By Eli Ungar
If you’re anything like me, new releases from The Criterion Collection make your heart beat a little faster. The DVD’s released by Criterion have set the bar for what “Special Edition” DVD’s should aspire to. They they have been producing them this way since the days of Laser Disc. Imagine my delight, when I discovered that they were going to be releasing a film by Catherine Breillat, the French filmmaker, whose controversial films about sex have challenged a generation of cinephiles. The film Criterion chose from Breillat’s filmography, is called A ma soeur in French, which means, “to my sister,” but Breillat herself prefers the English title Fat Girl.
Fat Girl is the story of Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), a 12-year-old overweight, unattractive girl and her stunning 15-year-old sister, Elena (Roxane Mesquida). The girls are on vacation with their detached parents (played by Arsinée Khanjian and Romain Goupil), when Elena meets Fernando (Libero de Rienzo), an older Italian law student also on vacation, and starts dating him. It becomes readily apparent that Fernando is interested in one thing only. While Elena is cruel to her younger sister, Anaïs allows events to proceed in her presence without interfering. In one of the film’s most excruciating sequences, we see Fernando seduce and cajole Elena into giving up her virginity as Anaïs lies in the bed across the room pretending to be asleep. Elena resists his advances, but in the end allows Fernando to take her anally as a “proof of love.” As we are further exposed to the relationship between the two sisters, we realize that although Elena treats Anaïs poorly, they share a bond of deep love. Anaïs’ weight puts her in a special place in society that gives her a distance from and intelligence about the process of objectification that her sister is subjected to.
The performances of Reboux and Mesquida are excellent and have been duly praised for having the kind of daring that we seldom see from American child-actors. Much of the credit for these performances must be attributed to Breillat’s persistence. Some of the sex scenes went to twenty takes, and this filmmaking experience became the basis for her later film, called Sex is Comedy (one of the most interesting films about filmmaking in recent years). Fat Girl does suffer from pacing problems, and it has very choppy transitions from one scene to the next, but once we get there, it is hard to deny the mesmerizing realism that Breillat achieves.
Fat Girl represents Breillat’s most accessible and mature work to date. She has made a career of edgy, difficult-to-watch works, that at their best moments are serious feminist essays on the natureof sex and power and at its worst flirts with violent hardcore pornography. The interesting thing about Breillat is that her films are both pornographic and important as opposed to being important because they are pornographic. Be that as it may, it is hard to ignore the aesthetic continuity that the more pornographic scenes, which appear in almost all of her work, provide when thinking about Breillat the filmmaker as opposed to Breillat the feminist theorist. Of course, she would most likely argue that such a distinction is false: Breillat the feminist is Breillat the filmmaker.
She would continue by arguing that by occupying the classically male role of the director, she is forcing a reconsideration of the nature of female objectification and thereby mitigating the negative consequences of it. The problem with this argument is that it denies the objectivity of the camera. It doesn’t matter that there is a woman sitting behind the camera, because objectification doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the intentions or nature of the artist, it’s simply a result of the apparatus and its interaction with social values. It must nevertheless be admitted that Fat Girlis an incisive and challenging look at the meaning of consensual sex and it turns on the contrast between Anaïs and Elena in a way that leads up to a truly shocking conclusion.
The DVD has a good transfer of the film as well as a few interviews with Catherine Breillat in which she gives a very insightful perspective on the nature of the relationship between directors and actors. Watching these extras, one gets the sense that Breillat the theorist and Breillat the filmmaker have yet to be successfully integrated in a single film. But this is appropriate, for at the end of the day the nature of sex in contemporary culture remains unresolved, caught between the poles of pornography and erotica, between the vulgar and the sublime, between art and theory.
Image courtesy of The Criterion Collection