Movie Review - Sister act

Breillat lays bare the dynamics of teen sex in Fat Girl

The French film Fat Girl has one of the most shocking endings yet committed to film. It's an audacious conclusion that shambles out of nowhere and leaves you reeling.

The film fluctuates between bald, nasty reality and Freudian fantasy, and it has the psycholo- gically slippery, macabre tone of other tales culled from the sexual subconscious like Ripe or The Company of Wolves.

"I think my stories are like fairy tales," says the film's perennially controversial director, Catherine Breillat, in heavily accented English during a telephone interview from New York. "You have to choose the symbolic sense of the ending, and then it's like a mirror for yourself. If you want to feel that it's a fantasy, then you can. I don't choose; you have to choose. If you want to think it's a reality, you can."

Fat Girl has clearly struck a chord in a popular culture awash in images of teenage sexuality. In a society notoriously hard to offend, Breillat has yet again managed to ignite controversy. Fat Girl has divided critics and essentially been banned from Canada by the Ontario Film Review Board for its unrelentingly disturbing treatment of the uglier realities of sex.

The story centers on the very different sexual awakenings experienced by two adolescent sisters, the shockingly beautiful 15-year-old Elena (Roxane Mesquida) and her awkward, overweight 12-year-old sister Anais (Anais Reboux). While vacationing at the French seaside with her family, Elena, whose lush sensuality recalls a young Brooke Shields, is expertly and efficiently seduced by an Italian college student named Fernando (Libero De Rienzo).

As Elena is summarily deflowered and Anais turns pirouettes in her own private Idaho, the girls' self-absorbed parents look on with an aggravating, disturbing detachment. A film of onion-peel depth, Fat Girl is an implicit condemnation of hypocritical adults who only become involved in their children's emotional lives when disaster strikes.

Some of the most disturbing passages in Fat Girl show the process of negotiation involved in Fernando's seduction, a tangled, manipulative mind fuck that has Elena agreeing to sex despite some misgivings. The film has been understandably controversial for showing the physical dynamics of what the young couple do in bed — which is a lot, considering the surreptitious and brief nature of their courtship. Like Breillat's previous film Romance, Fat Girl is as jolting for its cerebral shockers as for its underage nudity. Her treatment of the psychological exploitation, female passivity, implied violence and guilt involved in teen sex is astoundingly honest.

But Breillat is no shock novice. At age 53, she has made pushing society's buttons her artistic metier. It is "half a very open society and half a very puritanist society," says Breillat of the social contradictions her work strives to illuminate.

At 17, Breillat penned the sexually explicit novel L'Homme Facile, which was immediately banned for sale to anyone under 18 in France. Her debut film, Une Vraie Jeune Fille (A Real Young Girl), which centered on her well-tread territory of a young girl's loss of virginity, was immediately banned upon its release in 1976. In addition to her penchant for shock, Breillat is also startlingly prolific, with 13 screenplays, six novels and seven director credits to her name.

Like a gypsy reading a society's tea lives, Breillat's continued fascination is with how society and self operate via sex. Fat Girl is about how the pernicious sexism that makes women passive agents in their own desire leads Elena to want to be "talked out" of her virginity. "She wants the boy to take the capability on him so she can become innocent," explains Breillat. "It's a sort of very complex and ambiguous situation between innocence and desire."

While Elena and Fernando talk and grope in the sisters' bedroom, Anais listens in, a mere observer to the sex life she is denied. While that witnessing is clearly painful for Anais, it also gives her a uniquely aloof, intellectual vantage that allows her to see the element of manipulation and exploitation involved in sexual relations, which her sister misses. At its core, Fat Girl is a shocking, powerful reminder of the mix of desire and revulsion that often characterizes the transition from child to adult, as witnessed through Anais' eyes. As Breillat told the online magazine Feed, "I am trying to present the double aspect of sex, as both something taboo and as something that opens the door to higher experiences."

As in other Breillat films, Fat Girl is also about how female sexuality is constructed and the perilous, confusing road women tread to sexual expression in a society that looks upon their sexuality with disgust and fear. "We are the result of education and the look of a society. We are not ourselves, we are also the result of many pressures," says Breillat.

Women and girls like Elena are not innately weak-willed and unsure when it comes to sex, says Breillat, only conditioned to be so. "They are not passive but they have such a long history of passivity. You can't escape your history. It is history [in which] women have been slaves and have [become sexually passive] because they are enslaved under the power of man in every country."

Consider how first sex is described differently for girls than boys. "It's not the same, because you say 'loss of virginity for girls.' You don't say the same for a man," says Breillat.

Despite the conviction and strength of her opinions, Breillat is reluctant to assume the mantle of "political" filmmaker.

"I consider myself as a director," she says. "And then I consider myself as a feminist. But when I shoot movies, I make art, and art is not made just to be propaganda. So I have the right to be not politically correct, even from my opinion as a feminist."

Fat Girl is a far from perfect film. There remains an emotional chilliness and almost academic detachment evident in the film. There is an unpleasant, alienating sense that Breillat shares with fellow teen stalker Larry Clark, despite her ability to convey a greater sensitivity. Her teenage protagonists often feel like pawns through which Breillat explores her intellectual points. In some ways her investigations of the psychological components of their sexuality is no different from another director's slobbering dissection of the fleshy mechanics of their sex lives. Her contention that she is a director first and a feminist second is evident in Fat Girl, where she seems as willing to use her young actors to achieve her own agendas as any male director would.

But like any good director, Breillat's work is challenging, difficult and ambiguous, leaving a whirl of impressions and questions in the viewer's mind, which is far more than can be said about most contemporary films.