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FAT GIRL

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Ana´s Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Libero de Rienzo, ArsinÚe Khanjian
Director: Catherine Breillat
Audio: French stereo 2.0 and DTS 5.1
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Making-Of featurette, interviews, trailers, essays
Length: 86 minutes
Release Date: October 19, 2004

"The others don't count.  I only sleep with them because I'm a guy.  That's all."

"So if you slept with me, I'd be like all the other girls?"

"No, I'd respect you."

Film ***

Catherine Breillat is one of the most controversial directors in France today.  Her daring, openly sexual style of direction has provoked some widely divergent reactions, even within the relatively open-minded European film community.  One of her early films, 36 Filette (1988), concerned the sexual maturity of a fourteen year old girl.  Another film, Romance (1999), gained notoriety for its shockingly explicit nature.  Despite the generally mature content of her work, Breillat's use of sexuality, rather than being simply gratuitous, ultimately serves to convey a greater, universal theme of female empowerment and liberation in her films.

Breillat's └ ma soeur! (Fat Girl, 2001) also explores the subject of sexual curiosity, albeit from an adolescent perspective.  Rather than being a titillating piece, this film exposes the uncomfortable awkwardness and occasional poignancy of budding sexuality.  It does not attempt to glamorize the experience.  Frequently stark but generally honest, Fat Girl lays bare the raw and often painful tribulations that accompany a girl's inevitable sexual maturation from child to young adult.

At the heart of Fat Girl is a story of two teenaged sisters - plain and obese Ana´s (Ana´s Reboux) and her beautiful sibling ElÚna (Roxane Mesquida).  Along with their family, the sisters are on vacation at a seaside locale.  Ana´s is thirteen years old and looks up to her more attractive fifteen year old sister, although, in some ways, Ana´s is more mature and pragmatic than her elder sibling.  ElÚna has reached a stage in adolescence where her sexual curiosity and desire to experience an idealized first romance blinds her to the insincere manipulations used by boys for their own purposes.  Ana´s expresses a different view on the matter - "Personally, I want my first time to be with a boy I don't love."

One afternoon, ElÚna meets Fernando (Libero de Rienzo), an Italian law student.  He seduces the young, impressionable teenager with romantic promises and overtures.  In his quick courtship of ElÚna, Ana´s is left unattended and alone.  When Fernando and ElÚna go for a joyride in his convertible, Ana´s must wait along the sidewalk until they return.  In one bittersweet scene, Ana´s swims alone in a pool, practicing kisses with imaginary suitors while her sister receives undivided male attention.  During Fernando and ElÚna's first sexual encounter, in a bedroom shared between ElÚna with her younger sister, Ana´s' presence is essentially ignored.  "Go to sleep.  You hear nothing, see nothing, and know nothing," ElÚna warns her sister beforehand.

Ana´s is divorced from the social circumstances surrounding ElÚna's life, and one senses Ana´s' loneliness and alienation as a result.  Ana´s' obesity and young age also create a further barrier around her, isolating her such that she is more of a passive observer than a participant.  As such, Ana´s becomes more cognizant of Fernando's insincerity than does her sister, who allows herself to be swayed by his empty promises of love.  In a poignant scene, Ana´s weeps silently in the darkness of her bedroom while ElÚna and Fernando consummate their relationship.  Whether Ana´s cries from quiet jealousy, or more deeply for ElÚna's lost virtue to someone who doesn't love her, is left open to interpretation.

The parents offer little moral support.  Seeing their daughter Ana´s in a depressed mood one morning, the father simply bemoans her ungratefulness for all the hard work he has put in for this family vacation, while the mother only observes, "It's adolescence.  She'll get over it."  In essence, as is often the case in reality, the girls must ultimately learn the difficult lessons of life for themselves and cannot rely indefinitely upon their parents for guidance.

Fat Girl is, in Breillat's own words, a story about "a soul with two bodies."  ElÚna can be considered the idealized image of youth and beauty, while Ana´s represents the more earthen reality.  ElÚna and Ana´s may bicker as siblings will do, but there is still real devotion and love in their relationship.  The true heart of the film lies in the bond between the two sisters.  The best scenes in Fat Girl, in fact, are the quiet scenes between the two sisters as they share laughter and their private thoughts.  Seeing a tearful Ana´s, ElÚna (and not the parents) is the one to comfort her sister.  When ElÚna starts to express uncertainty over Fernando's intentions, she turns to Ana´s (and not their mother) for moral advice.  As sisters, they share their secrets and their pains; their familial bond is strengthened, rather than weakened, by their different attitudes - "That's why we're sisters.  When I hate you, I look at you, and then I can't.  It's like hating part of myself."

The men in Breillat's films are generally depicted in a negative light.  This is the case with Fat Girl's Fernando.  Although he is truly not a bad person, Fernando still personifies many of the vices and insincerities of young men accustomed to manipulating women for sexual gratification.  His presence gives Fat Girl its slightly uneven, schizophrenic tone.  The first two-thirds of the film divides time between ElÚna's more mature sexual encounters with Fernando and the innocence of the two sisters' relationship together.  The sibling bond is perhaps the more interesting storyline but sadly isn't really explored at adequate length.

Strangely, the final third of the film evolves into a thriller.  The girls and their mother drive home from the vacation, and the progressively menacing elements of their trip foreshadow the film's twist of an ending.  I will not reveal the conclusion here, although it is quite sudden and ultimately unsettling.

However, the film's final freeze-frame of Ana´s' face does have a reverberating impact.  It is Breillat's homage to Jean-Pierre LÚaud's iconic stare of defiance and uncertainty at the conclusion of Franšois Truffaut's The 400 Blows.  In her own stare, Ana´s displays a similar defiance towards life's trials and tragedies.  Despite the film's disturbing conclusion, Ana´s demonstrates that perhaps she will be a stronger person for all her experiences.

NOTE:  Roxane Mesquida was around twenty years of age at the time of filming, playing younger.

Video ****

This DVD is a dual-layer DVD-9 disc.  Fat Girl is shown in its original anamorphic widescreen format, and being a very recent film, Fat Girl looks quite good.  The transfer, created from a 35mm interpositive, averages around 7-8 Mbps and reproduces natural skin tones, solid black levels, and a good degree of clarity.

Audio *** Ż

Fat Girl provides the listening option of either the original French stereo track or a new DTS 5.1 track.  As is usually the case, the DTS track is quite lush and immersive, creating a natural ambient sound environment, although this film probably does not really require such a track.

Features ** Ż

The DVD contains a few bonus features.  First is a brief featurette (5 min.) on the making of Fat Girl in which Breillat briefly discusses her directorial style with her actors.  Production clips are shown of an alternate ending to the film.

Catherine Breillat appears in two additional interviews.  In the first interview (10 min.), Breillat talks about the three young actors in the film and their respective characters as well as how she as a director related to them and encouraged them to create natural performances.  Breillat also supports her belief in the importance of the editing process to maintain or discover the true spirit of a film.  Best of all, this interview concludes with the alternate ending for the film; Ana´s' final line is the same, but its impact is different due to the sterile setting and tone of the scene (personally, I much prefer the film's final version of the scene to the alternate ending).

The second Breillat interview (12 min.) was recorded during the film's premiere at the 2001 Berlin Film Festival.  Breillat discusses comedic elements in the film, the premise of the sisters as being one soul in two bodies, and also the filming of one of the film's most difficult scenes.

There are two further essays contained on the package insert included with this release.  One essay is a long interview with Breillat from Positif, August 2004.  Breillat explains in great depth the themes in Fat Girl, the casting process for the roles of Ana´s and ElÚna, and finally the relevance and personal symbolism for her of the film's title (both the French and English titles).  This article reveals the film's conclusion, so I would recommend watching the film before reading this.

The second essay, "Sisters, Sex, and Sitcom," originally appeared in Sight and Sound, December 2001.  Author and film scholar Ginette Vincendeau discusses Fat Girl's place in the recent French cinematic trend of films exploring frank sexuality.  Vincendeau also dissects the film's suggestion, from a feminine viewpoint, that the male machismo and false promises within many heterosexual relationships frequently lead to joyless sex and occasional victimization.

Lastly, there are two Fat Girl trailers on the DVD.  An English trailer is presented narration-free, while a French trailer provides a closer look at the general plot.  Both trailers give an impression of the film as a superficially fast-paced comedy with sexual innuendos, which is hardly an accurate description.

BONUS TRIVIA:  ArsinÚe Khanjian, who plays the girls' mother, is the real-life wife of celebrated Canadian director Atom Egoyan.

Summary:

Fat Girl is a controversial film that may disturb some viewers and may elicit strong opinions about its portrayal of teen sexuality.  However, it contains solid performances from young actresses Ana´s Reboux and Roxane Mesquida and successfully conveys the insecurity of one's body image that often accompanies adolescence.

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