Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl is the first entry in the series bearing the Criterion Collection’s stamp of approval. The distribution company restores film prints and exhaustively collects essays, promotional materials, interviews, and supplemental features to provide consumers definitive DVD editions of certain movies, thus emphasizing their power as an intermediary. It has considerable sway over its intended audience of cinephiles as a “continuing series of important classic and contemporary films.” However, the standard by which it determines selections’ paradigmatic qualities seems arbitrary.
Though I’m an owner of several Criterion-curated DVDs, their efforts bring to mind film critic Pauline Kael’s essay “Fantasies of the Art-house Audience.” She indicts educated, upper-middle-class art-house audiences for delusions of self-regard, as they ultimately bear resemblance to their mass audience counterparts who use Hollywood product as a conduit for wish fulfillment. Criterion also implements a classification system that privileges auteurs, renowned male directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paulo Passolini, and Yasujirō Ozu. However, the work of female directors like Breillat, Jane Campion, and Lynne Ramsay are also included.
Though relatively spare compared to Criterion’s characteristically ornate packaging, the DVD for Fat Girl discloses insights from Breillat about her feminist incredulity of heterosexual desire and girls’ sexuality. She also talks about her role as director and the screenwriting, casting, and editing process. Comments from lead actress Anaïs Reboux and a production staff with a considerable female contingency are provided as well.
Breillat’s inclusion in the Criterion Collection assuredly results from the controversy she received in her native France for thematic interest in graphic sexuality and the intersections between sex and violence she believes are churning at the margins of heterosexual exchange. Thus while she identifies as a feminist, she is linked to movements like the New French Extremity and receives vocal support from male affiliates like Gasper Noé, who court divisive opinion with movies that depict rape and other forms of violence with polemical glee.
Relative to Breillat’s other movies, 2001’s Fat Girl is fairly tame until its problematic conclusion. Documenting the misadventures of fifteen-year-old Elena (Roxane Mesquida) and her younger sister Anaïs (Reboux) while on a family vacation, the movie highlights the disparity between the girls’ attitudes toward sex despite their shared virginity. The older sister, who is slender and conventionally attractive, is interested in entertaining men’s spirited advances and harbors a romantic naïveté when embarking on a dalliance with Italian law student Fernando (Libero De Rienzo) that she mistakes as more than a fling. Though only twelve, Anaïs, whose beauty is often ignored because of her size, is far more cynical. She wants her first time to be with someone she does not love and watches in horror as her sister gets played, her warnings ignored.
The movie maximizes its feminist potential by denuding two sex scenes of eroticism with long takes, repetitive dialogue, emotional manipulation, and voyeurism to reveal their emotional emptiness. Fernando sneaks into the girls’ bedroom late at night with dubious intentions. He makes grand pronouncements to Elena about teaching her the ways of the flesh. They are belied by coercive statements that the surrender of her virginity would be a proof of love. Predictably, her lover is only skilled at depositing his seed, his orgasmic howls drowning out her tortured groaning. Though no adult relative seems concerned about the sounds bouncing off the walls, Anaïs witnesses it all.
When not divided by male conquest, the sisters reveal themselves to be a combative but loving pair who are more intimately connected than anyone they encounter. One such exchange emphasizes their differences while establishing their commitment to one another. However, many conversations focus on Anaïs’ fatness. I would be especially curious to read what Bitch blogger Tasha Fierce, who recently concluded the exceptional Size Matters series, would say about their preoccupation. The difference in the girls’ bodies is emphasized during a trip to a clothing boutique. It is also a perennial familial concern. Elena and her mother (Arsinée Khanjian) are clearly repelled and possibly fearful of Anaïs’ weight. Recalling The Sopranos’ Catherine Sacramoni and her disgust with her mother and sister’s heaviness, Anaïs’ mother and sister smoke incessantly and shove food away to stave off any extra pounds they could absorb. Despite their insensitivity, Anaïs seems at peace with her size. However, some dialogue suggests that she swallows her emotions when she shovels banana splits and rips through tubes of taffy. This reads as pathologizing fat girls’ eating habits, which troubles me a great deal.
While hardly enamored with Fat Girl, I was fine with it until its conclusion. In my piece on Crooklyn, an astute commenter challenged my criticism that the mother’s death in that movie was lazy screenwriting by bringing director Spike Lee’s autobiography into question. As Fat Girl is ostensibly a work of fiction from Breillat, I find the fate of the female members of this family clumsily delivered. Shamed by a visit from Fernando’s mother inquiring about the opal ring her son stole as a hollow romantic gesture to Elena, their mother hustles them out of the resort. Clued in to Anaïs’ mother and sister’s pending mortality, I feared they would die as a result of their mother’s reckless driving, which would support regressive gender stereotyping.
However, I was even more annoyed that a random criminal smashes through their windshield while they are asleep at a rest stop. He bludgeons Elena and kills their mother. He also chases Anaïs in a neighboring wooded area, stuffing her panties in her mouth and forcing himself onto her. The movie ends with her rebuking claims to male authorities that this was a rape. The scene recalls her initial proclamation that she wanted to lose her virginity to someone she did not love. It also references the freeze frame that concludes François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.
This shot captures the loss of innocence of someone who never considered herself pristine. It also registers to me as a forced ending meant to generate contention amongst viewers that proves empty in its attempts to unsettle. While I think the value of a movie centered around Reboux’s accusatory gaze and Breillat’s exposition of it warrants inclusion, it also merits rigorous feminist inquiry.