As the opening credits roll on Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl, the plump teen who gives the film its name, Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), sings a rhyme that’s at once familiar in its melody and deeply unsettling in its lyrical couplets. The tune speaks of waiting for someone, an object of desire perhaps, whether it takes the form of man, woman, or beast, to unleash her from the dreadful suspense of sexual awareness. Like a great deal of nursery rhymes, the innocent tone of the song belies deep, dark implications and by the end of Breillat’s remarkable film, Anaïs has indeed found that someone, albeit in the most unlikely of places and in the most haunting of circumstances.
The story of how she finds this someone, however, has at least one more lead, perhaps even two depending on how you look at it. For sure, Anaïs is an awkward, insular, and intellectual vision of adolescent sexuality, but there’s another side to that particular maturation that’s confident, social, and foolish, and that side is embodied in Anaïs’s older sister, Elena (Roxane Mesquida). They see in each other the uneasy balance that could turn one into the other which is part of what binds them and accounts for their lacerative bickering. The film opens properly on one of these petty fights, but the focus changes within moments to Fernando (Libero de Rienzo), an Italian college student vacationing with his family on the same stretch of Saintogne as the girls and their parents, and Elena’s soon-to-be lover. Their realistically ridiculous courtship takes up a large portion of the narrative, but their relationship is second to the tenuous bonds between Elena and Anaïs.
In fact, Breillat ensures that nearly every private moment that Elena and Fernando share together includes Anaïs, even if from a distance. The now-infamous first sex scene between Fernando and Elena, which clocks in at over 20 minutes and consists mainly of one shot taken from Anaïs’s perspective, takes place in a room Elena shares with her younger sister and it’s assumed that Anaïs hears everything that goes on. Shot through with Anaïs’s cold intellect and assured reason, the scene’s a grotesque knockout wherein the pseudo-romantic veil that Fernando wears barely masks his urgent animalistic desire and Elena’s insecurity and need for acceptance results in a most merciless humiliation. Their second tryst goes far smoother for Elena and Fernando, but is brilliantly, frustratingly interrupted by a shot of Anaïs weeping in her corner, as much a lonely girl faced with jealousy and fear as she is a metaphor for the excised purity in the midst of disintegration within Elena.
Elena’s hesitant “introduction to love” is mirrored in Fernando’s pseudo-lothario demeanor, just as Anaïs’s cathartic deflowering is mirrored in her partner. The fear Elena feels is myriad in source, but it’s partially derived from fear of life, of fully blossomed femininity, and the ability to create life and also, through sex, the power to instill vitality in herself and in men. Abandonment is among the reasons as well, and with good reason, as Fernando flees away from the French beachfront the moment it’s revealed that the engagement ring he gave Elena (Breillat’s dark sense of humor is pervasive) was in fact a family heirloom belonging to his mother. Crestfallen by her would-be mother-in-law’s drop-in and her subsequent outing of her sticky fumblings with Fernando, Elena spends most of her trip back home sobbing alone or speaking gently to Anaïs while her mother (Arsinee Khanjian) nervously tries to avoid collision.
Breillat’s at-first odd fascination with the mother’s on-road nervousness is one of the film’s trickiest propositions, leading to the legitimately shocking conclusion. Of course, the mother’s maternal instincts were kicked into action by the realization that her first-born is no longer a virgin, but like so many of Breillat’s decisions, it hides a more universal, existential meaning. By breaching that aforementioned fear, Elena has essentially walked into a world where the only major mysteries left to life are death and, to a far lesser degree, childbirth. The mother is reacting, at once, to the sense of protecting her daughters and her own enveloping sense of mortality reawakened by Elena’s forbidden tryst, and she is completely aware that the same will soon prove true for her eldest daughter.
As those who have seen the film will note, things don’t necessarily come to fruition in that sense. The confluence of horror, coming-of-age tale, and sex comedy that Fat Girl labors under finds its most potent and delirious outcry in the film’s finale, but it seems oddly right in line with Breillat’s sensibility. The fact that Breillat’s premise eschews sitcom structure while also bowing to a minimal amount of its conceits has been written about before, but the film’s ending is pure Breillat, addressing both Anaïs’s burgeoning sexuality and the mother’s deep-seeded fears in one fell swoop.
The director, who also wrote the screenplay, obviously has more sympathy for the sartorially incompetent Anaïs, despite putting her through her everyday humiliations. The film ends with one last flabbergasting statement from Anaïs, a final assertion of her detached intellectualism meant to throw the moralistically assured into tumult. Walking away from a scene of unspeakable violence, it seems that the eponymous femme has gotten exactly what she wanted for the first time: a radical moment of wish fulfillment that we had heard her singing about in the film’s quiet beginnings.
Though not nearly as accomplished as some of their recent releases, Fat Girl upholds the Criterion standard of audio/visual excellence in an AVC-encoded/1080p transfer. Brief moments of edge enhancement are barely negligible, whereas many of the improvements made by Criterion, after their DVD release of the film, are quite noticeable and impressive. The grain of the image has been retained and there's an outstanding boost in color to be found, especially in Catherine Breillat's heavy use of blues and greens. Clarity and detail are both admirable and pay off big time in scenes such as the first sex scene between Elena and Fernando. The audio does an equally impressive job, though, in honesty, this is a rather simple film in terms of sound. A guitar-based theme creeps in now and again, along with the faintest hum of synths and strings, but otherwise this is all atmosphere and dialogue, mixed and balanced beautifully.
This is one of Criterion's negligibly lighter discs in terms of extras, and though the film, like a large portion of Criterion's releases, speaks for itself, it would have been nice to hear a commentary or see some of Breillat's earlier work included here. What we do get are a marginally informative set of interviews with the writer-director and a rather pointless, short making-of featurette. A booklet featuring a short piece by Breillat, an interview with the filmmaker, and an essay on the film by Ginette Vincendeau and a pair of trailers are also included.
Though not a banner work by Criterion, the Blu-ray release of Catherine Breillat's superb coming-of-age tale is worth taking a look at for the ever-blooming mysteries of the film itself.