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Like the sisters in her new film, Fat Girl, the notorious transgressor Catherine Breillat has a love-hate relationship . . . with her audience. “I make movies about all the ambiguities of life,” she says. “Like a mirror, audiences see what they are and what they want to see. They are not prepared for such a portrait, so I get very, very aggressive reactions. But why such a reaction for such a little, little movie? Because it had a great impact. That is normal for a society based on lying to yourself.”
Now 53, Breillat began galling the Gauls at 17, when she wrote L’Homme Facile, an erotic novel oozing sexual boldness. Since 1974, she has directed eight provocative, sex-tinged features, most recently Romance. Yet the topic to which she returns undaunted is virginity (see her long-banned debut, Une Vraie Jeune Fille—if you dare—or 1987’s 36 Fillette). “We’re in a world where we feel guilty for our sex life, especially for a girl. Girls lose virginity, it is negative—the first time you have sex is the first social rape. Fat Girl is about summer love, which is almost nothing. But for summer love you can die.”
In Fat Girl (at the New York Film Festival, October 8 and 9, opening October 10), Breillat’s deflowering fixation spawns a remarkable analytic set piece: An unctuous lothario persuades 15-year-old Elena (Roxane Mesquida) to submit while her portly 13-year-old sister, Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), fakes snoozing across the room. Breillat films the torturous scene with entomological precision. “If you shoot for a long time, you can see Elena’s complexity, how she lies to herself. She wants to give the culpability of desire to the boy, but she desires him. So she wants a sentimental promise of eternity—if he says he loves her, she will accept. She is perverse and naive, and at the same time an object of desire and has the desire but cannot accept it. She’s a maelstrom, a victim of her own contradictory feelings.”
Fat Girl is rife with ambiguities right through to its controversial climax—which the director refuses to pin down as either fantasy or reality. Breillat shot cheaply in winter, with beach scenes in 50-degree weather. The ominous climactic highway drive was filmed in Paris’s outskirts, on the same stretch of road. “The image is not the reflection of reality,” she gleefully explains. “Emotion makes a spectator think he sees something, but in fact he is tied to an emotion, and I am the marionettist!”
The model of the politically committed French artiste, Breillat also pulled the strings during l’affaire Baise-moi, successfully lobbying for a new classification for non-pornographic adult films. “The French, they are afraid of sex,” she lectures. “Sexuality is one of your first preoccupations in life—not just in bed. You can have a movie that explores sexuality that is not an object for masturbation.” This is no idle concern. Breillat just published Pornocracy, a genealogical study tracing the history of the Greek term, meaning the rule of women over men. “Pornography does not exist. It’s the way we film that creates it. Obscenity is a strange territory—it’s a masculine fantasy to cut the body of the women into a number of parts. The forbidden is the territory of obscenity, which is the greatest territory for the exploration of art.”
For Breillat, Fat Girl is a journey about coming to understand one’s self, a Socratic impulse also encountered by the actors. Breillat found her lead, not improbably, at a McDonald’s, and discovered that body type does not determine self-confidence. “As soon as I gave Anaïs the part, she became in her own mind a queen. You are amazed when Roxane enters a room, but she is traumatized by her own beauty and is half-paralyzed by the mediocrity of the world.” Although Roxane was 18 during shooting and a body double was used for Anaïs’s own risqué scene, Breillat was still accused of making kiddie porn. At Berlin, the foreign press keyed in on the underage sex, but a French test audience, composed of intellectuals and “the horrible popular audience who know nothing,” was more offended by the title Fat Girl.
The French replacement, À Ma Soeur! (For My Sister), led some critics to conclude that the film is drawn from Breillat’s own life. (Overweight as a teenager, she has an older sister who was a model.) She’s quick to quash such speculation. “My movies are much more interesting than my life,” she says with a smile. “But we don’t know ourselves very well. The greatest thing is to love yourself. In life you are alone, and you can have some moments of exaltation, but the other person is only a symbolic object for your love. Society is a shell forcing ourselves to lie. I am proud that I don’t lie to myself.” She takes a rare pause. “And I think my movies are illustrations of that.”