Coming-of-age story”: Film industry marketing shorthand for “movie where somebody loses their virginity.”
Hollywood loves “coming-of-age stories.” You get to have your teen sex, plus you get to dress it up with sun-dappled meadows, awkward-yet-ultimately-tender adolescent fumblings, and the rosy glow of reminiscence. They’re sweet, sensitive and tastefully artistic—in short, the kind of films that convince you filmmakers must never have had sex as teenagers. As often as not, first sexual encounters fit Thomas Hobbes’ infamous description of human life itself: nasty, brutish and short.
Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl derives its jagged, visceral punch from an unflinching exploration of a girl surrendering to what she naÃ¯vely imagines to be love. And though the ever-provocative Breillat (Romance) veers dangerously close to exploitation, her insinuating naturalism makes it hard to look away from even the most disturbing images.
Breillat’s narrative focuses on two French sisters on a family vacation. Elena (Roxane Mesquida) is a gorgeous 15-year-old still uncertain how to deal with her sexuality; AnaÃ¯s (AnaÃ¯s Reboux), an overweight 13-year-old, struggles in Elena’s shadow. During an outing from the family villa, the girls meet Fernando (Libero De Rienzo), an Italian youth with eyes for Elena. As Elena and Fernando begin a relationship, AnaÃ¯s watches from her bed in the room they share, learning some tough lessons in sex education.
Through the first half of Fat Girl, Breillat shakes up familiar set-ups for family dysfunction just enough to get away with them. The girls’ workaholic father (Romain Goupil), who flees the vacation for home after just a few days, makes a convenient Freudian scapegoat for Elena’s search for male affection. The relationship between the sisters, meanwhile, bounces plausibly between typical sibling bickering and an intense bond showing how much they depend on one another. The film’s French title Ã€ ma soeur! translates as “To my sister,” and it’s actually quite a poignant exploration of the moment when a relationship between two children becomes the relationship between a child and a young adult. Breillat establishes the psychology of Elena and AnaÃ¯s (wrenchingly performed by Mesquida and Reboux, respectively) just enough to give her big set pieces more resonance than shock value.
That doesn’t mean those set pieces aren’t equal parts fascinating and unnerving. In one virtuoso sequence, Breillat captures Elena and Fernando in bed, negotiating the terms of their first sexual intimacy. Elena balks at intercourse; Fernando cajoles her with sweet nothings about “a demonstration of love.” The camera stalks the pair, swinging wide enough on occasion to remind us that AnaÃ¯s is taking all this in on the other side of the room. As voyeurism into the kind of sexual predation that too often passes for first love, Fat Girl is darkly triumphant. It’s the least romanticized cinematic de-flowering since Jennifer Jason Leigh lost it in the dugout in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
There’s no way to predict from the first hour of Fat Girl the direction that it takes thereafter. Over the course of nearly a full reel, Breillat plants the two girls in a car with their mother (ArsinÃ©e Khanjian) on the long drive home. The car weaves dangerously through traffic, freight trucks alternately bearing down from behind or racing past. On one level, it’s a minor metaphorical miracle—a portrait of a mother’s nerve-wracking attempt to guide her children down a dangerous road. As a piece of subtext-free filmmaking, it’s an almost unbearably tense wait for a catastrophe that’s bound to happen at any moment, but doesn’t ... and doesn’t ... and doesn’t ...
Then, from jump-out-of-your-skin nowhere, it does. If Fat Girl were an English-language film, its climax might have been the most polarizing, heavily-debated cinema moment of the year. It’s simultaneously riveting and infuriating, a take on sexual power politics so horrifyingly cynical that it might taint your reaction to the entire rest of the film. Breillat may have delivered one of the most unpleasant film messages you’ve seen in a long, long time. There’s also little question that she sets up that message brilliantly. Fat Girl weaves hard truths and harder speculations through its take on a “coming-of-age” story in which, miraculously, there’s not a sun-dappled meadow to be found.