Fat Girl supplies a startling vision of the prickly crawlspace between innocence and sexual awakening. Catherine Breillat’s notions of perseverance are at once sensible and unnerving, so that love becomes indistinguishable from rape. Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) is the fat girl of the film’s title, a poised creature who repeatedly engages and teases the spectator’s morality. Key here is how Breillat expertly forces the audience to look at the world through the girl’s point of view, intelligently and with a sly mix of humor, as when Anaïs tells her sister, the gorgeous Elena (Roxane Mesquida) that she reeks of loose morals. Young but stoic, Anaïs vigilantly clings to her virginity the more her sister threatens to lose hers. She knows that she will spare herself a lot of pain if she looses it to someone she doesn’t love, which makes a last-act penetration as shocking as it is perfectly rational.
The film’s brilliance lies in its deceptive simplicity—its dawdling sketch of virtue on the brink of collapse. During her family’s summer retreat, Anaïs goes swimming and fantasizes a relationship between a wooden diving board and the pool’s metal ladder. She professes her love to the diving board only to then swim toward the ladder, kissing it softly and daring it to express jealousy over her love for the diving board. This humorous exchange is both the means by which the young Anaïs prepares herself for the complications of sex and love and displaces her frustrations and desires. Though she understands that she is too young for sex, she nonetheless builds a body-politic should sex happen before its time and under someone else’s terms. Consider then the film’s audacious, central sex scene a form of boot camp.
Anaïs keeps watch over Elena as the handsome Fernando (Libero De Rienzo) orchestrates her older sister’s deflowering. Fernando’s games are familiar and the genius of this twisted sequence is the way Breilliat dares the spectator to buy into the boy’s lies. Fernando, though clearly controlled by his rock-hard erection, professes his love for Elena. His persistence is perhaps as tiresome to us as it is to him, but is there a chance that he may be earnest? Elena clearly thinks so. Fernando chips away at the girl’s safeguard during a remarkable sequence that threatens to go on forever—or, at least, until the girl caves in to the pressure. The curious and judgmental Anaïs watches as Fernando penetrates Elena from behind; the next morning, he longs for oral sex—for him, the next step toward Elena’s vagina. These are three characters on a sexual journey, and if a connection can be forced between this scene and the film’s monster-trucks sequence, the passive Elena is riding shotgun.
Fernando, having used his mother’s stolen ring to get into Elena’s panties, is as calculating when it comes to discarding Elena as he was in getting her into bed. Once he deflowers Elena, Fernando is suddenly troubled by their age difference. He says he could be arrested because of it and that he’s not willing to risk the drama. Though she cries for her sister’s weakness, Anaïs is remarkably strong when passing judgment. She understands why Elena accepted Fernando’s lie (she is, in the end, only human) though she is willing to humorously acknowledge that Elena’s loss will make her less frigid the next time around. Raised as rivals, Elena and Anaïs celebrate their sisterhood, and though their differences in weight and morality separate them (Anaïs is younger yet wiser), their sexual journeys are still “a simple human issue.”
Like Breillat, Anaïs may be cynical to a fault, but if you consider the final moments of Fat Girl, you realize that this cynicism is a pretext for a philosophical query of the way defense mechanisms allow people to redirect sexual impulses to safer outlets. In Sex Is Comedy, Breillat’s auto-critique of Fat Girl‘s infamous sex scene, a horned-up director played by Anne Parillaud seems to grapple with the extent of her cynicism and how she uses it to control the people around her. This is much in the same way that Romance‘s main character looks to define her notions of love and pleasure. Breillat may not be someone you’d want to be in a relationship with, but this is a woman who insists on creating characters with full ownership of their sex.
Like Romance and Sex Is Comedy, Fat Girl is a bold feminist statement. But unlike Sex Is Comedy, Fat Girl isn’t taxing and doesn’t do the thinking for us, and unlike Romance, it’s daringly sexy. This may be why Breillat intimidates so many critics, especially men: because she uses sex as philosophical titillation—a place very few people want to go when they’re trying to get off. Fat Girl is a riveting art film, rigorously intelligent but profoundly emotional and philosophically perverse. Too smart for her family, Anaïs longs for the friendship of television’s intellectuals, and she laments the fact that she “was born too late.” There’s an overwhelming sense that this quintessential French girl is well equipping herself for survival. One could say that she is too smart for her own good.
With the final moments of Fat Girl, Breillat likens sex to the allure of a road accident waiting to happen. The director toys with the sensation of horror, and this brilliantly mounted sequence evokes the fear of sexual initiation. The film’s forceful gaze flirts with imminent danger when monster trucks threaten to destroy Anaïs, Elena, and their crazed mother during a car trip home. A boogeyman appears, windows are shattered (not unlike Elena’s virginity), and Breillat brilliantly and powerfully allows a prophecy to be fulfilled. The scene is confrontational, for sure, but it’s not a passive act of resistance—it’s a philosophical wish fulfillment and empowerment ritual. Anaïs always knew the first time should never be about love, and so she accepts her faith and continues to author her sexual experience completely on her own terms.