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.

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.

Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, opening Friday at Anthology, is a totally sustained immersion in the magisterially bleak, voluptuously monochromatic, undeniably beautiful universe of muddy villages and cell-like rooms that the Hungarian filmmaker has created in collaboration with reclusive novelist László Krasznahorkai.

Three years in the making, this follow-up to the pair’s epochal Sátántangó opens in a rural tavern frequented by stupefied sods. Just before closing time, young János Valuska (Lars Rudolph), the resident holy fool, uses some of the locals to dramatize a cosmological model of a lunar eclipse, with the moon hopping past the earth as the earth staggers around the twinkling sun. This intimation of celestial order is echoed by the film’s title—it’s named for the 17th-century organist and musical theorist Andreas Werckmeister, who divided the octave into 12 equal tones to create a system of major and minor notes. (Order is generally fraudulent in this world. We eventually meet a villager who wants to correct Werckmeister’s “mistake.”)

Like Sátántangó, Werckmeister Harmonies is a work of bravura filmmaking—mainly a series of extremely long, largely mobile takes, edited without the normal pattern of shot-countershot. (The entire tavern scene is a single 15-minute shot.) Tarr’s camera style has its equivalent in Krasznahorkai’s lengthy, convoluted sentences, although the results are quite different. Werckmeister Harmonies is largely taciturn and anything but literary. Because the narrative is assembled from chunks of real time, the most banal incident can be expanded into something epic. Each cut is an event. The first has János walking home through an empty town illuminated mainly by the sickly glow of a single truck creeping along the street. This vehicle is the harbinger of the mysterious circus that has come to town, its attractions including an uncanny prince and a stuffed whale advertised as “the great sensation of the century.”

The foggy morning finds the market square filled with clusters of grim, grizzled men. János is the first to buy a ticket to the circus and is properly fascinated by the leviathan’s great scarred torso. Meanwhile, another mysterious presence, “Auntie” Tunde (Hanna Schygulla), has returned home and recruits the increasingly crazed János as a messenger-boy spy in the service of the political movement she’s establishing in cahoots with the local police chief. There seems to be a prerevolutionary atmosphere, or maybe a growing panic, as the prince’s appearance is announced and canceled and the square becomes the site of threatening bonfires.

“See how much trouble you’ve caused,” János whispers to the whale. Before long, the rabble is marching through the town, advancing on what appears to be the local hospital, dragging out patients and smashing everything in a prolonged, clattering paroxysm that, already extraordinary for its choreography, seems all the more violent for being completely wordless. As in the market square, the townspeople seem to communicate by telepathy. The outburst is resolved (or not) by the arrival of an occupying army. Although Tunde may be in command, János is warned that his name is on the execution list.

The sight of tanks in the muddy streets and choppers hovering over the puszta hardly dispels the movie’s 19th-century quality. The final image has the great sensation of the age lying in the center of the debris. Mournful and sardonic, Werckmeister Harmonies ends in the baleful light of a postapocalyptic morning after. The movie invites allegory even as it resists it.