Twisted sisters: Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl

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Image credit: The Criterion Collection

Fat Girl (2001) is perhaps the quintessential Catherine Breillat film. A crucial figure in new French cinema, Breillat’s works are known as much for their challenging, graphic content as their cold, distanced modes of observation; traditional titillation has no place in her oeuvre. This certainly can be said of Fat Girl, which depicts—with no holds barred—themes of sexual initiation, adolescent sexuality, limits, and fantasy. The film follows two teen sisters on their summer vacation at the French seaside: the lithe and elder Elena (Roxane Mesquida) and her younger sister Anaïs’ (Anaïs Reboux), an awkward figure, still sporting a rotund preadolescent physique. Each is exploring their sexuality and emerging carnal cravings, but this is no summer of puppy love. This summer is cold, gray, and overcast. For the morals of young love are not so innocent in Breillat’s films. With a visual style that nods to neo-realist pacing and framing, Breillat offers an unflinching observation of contemporary feminine consciousness and the negotiations of teen sexuality to reveal how embodied cravings willfully seek satisfaction.

In Fat Girl, the sisters’ cravings cannot be separated from their rivalry, and their rivalry further fuels their cravings. The original French title of the film, À ma soeur! (or “to my sister”), rings out like a toast. Yet the film begins with a celebration of neither sibling. Instead, a competition inaugurates the film: Anaïs criticizes Elena for smothering men. In response, Elena decides they must both try to pick up a guy and see who lasts the longest: “I’ll be generous,” she says, “he doesn’t even have to be decent. Any boy.” This sibling rivalry further complicates the already thorny terrain of adolescent sexuality and gestures toward the complexity of the sisters’ individual sexualities.

Only twelve years old, Anaïs renounces the importance of virginity, claiming: “My first time should be with nobody. I don’t want a guy bragging he had me first. Guys are sick.” For Anaïs, a guy, any guy—or as she sings: a werewolf, an animal, a soul—is incidental to the intensity of her sexual desire. They must enable her to explore her sexuality, to “bring her more” and recognize her as an agent of pleasure. In contrast, fifteen-year-old Elena’s long dark wavy hair, kohl-rimmed bedroom eyes, and pouty lips form an affectation of “sexy” that masks her naïveté. Elena’s secret desire seems to be a sweet summer fling of exploratory innocence sustained by chemistry or connection (or better yet, love), and she longs to exchange her youth and beauty for a romantic symbol.

In this way, the sisters gravitate toward desires, not relationships. For Elena, this gravitational pull is toward boys; for Anaïs, food. Both yearnings are, in their way, juvenile, but still connected to deeper, erotic desire. In one scene, both these cravings come into play, when the girls meet a young law student, Fernando (Libero De Rienzo). A libertine figure, this paramour-to-be gallantly invites the pair to share his table on a crowded patio. While Elena makes eyes at him, Anaïs is unimpressed, if not altogether disinterested, in the interloper. She sees him as an obstacle to getting what she actually wants: a banana split. (“J’adore ça!” she happily proclaims after ordering, Elena’s internal monologue likely repeating the same words as she admires the older boy seated next to her.) Elena and Fernando’s flirtation is sealed with a kiss, as the camera cuts to show Anaïs covering her eyes with a loose fist, giggling awkwardly to herself, trying to enjoy her ice cream. Elena ignores Anaïs, preferring the attention and touch of Fernando, while Anaïs soothes her cravings by indulging in food, stimulating herself.

This will not be the last time Anaïs turns to food—the banana split, a slab of rye bread, a long tubular blue marshmallow, and a package of waffles are a few of her indulgent distractions. Their rich nature nods to her rounder form, which while traditionally shamed in popular culture, she indulges and relishes. In one scene, while sitting on a diving board clad in a lime-green maillot, Anaïs admires her arms and legs as she slowly massages thick foamy white sunscreen over her flesh. At the beach, Anaïs sits at the shoreline stretching her legs into the water, allowing the lapping waves to rush and retreat over her body, splashing her, speckling her dress and hair with sand. Anaïs’ lush corpulence is not a sign of satisfied craving, but of a luxuriating body seeking intensity, and she enacts her sexuality through play. In the pool, under the watchful eyes of Fernando and the unconcerned eyes of her family, Anaïs plays out an imaginary love triangle by wading across the water from the stairs (her regular lover) to the diving board (her sometime lover). The stairs “ask” her to hold back. But she soothes his worries, reassuring him that “women aren’t bars of soap, they don’t wear away.” She urges him to allow her freedom, and in return she will bring him more pleasure. Where Anaïs understands that a sexual education (and promiscuity) will enable her life-long happiness and sexual fulfillment, her sister Elena conflates immediate sexual gratification and compliance with the romantic promise of long-lasting monogamy.

Being driven around in a Porsche speedster, making out in the sand, holding hands in the dark woods, and secretly falling in love: Elena’s summer is the stuff teen dreams are made of. Fernando beguiles her with talk of happy endings. He will improve his French for her, and will of course wait for her as she finishes high school and he completes his studies in Italy, since she is the kind of girl worth waiting for. Yet the scrim lowers on his own motivations and cravings when he suggests (unrelentingly) that anal sex is a way for her to stay “untouched,” her virginity “intact,” while also enabling them to exchange “a proof of love.” A wiser eyebrow might be raised in suspicion, questioning Fernando’s intentions, but Elena consents to pushing her boundaries—making herself uncomfortable will allow her to access his love. But even in this intimate act, the siblings—and their cravings—are not separate. From across the room, Anaïs, swaddled in a mint green nightgown and pea green blankets, watches the transpiring events, her own nervousness perceptible only in the gesturing of her arm over her mouth. Elena follows Fernando’s lead, believing it is love and nourishing her craving for a special intimacy. Anaïs observes, lacking fulfillment.

Elena accepts tokens of Fernando’s affection as breadcrumbs on the trail to her happily ever after. Only days after the anal “proof of love” is given, Fernando makes a grand gesture in the form of a ring, a large mauve opal surrounded by a thin row of diamonds. In turn, Elena confesses to Anaïs that she is ready to really “give herself to him.” During another clandestine midnight meeting, Elena positions her body like a deflated odalisque, limp among the verdant bedding for Fernando’s bidding—her only craving is to satiate his. The following day, a garish woman (Laura Betti, known for her roles in Fellini and Pasolini films) in a red overcoat shows up at the family’s vacation residence. She is Fernando’s mother, and she demands her ring back. Horrified by her daughter’s naïveté in accepting such a lavish (and clearly purloined) ring, Elena’s mother (Arsinee Khanjian) returns the heirloom and announces the end of Elena’s escapades. Elena’s romantic aspirations are snuffed; she traded her virginity for a stolen ring and empty promises. The vacation is over.

If the dream of summer vacation has dimmed, it now turns nightmarish. The girls cry in the car as their enraged mother weaves dangerously between transport trucks and threatens Elena: “Your father wants you examined.” As the girls strategize how to escape their fate, Elena reminds Anaïs: “You’re not in the dead man’s seat.” In Elena’s mind, to have her deflowering discovered by her parents is akin to a death sentence.

In the next scene, Breillat magnifies the parallel between deflowering and death to a literal extreme. Elena and the mother decide to sleep in a rest area parking lot as Anaïs nibbles on waffles in the back of the car. Suddenly, a man with an axe bashes through the windshield, killing Elena and strangling the mother, a move that knowingly toys with the tropes of sexual promiscuity and punishment. Now impure, Elena’s only remaining fate is her demise, given the narrow narrative of romantic love in which she has entrapped herself. But what of Anaïs? Fleeing the car, the younger sister allows the assailant to chase her into the woods. Recalling Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1967), he shoves Anaïs’ yellow panties in her mouth and writhes on her, while she raises her arms around his shoulders, as though embracing him. Once he is finished, they lock eyes as she spits out the panties. Anaïs, at last, got her man. The next morning, police escort Anaïs out of the woods. “She says he didn’t rape her,” the officer tells another disbelievingly. With her pudgy arms held up by two officers, in a monotone voice she replies: “Don’t believe me if you don’t want to.” Having rejected the power of virginity and traditional notions of romantic love, unlike Elena, Anaïs can survive in a world without fairytales. And as the defiant final still image of Anais’ face suggests, the girl is not interested in our affirmation.

Zorianna Zurba is currently completing her PhD in the Communication and Culture Program jointly held between Ryerson and York Universities.

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Zorianna Zurba is currently completing her PhD in the Communication and Culture Program jointly held between Ryerson and York Universities.