Remembered mostly for its infamous sex scene, complaints of child pornography and its shocking finale, Fat Girl is actually Catherine Breillat’s most sensitive, accessible work. Within its grotesque structure, the provocative filmmaker finds a realistic look at sibling relationships and sexual awakening.
When the film begins, we meet Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) an obese, precocious, 13-year-old. In the best fairy tale tradition, she walks through the woods with her classically beautiful sister Elena (Roxane Mesquida) who’s 15. The sisters discuss sex. Elena, who has done everything but actual penetration, still talks about meeting someone special to whom she can give her virginity. Anaïs looks at her contemptuously, calls her a slut and then confesses she would never lose her virginity with someone she loved. Instead she would rather lose it to a total stranger, who then would have no rights over her.
The conversation’s matter-of-fact-ness makes it endearing in a way, as you might roll your eyes and think these girls have no idea what they’re talking about. Breillat however will make sure both of them get what they asked for before the movie ends.
The girls go to a café where they meet Italian college student Fernando (Libero de Rienzo), who’s vacationing in the same region they are. Elena begins an affair with him (the seduction is embarrassingly awkward), Anaïs watches from across the table as she gorges on a banana split. Breillat, who is most certainly not the subtlest filmmaker out there, immediately lets us know that the girls are aware of the kind of phalluses they can get. While Elena naively flirts with Fernando, Anaïs, distances herself from the situation and seems to obtain the utmost pleasure from her banana.
Food is obviously a recurrent theme in a movie called Fat Girl, but Anaïs’ relationship with eating goes beyond stereotypical “eat your feelings” notions. Instead, we see her develop something that resembles her sexual intentions. Throughout the movie we see her constantly eating phallic shaped foods. Breillat cleverly represents her emotional arc and scene after scene, Anaïs’ eating becomes more symbolic. From the banana she enjoys with almost childish delight, she goes to chewy snacks she munches down carelessly. These snacks come around the time when she sees her sister fall prey to Fernando. She devours them with relentless anger, as if letting men of the world know, she won’t put up with their crap when the time comes.
In one of the film’s most moving sequences, Anaïs cries after her sister hits her. She sits down on the breakfast table and begins to sob, to the discontentment of her parents. Elena sits next to her, grabs a long piece of bread and begins to feed her sister. It’s this symbiosis which makes us understand that beyond their differences, these two girls are bonded for life.
Viewers might recognize themselves in the discussions the sisters take part in. Most seem meaningless and trivial but actually encompass a relationship that’s scarily real in its sincerity. “Nobody would think we were sisters” says Elena to Anaïs, as they examine each other in front of a mirror. This sequence recalls Ingmar Bergman’s work in how eventually we do see the similarities between them. “When I hate you I look at you and then I can’t” replies Anaïs, obviously damaged but trying to show her sister how much she loves her.
When in a different moment we see them lying together in bed, giggling at stories about how much they resent each other and probably always will, Breillat taps into something primal and beautiful. Their scenes together take on an even more complex level when Elena has sex with Fernando. Since they share a room, Anaïs is always present when Elena sneaks Fernando in, and their bed scenes are always shown from the younger sister’s perspective. She’s either the watcher or an uncomfortable element in the frame.
Fernando’s seduction is almost ridiculous in its affectedness. “I respect you” he says to the vulnerable Elena before asking her to have anal sex. He makes her believe that losing her virginity to him will be the ultimate act of love and Elena, despite her better knowledge, falls for this.
In the Blu-ray’s bonus materials (which are few for a Criterion release), there’s an interview with Breillat who affirms that by now, our society should know better than to fall in love, for doing it only forces us to reach ideals we never will accomplish. “We have to be lucid but not cynical” she says and we can see this belief in the way that Elena stares lovingly at Fernando. For all she knows, this affair won’t survive past the vacation, however when he tells her he’ll come visit her in Paris, for a second, she starts believing this.
Mesquida’s cruelly shy performance allows Elena to recur to some sort of pride that makes her believe she will be the one to catch Fernando. She doesn’t, and when the time to leave is near, both sisters close their holiday with a sense of loss and forced maturity. “Vacations suck” says Anaïs before the film takes on its most terrible twist yet.
The film’s ending might be the most brutal sexual scene ever filmed. Some might view it as rape, when in fact we realize that it’s just the thing Anaïs wanted. When she gives one final stare at the camera, which freezes like Antoine Doinel’s iconic shot in The 400 Blows, Breillat winks at us in an almost confrontational way.
Should we feel happy or horrified by what happens? The director subverts our ideas of sexual empowerment and turns Anaïs into an unlikely heroine that took her sexuality in her own hands, caring little about how her desires manifested affect those around her. It’s a cruel move, but there’s no denying that Anaïs gets the last laugh.