À ma soeur! (2001)

reviewed by
Jonathan F. Richards

IN THE DARK/Jonathan Richards
Directed by Catherine Breillat 
NR, 83 minutes

Fat Girl is about lying. It's about the way we deceive each other, and ourselves, to get what we want.

Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux)is twelve years old, and overweight. Her sister Elena (Roxane Mesquida) is a fifteen-year-old sex kitten, with pouty lips and seductive eyes. They're both virgins, and both anxious to get over it. On a seaside holiday with their detached parents (Romain Goupil and Arsinée Khanjian, wife of Canadian director Atom Egoyan) they meet Fernando (Libero de Rienzi), an Italian law student. Soon Elena and Fernando have struck a spark, and next thing you know he's sneaking in at night to the bedroom the girls share.

Seduction, and especially the adolescent variety, is often about satisfying one's own curiosities and desires while trying to make it seem like something more romantic. Words of love are wafted about like soap bubbles, shimmering and floating in the air with no more substance than a film of reflected light. When they go pop, no trace remains. When Elena says "I love you," the subtitles should read "That's one small step for a girl, and a giant leap toward womankind," and when Fernando swears "I'll respect you," he's really saying "Get that nightie up around your shoulders where it belongs."

Witness to these lies, and to their consequences, is the chubby Anaïs, who is curled up fifteen feet away in her own bed pretending to be asleep, wishing it would go away, wishing it were she, and finally sobbing silently as the final barrier is crossed on the neighboring bed. That barrier is reached in sometimes painful stages, with the lead taken first by the more experienced boy, who draws on every cliché of amorous persuasion, and then by Elena as she begins to feel confidence in her sexual power.

Director Catherine Breillat made a splash three years ago with Romance, in which the carnal explorations of a young woman denied sex by her boyfriend were shown with hard core explicitness. Here the sex is a bit less explicit, but not by much. Breillat is not one for the artfully draped sheet or discreetly turned hip, and while penetration is not depicted literally, there is no directorial flinching from a shot of a condom being applied to its functionally appropriate place.

Fat Girl, incidentally, is Breillat's title. The French A Ma Soeur! (To My Sister!), an ironic toast in French that loses its punch in translation, was a compromise arrived at when the distributor balked at releasing the film in France with an English-language name. The fatness of the title character is the consequence of the feeding of her appetite for something as yet unattainable; she spends much of her screen time devouring banana splits, sucking on long tubular white taffy, nibbling on a baguette that her sister presses into her mouth, and even turning herself into a virtual soda fountain tidbit by applying an aerosol tanning cream that looks like Cool Whip. But she is well versed in the theory and mechanics of sex, and counterpoints Elena's self-imaging romanticism with her own deliberately unromantic plan to be deflowered by a man she doesn't love, "a nobody - I don't want some guy bragging he had me first." In one touchingly comic scene, she swims back and forth in a pool between a diving board and a ladder, imagining them as lovers, kissing them and playing them as pawns in her romantic chess game.

The relationship between the sisters is beautifully drawn. It's sometimes hateful, sometimes bitchy, and sometimes a delight of giggling sweetness. Breillat, for what it's worth, has a beautiful older sister, Marie-Helene, who had a career in European movies in the '70s.

At the end, with the romantic bubble burst and exposed lies littering the scene of the crime like corpses, the mother drives Anaïs and Elena back toward their home in the Paris suburbs. And then something shocking happens, something so stunning that though it is presented as reality it can be interpreted as adolescent fantasy - an interpretation that feels less jarring in terms of the movie's claims on our belief.

Fat Girl is fascinating, clear-eyed, and compelling. It is also uncomfortable. The discomfort lies in part in the frank treatment of the subject matter; when Elena loses her nerve at giving up her virginity so quickly, Fernando convinces her that all the girls who love their men allow it "the back way", and that that does not constitute a technical loss of virginity. But the discomfort we feel transcends the story, and extends over the process of the movie itself. As with a picture like Todd Solondz's Happiness, we feel a profound uneasiness over the young actors being put through stuff like this.

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