Thursday, December 30, 2010

Movie Review: Fat Girl (A Ma Soeur) (2001)

Since Catherine Breillat’s 1975 writer-director debut, A Real Young Girl, the recurring theme she’s been conspicuously single-minded about is the stripping of our hegemonic social morays, the better to confront us with them—especially when it comes to questions of feminine sexuality. So many of her films revolve around the emergent physical identities of adolescent girls on beachside holiday with their families that one cannot help but presume a certain measure of the autobiographical in her work—though, for Breillat’s sake as much as for our own lasting peace-of-mind as her audience, I certainly hope that storytelling craft has trumped historical accuracy in the resulting pictures. There is sexual assault in Breillat’s films, there is manipulation, there is incest. There is an occasional murder. In many of them our young female lead arrives at a disposition that we might charitably describe as unconventionally empowered.

All of her films are thus challenging to watch, but it is with Fat Girl that Breillat’s unflinching and slow-panning creative voice at last finds its tricky harmony with the difficult subject matter, resulting in a finished product that manages to be fully enthralling without feeling prurient, methodical without feeling labored, and, most importantly, tied-up with the red-ribbon of unexpected denouement that manages to be stunningly arresting without feeling stridently dissonant or gratuitous.

Reboux is Anais Pingot, a stout if not exactly morbidly obese twelve year-old, trapped in the resentful wake of her glamorous parents and even-more-glamorous fifteen year-old sister Elena, played by Roxanne Mesquida. As ever in Breillat’s films, the family hires a seaside villa in the south of France for the summer, whereupon Elena becomes infatuated with Fernando, a college-aged Spaniard played by Liburo DiRenzio.

In short order Anais finds herself stranded at the far side of the girls’ shared bedroom, thence to bear involuntary witness to every imaginable outlet for Elena-and-Fernando’s disequality of previous experience. The middle act of the film thus unfolds as an unnervingly passive-aggressive contretemps, with Elena’s displaced self-hatred by day followed abruptly by her saccharine and abruptly over-sentimental pleas for her little sister’s complicity at bedtime. We understand at a stroke that Elena is invoking a time-practiced spell on her sister to get what she wants, here: plucking Anais’ heartstrings like the access-code on an ATM. The scene in which Elena attempts to quiet Anais’ tears by force-feeding her, directly across the kitchen table from their impassive mother and father, is but the tamest specimen from this exquisitely and pitch-perfectly uncomfortable second act.

None of which is what gets people talking about this incredible movie and keeps them that way, of course: Rather it is that thunder-striking final vignette that crystallizes the manic, pissed-off genius of the director’s creative vision—an episode about which any more said would spoil the whole experience of the film. It is and forever will be, we understand at once, the event in Anais’ life that gathers all those voyeuristic wayposts into something far more obviously a journey—elevating the already memorable experience of the thing into the club of that rarest of ugly ducklings, the not-just technically, but emotionally superlative motion picture.

The Key Grip gives Fat Girl five bald heads, his highest rating.

Dave O'Gorman
(The Key Grip)
Gainesville, Florida

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