Fat Girl – Catherine Breillat crushes the coming-of-age flick. (Film Review)
I get so bored
From Six to Ten
From Ten to Six
From Six to Six.
All my life, both day and night
I get so bored
If only I could find
Alive or dead, a man, a body,
An Animal, I don’t mind,
Just to dream
As an antidote to the tiresome coming-of-age films where the young man sees his parents break up, helps a dangerous stranger against the better judgement of his community and masturbates over a girly mag, Catherine Breillat slams the genre to pieces with Fat Girl, making me ask how anyone could have made a coming-of-age film after this one; yes Jeff Nichols, I’m looking at you and your over-sentimental, arduous film Mud, among other offenders. Breillat’s camera refuses the dewy-eyed gaze so prevalent in the boy’s version of these films, banishing the retrospective nostalgia in favor of depicting a brutal war of identity that passes for the early stages of sexual interaction, agency, innocence and self-awareness all being up for grabs in the transition between wide-eyed child and dead-eyed adult.
Catherine Breillat’s intelligence throbs from every minute of this jarring, shocking film, seen primarily through the eyes of one Anais (Anaïs Reboux), the “fat girl” of the title. Anais is a young teen female on holiday with her family, her weight and her intelligence giving her a distance that allows for an alarming accuracy of perception, even if it is dotted with a childishly poignant cynicism that carries its own problematical dictates on self-awareness. Anais is in a permanent battle with her more beautiful, more desirable sister Elena (Roxane Mesquida), although Anais’ intelligence is more a barrier than the girls physical image. The difference between the girls self perception comes through in their sexual expectations around the loss of their virginity, with Elena wanting her beauty to be fully rewarded with complete capture, and Anais wanting fast penetration from a stranger in order to avoid inevitable pain. Both the girls will face their first sexual encounters in a world under Breillat’s feminist gaze where lovemaking is tantamount to rape, and in the shocking end it will be the choice for self agency that will force the interpretation on experience.
What makes Fat Girl so brilliant is its easy, deceptive simplicity, despite the entrance into a world where morality as word and morality as act are opposites and the girls are expected to be the gatekeepers for society. For such dense, complex subject matter, Breillat’s eye coolly caresses instantly recognizable scenes, forcing the gaze of the witness through Anais. We instantly recognize Anais’ comical swim in the pool, where she enacts her future sexual control, through lies she will tell, and kisses she will plant on the soaked railings of steps of the pool, and then subsequently overeats when her sister Elena decides to lose her virginity to her current boyfriend in trade for love and allegiance. The only people who really value Elena’s virginity are those who don’t want it, from herself, to her parents to societal expectations of the “pretty girl”. Anais’ takes her sister to task for her lose morals, because she plays at the edges of what she doesn’t want, leaving all the responsibility of her own desire to the other. In wanting her deflowering to be unambiguous and fast, in line with what accurately occurs between young people at that age, and in line with what she can expect from her level of maturity, Anais sees herself as the superior moralist of the two girls.
Key to Anais’ point that sex is perspective and Breillait offers a long, drawn out scene where Elena’s suitor will eventually take her virginity. Again, it is the simplicity of this scene and its consequences that give it so much power. We see the handsome Fernando (Libero De Rienzo) as a predator initially, but as Elena continues to bargain with her virginity, we come to understand the sex-as-commodity transaction taking place, in the hands of two individuals who are asking something they cannot have because it doesn’t exist. Remarkably, both want the same thing: Elena wants her first time to be something that captures his desires so that he never looks at another woman again while Fernando wants Elena’s first time to be him because he believes the fantasy that women never forget their first and deep down she will be forever his. As each uses Elena’s virginity to play out this transaction, always under the bored and watchful gaze of Anais, we see two children attempting to use sex to turn them into something else via the response of the other. Sex is assumed by both the young man and the young woman to mean far more than Anais can see, for Anais knows that losing her virginity will mean no more than the deed has been done. For Elena it will mean her beauty and indefinable “specialness” will have conquered another to a devotion that exceeds her own, but guarantees a lifetime of protection. For Fernando it means he can pretend to walk away not caring, be a real man standing on his own two feet alone, all the while secretly knowing Elena will dream of him forever. A mature Elena and a mature Fernando, aware of their own sexual needs and not needing sex to be anything other than what it is, would have left this transaction in its early stages, recognizing it as unsatisfying.
All of the expectations around the consequences of the act fall apart when Fernando’s mother wants the ring back that Fernando gave Elena in the transaction that saw him take her virginity. Anais, again is the mouthpiece for the crumbling of the dreams of the young people, when she scornfully accuses Fernando’s mother of doing his dirty work. Fernando isn’t the powerful, predatory male he tried to project, as in the end he has run to hide behind his mothers skirts. The ring is returned, and Elena is reprimanded for the transaction, and forced to deal with the pain of her crumbled expectation. Breillet also observes the mothers here, Fernando’s mother will do his dirty work and protect him, but Elena’s mother will not, enforcing again the double standards that young women are meant to be the guardians of morality while young men are protected from their mistakes. And yet, Elena’s real problem was always the fantasy projection, which is its own refusal to take responsibility for her sexuality, something that Anais insists upon.
And yet, ultimately Breillet returns to the brutality of the sex act, forcing us to realize violence and sex are connected, even as Anais tries to retain her agency. Loss of innocence is an act of brutality for females squeezed from their fathers protection to fend for themselves in a world that blames them for the acts of others. Sex is a version of road kill, a fantastic metaphor for the girls fear of her loss of virginity and also for the brutal world she will be forced to inhabit. All Anais can do to protect herself is become the author of her own sexual life, accepting there will be little comfort and no safety in that understanding.