She's Gotta Have It
Within the past decade of Francophone cinema, two of the most interesting trends have been the parallel thematic emphases on exploring the filmic frontiers of non-pornographic sexual explicitness (Pola X, Sitcom), as well as (frequently queer) adolescent erotic desires in development (Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the ‘60s in Brussels, Wild Reeds, Set Me Free), or more rarely, both (Come Undone). Perhaps these films have simply been playing catch up to French filmmaker Catherine Breillat’s work, which has been pushing the taboo boundaries of adolescent sexuality the hardest and longest. Her early films—A Real Young Girl (1976), Tapage nocturne (1979), and 36 Fillette (1987)—all dealt with young girls’ sexual discoveries, using hardcore imagery. With Romance (1998), Breillat made a departure and explored adult female sexuality, which finally found her an American audience, arguably both in spite and as a result of its extremely graphic sex scenes. Fat Girl (released in France as A ma soeur) marks a return to Breillat’s previous concern with the deflowering of teenage girls.
In Fat Girl, sisters Anais (Anais Reboux)—a pasty, plump 13-year-old—and Elena (Roxane Mesquida)—a flirtatious, but still virginal, attractive 15-year-old—share a room in their family’s summer house on the Mediterranean. Everywhere Elena goes she drags Anais along, as per their mother’s (Arsinee Khanjian) orders. As the two sisters walk through the woods, they talk of sex. Elena has been holding out to lose her virginity “properly” to the right man; nonetheless, she has, it would appear, already experienced just about everything but intercourse per se. The precocious Anais wants to get rid of her virginity with an anonymous man. She does not want to give herself to any man that she suspects might brag about it afterwards—thus why her man must be anonymous. Despite her voluptuous figure and young age, Anais speaks very directly of her liberal sexual values and demonstrates an innate comfort with her own body—and that what she does with it is nobody’s business but her own.
When they go to the ice cream shop in town, Elena strikes up a conversation with Italian tourist Fernando (Libero de Rienzo), while Anais gorges herself on a banana split. Quickly Elena and Fernando become an item, spending clandestine moments together with Anais’ ambivalent supervision and occasional eavesdropping. In response to Elena’s real romantic escapades, Anais has fantastic encounters that reveal both her flirtatious precocity and her youthful manner of play acting in the absence of physical experience. In an inspired sequence in the backyard pool, she swims back and forth between the ladder and dock, kissing each inanimate object and talking to them as if they were romantic rivals. In Anais’ fantasy, both are jealous of her obvious infidelity, and she remorselessly plays them off of one another.
Anais’ fantasies are, of course, played against the reality of Elena’s physical introduction to sex. One night, Fernando sneaks into the girls’ room and talks Elena into going all the way. The scene lingers for a long time, as he must make seemingly endless confessions of love and promises of devotion before Elena will finally surrender. Anais, pretending to be asleep, cries silently because she sees through Fernando’s empty platitudes and faulty reasoning—this is the common “betrayal of lovers’ discourse,” in Breillat’s phrasing. This seduction sequence’s duration and relentless coaxing makes it one of the most quietly devastating scenes in recent memory. While Fernando uses neither physical force nor harsh words, with his verbal manipulation and emotional violence, he essentially rapes Elena.
Against Elena’s abuse, Breillat does not offer any alternative way for a girl to lose her virginity. In the film’s shocking final minutes, Anais has her first sexual experience as well, and which follows the same pattern of manipulation and exploitation as Elena’s. Anais, however, refuses to buy into the lies of the traumatic event. Elena, somewhat foolishly, believes that she and Fernando will be married and that their relationship is true love; only this justification it seems can soothe the wounds of her lost innocence. Breillat brings to the loss of the girls’ virginity some truly menacing, depressing, and erotic elements that make the experience intensely muddled and complicated, contrary to more traditional, “romantic,” narratives.
The sex in Fat Girl is, however, not the antiseptic transaction portrayed in Breillat’s Romance, but an all-consuming, character-defining process of sorting through emotions and attitudes that convincingly perplexes these girls. Complementing the film’s intensity—and not just courting scandal, I would argue—Breillat shoots the sex scenes with X-equivalent full nudity and simulated action. By exposing the physical vulnerability and uneasiness of the two girls, Breillat conveys much more about the emotional state of the characters than films in which characters discreetly go at it fully clothed or covered by sheets. The “adult content” of the film, which will be released unrated, will likely bar adolescents’ access to it. This is unfortunate, as Fat Girl offers a representation of teen sexual experiences and their bodies not available to them elsewhere, except, perhaps, in “adult” erotica and on pedo-porn sites on the Internet.