French auteur cinema has increasingly been exploring themes of sex through scenarios whose explicitness verges on the pornographic. Along with Patrice Chéreau (Intimacy, 2001), Léos Carax (Pola X, 1999), Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi (Baise-moi, 2000), and Gaspar Noé (Irréversible, 2002), Catherine Breillat is a leader of this trend. Her 1999 film Romance was billed as the most explicit heterosexual art film of its time. Sexual and cerebral, violent and controversial, her work sets out to provoke.
Breillat’s Fat Girl (2001) eschews the high-profile sadomasochism of Romance to return to apparently more mundane concerns. The central dynamic of the film is the relationship between two sisters: plain, fat twelve-year-old Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) and slim, gorgeous fifteen-year-old Elena (Roxane Mesquida). The girls have a typical sibling love-hate relationship—one moment insulting each other, the next ganging up on their parents and giggling helplessly. Whereas in her great early film 36 fillette (1988) Breillat combined in fourteen-year-old Lili (Delphine Zentout) an adolescent’s awkwardness and burgeoning sex appeal, in Fat Girl these traits are split between the two sisters. Breillat’s filming of the overweight Anaïs is both flatly realistic and sympathetic, demonstrating the director’s sensitivity to the outrageous anxieties provoked by our culture’s idealization of a particular body image, incarnated here by Elena. But Fat Girl is no cute teen pic where girls worry about weight, dates, and makeup, and Breillat quickly cuts to the heart of the matter: sexuality. Elena and her holiday romance, Fernando (Libero de Rienzo), have sex while Anaïs, sleeping in the same room, watches.
Breillat’s approach to the sex scenes in Fat Girl is in line with the “real-time sex” on show in the new slate of films, a strategy she pioneered in 36 fillette. Feminists have long argued that the “male gaze” in classical cinema is achieved in part through the fragmentation of women’s bodies; Fat Girl eschews such images. The slow pace of the scenes, their dispassionate style and brutal precision, disengages us, denying eroticism. Breillat also distances us from the action and avoids voyeurism through Anaïs’s gaze, which mediates the seduction and ultimate humiliation of her beautiful sister.
The lengthy first sex scene (twenty-five minutes) and the shorter second one (just over five minutes) are shot either from Anaïs’s bed, looking at her sister’s, or from behind Elena’s bed, with Anaïs visible or suggested in the background. The camera is firmly on Anaïs’s face as Fernando penetrates Elena, and we hear with her Elena’s cries and Fernando’s grunts. In the second scene, Fernando’s and Elena’s legs are visible in the background, while the foreground is occupied by Anaïs in close-up, turned toward us and crying. Her gaze makes us uneasy for two reasons. First, she reminds us that we are intruding on an intimate scene, and second, we are aware that she is too young to be witnessing this. A recurrent motif in the film—including the very first and last images—is Anaïs’s accusing stare at the camera. Her deadpan comments about sex, love, and virginity balance Elena’s naive romanticism, but they are somehow too adult. So her stated wish to divorce sex from love (“Personally, I want my first time to be with a boy I don’t love”) strikes us less as the defiance of a twelve-year-old than as the director’s often reiterated position on the question.
Breillat’s excruciating portrayal of adolescent sex is accompanied by a merciless critique of male romantic discourse and machismo. Fernando’s single-minded pursuit of vaginal penetration is conducted through sugary Latin-lover babble (as in “That would be a proof of love”). The younger but wiser Anaïs and the audience watch as Elena falls for this hackneyed male flattery, just as she later buys his offer of an engagement ring. The juxtaposition of graphic physicality, shot using Breillat’s trademark long takes, and the sentimental language of sitcoms demonstrates that these very different expressions of heterosexual relationships both oppress women. Thus, as in her other films, Breillat explores with great lucidity the traps (for women) of conventional heterosexuality. Whereas traditional men’s cinema is full of lovable and/or horribly fascinating cads (from My Fair Lady, 1964, to Naked, 1993), and even a postmodern film like Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men (1997) exposes male tricks but gives us no access to the woman’s perspective, Fat Girl shows us the effects of dishonest male seduction techniques from a woman’s point of view and highlights the double standards in operation. Meanwhile, Anaïs, like Breillat’s other strong women, refuses to be a victim.
Yet Fat Girl is no feminist tract, and we should know better than to expect a politically correct analysis from a director who enjoys cultivating an iconoclastic image. In 36 fillette, a fourteen-year-old girl is shown flirting heavily with a forty-year-old man. I remember the outrage of the audience at the 1988 Norwich women’s film weekend, which inaccurately accused Breillat of suggesting that the young girl provoked rape. In Perfect Love! (1996), the heroine is raped and killed after taunting her lover. In Romance, the protagonist seemingly welcomes abusive sexual encounters. In Fat Girl, Anaïs’s wish for first-time sex without love is horrifically fulfilled in the film’s bloody climax.
If female victimization and frustration are the subjects of Breillat’s cinema, her films in turn risk provoking frustration in the spectator. Can they be considered subversive if her women’s horizons are always bounded by joyless sex, rape, and death? The enthusiasm with which Breillat is championed by the French male critical establishment (not noted for its feminist awareness) would suggest that, like surrealism, hers is an art aimed at shocking rather than challenging. Most disturbing is Breillat’s suggestion that to be raped is a potentially liberating experience. Her obsessive focus on sexuality, notwithstanding its intellectualization, means her women are purely carnal rather than social beings.
Fortunately, whatever its ideological contradictions, Fat Girl is a powerfully acid piece of filmmaking. If Breillat’s women do not know pleasure, her cinema affords plenty. After the naturalistic simplicity and uncluttered interiors of the film’s first two-thirds, at the family’s holiday home, the motorway drive back to Paris is a model of edge-of-your-seat anxiety. Here, Breillat brilliantly meshes contemporary automobile hell—with a touch of the fantastic (à la The Vanishing, 1988, and With a Friend Like Harry . . . , 2000)—with her exploration of the female condition. Because the useless father has returned home early, the car is in the shaky control of the neurotic mother. Its narrow confines encapsulate the oppressive nature of the family, especially for Anaïs, who keeps eating and is then sick, while the looming, macho trucks menacingly hedge the vehicle and its female cargo.
Breillat deftly furthers her thematic concerns through performance. There are telling secondary roles (almost cameos) for Arsinée Khanjian as the spaced-out mother, filmmaker Romain Goupil as the absentee father, and Laura Betti (a singer and Fellini and Pasolini actress) as Fernando’s mother. Roxane Mesquida, as Elena, and especially Anaïs Reboux, as Anaïs, give extraordinary performances. Here is a really overweight girl (unlike Hollywood pretend fatty Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary, 2001) who negotiates the extremes of the script beautifully and effectively. Like Lili in 36 fillette (but not the bored and depressed adult heroines of Perfect Love!, 1991’s Dirty Like an Angel, and Romance), the young Anaïs still embodies hope.
Anaïs’s hope is chillingly conveyed in the last shot, a freeze-frame on her defiant face. It is, of course, a reference to the iconic image of Jean-Pierre Léaud at the end of François Truffaut’s 1959 The 400 Blows. Beyond cinephilia, the use of the device here is fully justified, shocking in its triumph, devastating in its implications.
Ginette Vincendeau is a professor of film studies at King’s College London. She writes regularly on French cinema for Sight & Sound. Her books include Stars and Stardom in French Cinema, La haine, and Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris. She recently coedited The French New Wave: Critical Landmarks.