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The Flesh Is Bleak

There are distractions and there are immersions. Possibly the most emotionally intense 83 minutes currently available to local moviegoers, Catherine Breillat's polarizing Fat Girl is a female coming-of-age film that radically redefines its sentimental genre. Having disposed of romance in her absurdist melodrama of the same name, France's foremost provocatrice returns to her favorite subject, and that of her strongest films, A Very Young Girl and 36 Fillette, namely the construction of female adolescent sexuality.

As its less confrontational French title, À Ma Soeur!, suggests, Fat Girl is a movie about solidarity—or its opposite. Much of the film deals with the competition between two virgin sisters, the slim and sultry 15-year-old, Elena (Roxane Mesquida), and her sometime sidekick, tubby Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), a physically mature 12. Both are preoccupied with sex. "The first time should be with a nobody," the more pensive Anaïs tells her older sister. The girls are on summer holiday with their self-absorbed parents, somewhere in the south of France. In the first scene, they meet a suave Italian college student, Fernando (Libero de Rienzo), in a café, and because this is a movie in which things develop at the speed of thought, Elena and Fernando are immediately making out as Anaïs greedily inhales her banana split.

Fernando sneaks into the sisters' room that night and, joining Elena in bed, begins negotiating her defloration with what initially seems an amusing directness. Elena hints that she may not be ready to "sleep" with him. Marshaling numerous arguments in the service of his desire, the law student tries to convince her that "on the edge doesn't count." Avid but afraid, she continues to put him off; although aware that she's jailbait, he petulantly accuses her of spoiling everything. The scene makes for fantastic theater of embarrassment. It's leisurely and unblinking in its voyeurism, and scarcely prurient. To add to the effect, Anaïs is covertly watching along with the audience—everyone wondering just how far this amazing drama in teasing ambivalence and frustrated guilt-tripping will go.

Voyeur eyes only: Reboux in Fat Girl
photo: Cowboy
Voyeur eyes only: Reboux in Fat Girl

Details

Fat Girl
Written and directed by Catherine Breillat
Cowboy
Quad

Werckmeister Harmonies
Directed by Bla Tarr
Written by Tarr and Lszl Krasznahorkai, from Krasznahorkai's novel The Melancholy of Resistance
Anthology Film Archives
October 10 through 23

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Essentially comic in its mixture of brutal frankness and philosophical bemusement, Fat Girl amply demonstrates Breillat's brilliance as a director—even as it raises, without settling, the question of whether she may be exploiting her young actresses. (To judge from the response the film received at the Berlin Film Festival, as well as those few French reviews I've seen, the issue, at least in Europe, is a nonstarter.) Reboux, only 13 when she made the movie, gives an astonishingly unselfconscious performance, whether lost in contemplation of her body or swimming—happily and literally—in an amniotic fantasy. The strange and creepy song she sings throughout will ultimately be revealed as the movie's authentic theme.

Breillat likes to live dangerously. Fat Girl is made without transitions, and the director puts the dynamics right out front. (The morning after providing Fernando with a compensatory blowjob, Elena stuffs a French loaf into blubbering Anaïs's mouth: "Eat, you'll feel better.") The girls' father (director Romain Goupil) is unexpectedly called back to Paris; the next shot has the sisters and their distracted mother (Arsinée Khanjian) driving straight to the mall to shop. Typically, Anaïs wants something that Elena has already picked out for herself, driving Elena to trump her annoying sib by finding a much slinkier dress.

Is Anaïs the privileged witness to Elena's first love? There's a key scene in which the two study themselves in the mirror, pondering the nature of their connection. "Nobody would know we were sisters," Elena hopefully remarks, adding, "We hate each other because we are raised as rivals." Soon, however, they are giggling about their shared childhood antics. The irony is that, despite Anaïs's lack of social grace, she has a more acute social intelligence. When Elena shows Anaïs the expensive ring Fernando has given her, her sister immediately sees the problem that will arise. Indeed, round two of Elena's love affair is complicated by the arrival of Fernando's voluble ring-seeking mother (Laura Betti). The girls' own mother gets so upset she smacks handy Anaïs, then packs everyone up and heads back toward Paris in a car that seems to radiate anxiety.

Fat Girl's classical structure climaxes with a violent shift in rhetoric—gritty as it is, the movie has no pretensions to kitchen-sink naturalism. The shock ending recasts the idea of initiation, recapitulating much of Breillat's argument—already made tangible for being played out on the bodies of its female cast members—in a particularly visceral form. However disruptive, the gothic horror of the finale has been carefully set up from the movie's opening scene. (This is a fiction in which a number of characters are granted their wishes.) Steeped in unconscious aggression as it is, the climax is also readable as Anaïs's fantasy, but this possibility doubles back on itself. "Don't believe me if you don't want to" are the fat girl's final words as the image freezes on her stubborn glare.

A work of bold irrationality and highly questionable taste, Fat Girl is as fascinating as it is discomfiting and as intelligent as it is primal. From first shot to last, France's foremost bad girl has made an extremely good movie—and maybe even a great one.

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