, the various tactics Fernando tries, the emotional vulnerability of Elena, the devastating cutaways to Anais at a few key moments… it’s a brilliant sequence by Breillat. True. Real. There’s nudity in the sequence, both male and female, and some graphic sexual suggestion. It’s frank, and even though the character is fifteen, it doesn’t shy away from the erotic material. That approach may make you uncomfortable… but good. It should. The idea of ANYONE having sex with Elena is wrong… she’s not ready for it, and she knows it. She wants the older boyfriend. She wants the independence. She wants to do all the things adults do. But the sex? The reality of it is emotionally overwhelming. Anais reacts to her sister’s halting, coerced sexual initiation, every stage of it, with tears and horror. She finds it all degrading, and not because of the sex… but because of the lies. She listens to Fernando pledge his love to Elena while he tries to negotiate his way into a little anal sex in lieu of the main event. She listens to the game her sister plays, the way she plays along with what she knows can’t be true, and it sickens her. It makes her shake. She can’t imagine that.
If the film was just about the summer with the two girls and Fernando and their Mother (Atom Egoyan spouse and star Arsinee Khanjian), that would be plenty rich. But “Fat Girl” takes a crazy left turn in its last 20 minutes that left me shaken when I first saw it. It’s nothing the film sets you up for… but on some level, it is. It’s a fulfillment of something, but in the worst, darkest possible way. And it’s a punchline of such brute force that one suspects Briellat of working out some private primal issue on her characters, with an almost Biblical sense of appropriate response. The final freeze frame comes as a shock, and it underscores just how strong a performance Reboux really gives. There’s real wisdom here, as well as a wicked dark sensibility that Breillat still hasn’t consistently been able to duplicate. It’s worth tracking down the Criterion disc if you’ve never seen it, and revisiting it, I was struck anew by just how sure a hand Breillat shows in every scene.
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