Friday, 20 May 2011
Starring: Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida and Libero De Rienzo
By Alan Bacchus
Much controversy surrounded this picture back in the day, as it contains the frank and dispassionate discussions and depictions of sex of an underage teen seen through the eyes of an even younger pre-teen girl. There’s also the title – so direct and sensational, typical of the body of work of its director, the French provocateur Catherine Breillat, who, previous to Fat Girl, cast real-life Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi in her film Romance, another direct and sensational title. That film featured real sex, which was its own cause célèbre in 1999. And if you go back even further to the 1970s, she appeared as an actor in Bernardo Bertolucci’s seminal sex-art film Last Tango in Paris.
It’s a remarkably simple and small-scale story constructed here. Anais is a pre-teen French girl on vacation with her parents and her older sister Elena. Their sibling rivalry is palpable. Elena, who has come into her own physically, recognizes her sexual superiority and uses it to cruelly obliterate Anais’ self-confidence. Together they discuss sex and freely pontificate about what their first experiences should be like. Elena desires sex with a man she loves, but Anais prefers to just get it over with.
Breillat’s benchmarks are two key sex scenes. The first is the central set piece in the film, which encompasses nearly a third of the film. Elena, who has met and become infatuated with a hunky Italian law student, Fernando, succumbs to his relentless and sly sexual advances to the point that they end up in bed together (with Anais sleeping in the same room). She has no intention of giving up her virginity on this night, but Fernando’s tactics are just too much for her.
It’s a magnificent scene, a sexual encounter drawn out in length, a slow and methodical courtship that turns out to be a heinous act of date rape. Fernando’s manipulation of Elena is hypnotic and intense in a way Martin Scorsese used to do. It’s a conversation dripping with earth shattering tension. I can’t help but be reminded of Jake La Motta’s conversation with his brother, questioning him about an affair with his wife in Raging Bull or Max Cady’s seduction of young Danielle Bowden in Scorsese’s version of Cape Fear. Breillat's dialogue is so intoxicating, and this scene is up to this Scorsese standard.
Anais’ perception of virginity is quite remarkable for such a young girl. It’s not difficult to believe she’d feel this way. Breillat’s point of view is the key to this understanding. We’re either watching what Anais sees or we watch Anais watching her surroundings. As such, we understand that she observes the world more than she participates in it. And through the cruelty of Elena, Anais will rise above the pitfalls she will suffer in her youth.
The ending is certainly a shocker and confounding. We expect Anais’ passiveness to usurp. Though there are some shocking acts of violence that come at us suddenly, it pays off in Anais’ journey – however oblique and confusing it may be.
Fat Girl is a deserved masterpiece, worthy of the Criterion label. The provocative effect of the exposed male and female genitalia never overwhelms Breillat’s smooth and calculated character study. And yet the graphicness of the sex is wholly necessary to the mood. Fat Girl is art house primavera – devious and challenging, but so rewarding.
Fat Girl is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.