Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl (2001)
Directed and Written by Catherine Breillat
Ugliness and discord and disharmony go hand in hand with bad words and bad nature, while the opposite qualities are the sisters of good, virtuous characters, and resemble them.
– Plato, Republic
Sex may be the defining factor in Catherine Breillat’s career, but the descriptor does little justice to the level of intimacy and curiosity in which she confronts her chosen theme. Perhaps her most controversial film (a feat considering many of her other films feature non-simulated sex), Fat Girl was released in 2001 and depicts the troubled relationship between two adolescent sisters. Elena, the waifish beauty is fifteen and effortlessly draws men to her. Cruel but ultimately naive, her beauty lends her confidence and power that she cannot begin to understand. Her younger sister, Anais, is the titular “fat girl”, a sensitive but precocious twelve year old with a lot of ideas about sex and little opportunity to test them. On vacation, Elena meets an Italian university student and she is initiated into sex but circumstances force Anais to be an uncomfortable voyeur to their developing relationship.
Though occasionally marked by moments of surprising violence, Breillat often remains an unusual but potent figure in the movement of extremist filmmaking which has marked French cinema since the middle part of the 1990s. Perhaps best known for the series of gruesome horror films it has produced, the movement similarly includes the works of Gaspar Noe, Phillipe Grandieux and Bruno Dumont. Breillat stands apart from these other filmmakers, many of whom are often accused of misogyny (misanthropy is often more appropriate), she is perhaps the most femininely engaged of any filmmakers associated with the movement. Stylistically, her work is stripped of embellishments, visual acrobatics and auditorary hallucinations often associated with these filmmakers. Her work rarely engages in the haptic experience, using the camera as a firsthand account, rather than a mediating process which distorts, confuses or eroticises the screen. Perhaps most comparable to Dumont, the style of her films is often minimalist, focused instead on the movements and actions of characters. Editing is sparse and crucially important in the creation of the gaze and works to create a laboured, almost real-time sense of pacing.
It is really in her most overt depictions of sex that we come to best understand her style, and the film features an uncomfortably long sequence in which Elena first “performs”. The action isn’t seen on the screen, likely for a plethora of legal issues, but it becomes an important thematic decision as the editing shifts our attention to Anais who has been watching and listening this whole time. The voyeurism here stands apart from mainstream depictions, as it is not necessarily willful and the ambiguity of Anais reaction permeates the tone of the rest of the film. The sequence itself, though long, is less about the actual sex as it is the discussion between the Italian and Elena. The scene reveals what many already know, sex is about intimacy and intimacy is far more than physicality. The tone of the discussion is perverse, not because of its content, but its lack of sincerity and the abuse of Elena’s vulnerability.
The important establishment of intimacy as something far more than physical pervades throughout the rest of the film, and is a theme that works within all of Breillat’s works. It suggests that sexuality is more than just fluid, but plays a role in all of our “intimate” relationships, be it between lovers or friends, or even family. The closeness of Anais and Elena never suggests incestuous undertones in the traditional sense, but the way that Breillat frames intimacy suggests an almost sexual relationship between them. This taboo confrontation is at the heart of her most controversial works, as she purposefully engages with the human form and human relationships with aggressiveness that few artists have. It is debatable if this is more or less shocking than the drinking of menstrual tea in Anatomy of Hell (2004) but both implications allude specifically to the discomfort of the female form and it’s strangely apocalyptic implications. It is interesting that in recent years Breillat has worked to re-imagine classic fairy tales about young girls, as this seems to be strangely complimentary to the almost mythic implications of her earlier depictions of the human body.
The contrast between the two sisters is tied almost directly to their bodies and to put it quite bluntly it is the difference between ugliness and beauty. Breillat’s contrast is not just metaphorical but presents tangibly the limits of physical form. This is not a comparison of Kate Moss with that of a model from a Rubin painting, as much as it is the difference between Aphrodite and Medusa. The bluntness in which Breillat approaches this difference is admirable and quite obviously uncomfortable for most audiences. She addresses our relationship with beauty, as it represents the good and therefore represents love. For Elena, love is central to her understanding of sex. Conversely, love has little to do with how Anais understands sex. However, she more progressively does not associate sex with shame or vice, a strong idea that comes to a strange, upsetting and visceral conclusion in the film’s highly controversial final sequence.
The concept of romantic love is troubling and it should be of no surprise that the more progressive ideas about female liberation are adopted by a character that rejects its notions outright. Ideal sex in Breillat’s work does not exist in the same sense as it would in any mainstream film, and ugliness is quite clearly central to her conception of healthy sexuality, if there is such a thing. The film poses many questions about human relationships and forces us to question exactly what it is that draws us to each other.
Fat Girl is not an easy film to watch and has earned its taboo reputation. Breillat bludgeons the audience with difficult ideas about the way the world works, and before she even begins, she will have alienated many viewers as she unabashedly suggests sex as the central driving force of human action and thought. Though tragic, it is difficult to term the film as a tragedy because of the emotional and psychological truths it presents. Suggesting an underlying ugliness to human desire, Breillat does not wish to shame us about our relationship with our own sexuality and instead forces us to ask questions about the social and cultural constructs that have shaped our understanding of it.
– Justine Smith