BERLIN 2001 REVIEW: Breillat Follows "Romance" with Provocative Tale of Sisters in "Fat Girl"
by Eddie Cockrell
(indieWIRE/02.14.01) -- Along with their parents, two sisters are vacationing at a French seacoast on which a tornado has recently touched down. 15-year-old Elena (Roxane Mesquida) is determined to snare a boy -- any boy -- and lose her virginity, the sooner the better, while Elena's overweight 12-year-old sister Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) spends the time she's not with her sister singing to herself or engaged in conversations with imaginary lovers.
Elena's opportunity presents itself almost immediately in the person of handsome yet glib Italian teenager Fernando (Libero De Rienzo). Apparently given a great deal of freedom by their work-distracted father (Romain Goupil) and loving but weak-willed mother (Arsinée Khanjian), Anaïs shares a bedroom with Elena and is thus witness to the lengthy seduction of her sister by glib Fernando, who uses every time-tested line in the male teenager playbook to persuade Elena to have sex.
Initially smitten, Fernando gives her an obviously expensive opal ring during a courtship spent around the pool and on the beach. But the young, uncertain affair is revealed and stopped when Fernando's mother (Laura Betti) comes looking for the jewelry. The girls are taken on a harrowing motorway journey home by their nervous mother, but get no further than a remote rest stop when fate steps in.
For the uninitiated, the pacing, subject matter, and denouement of "Fat Girl" may come as an uncomfortable and ultimately unpleasant surprise. Yet viewers familiar with writer-director Catherine Breillat's previous films, which include "36 fillette" and "Romance," know that the more incendiary urges of female heterosexuality and the explicit visualization of it lie at the heart of her work.
Thus, the betrayal of romantic seduction that is played out in leisurely detail dominates her concerns as a filmmaker. Layered over the top of this fundamental interest is the delicate, often contentious but fundamentally loving relationship between the sisters themselves: obviously convinced of her superiority to Elena, Anaïs has all the focus and self-confidence lacking in her sister. Yet it is Elena, by virtue of her advanced years and physical attractiveness, who controls the younger girl's fate. Like sisters the world over, the funny games played between the two may change from moment to moment, but their bond is never less than palpable.
Given the sure-to-be-controversial nature of the subject matter and the borderline explicit nature of the pivotal seduction scene, the performances of the three young leads are either courageous or scandalous, depending on individual tolerances. Certainly the movie as a whole seems less concerned with the girl's weight ("sexual opulence," Breillat has called it) beyond the cruel and obvious jokes, than the ways in which Anaïs protects herself from a world -- and, indeed a family -- that is insensitive in the extreme to her difficult burden at a pivotal time of adolescent development.
It is Reboux's dignity that is most striking, tempered by an inscrutability regarding her real opinion of Elena's adventures that result in a characterization both distant and somehow vaguely threatening. Mesquida, who appeared in the French teenage saga "Marie, Bay of Angels" a few years back, brings that same naïve sluttiness to Elena, tragic in it confusion and eagerness. Among the adults, Khanjian, the wife of Canadian director Atom Egoyan, is the standout in a lesser role (just as she was in "The Sweet Hereafter"); she uses the early part of the film to construct an unsympathetic character whose motivations -- and parental shortcomings -- become all too clear once the journey home is under way.
While "Fat Girl" is no less deliberate a provocation than any of her previous films, it also represents a more autobiographical approach: the songs sung by Anaïs were written by Breillat as an adolescent (David Bowie's "All the Pretty Things are Going to Hell" is also used as startling aural punctuation); the director also has a sibling -- "To My Sister!" is the far better literal translation of the French title. Breillat is also fascinated by the challenges of vacation travel, which is central to the final third of the film (the concluding twist was inspired by a newspaper clipping she'd read and saved years ago).
In the end, less sensational, and certainly less explicit than "Romance," "Fat Girl" nevertheless received an extraordinarily hostile reception from the assembled international press in Berlin. "What is your justification to bore me for 90 minutes when you have nothing to say?" was the first question fielded by Breillat, who exhibited a good bit of her lead character's self-confidence by answering, "I don't have to make characters that you like. . . It's the forbidden, and we all want what is forbidden. It's a fear, it's a passion and that's why we really need to go to the very end. I don't think I have got that far yet." Another defiantly individualist step in that direction, "Fat Girl" both provokes and haunts.
[Eddie Cockrell is a Maryland-based film critic who recently covered the Karlovy Vary, Montreal and Toronto festivals for Variety and nitrateonline.com.]