There are few films that stay with you, that puncture the doldrums that can often occur when you watch film after film, and just when you think you’ve seen it all, Fat Girl has yet another thing coming. Fat Girl is the creation of director Catherine Breillat and though it lulls you into accepting the difficult themes of emerging sexuality and repulsive violence, it isn’t mindlessly sensationalist.
Breillat has constructed something magnificent and unexpected, touching and horrifying all at once. Fat Girl follows two young sisters on a family vacation, the younger sister is a twelve-year-old stoic fat girl, wise beyond her years, and the other a beautiful and lively idiot teenager. When the elder sister meets a boy on vacation, the younger sister watches the elder slowly lose her innocence, which ultimately has unimaginable consequences.
Made in 2001, the film feels utterly foreign, and while it is a French film set in France, this goes beyond that and feels difficult to place within a large context. Clocking in at 86 minutes, it never feels rushed or hurried in any way. The film is very difficult to speak about without giving away key plot points, but there is a deep and abiding oppression and subjugation of women sewn into the fabric of the film, and it becomes so stark as to eventually feel unforgivable, as weighty and permanent as a stab wound. It can be helpful to think about Fat Girl in the same company as films such as the criminally overlooked Dogtooth or masterfully made Fish Tank, although the film is ideologically closer to Dogtooth than Fish Tank, but I see some of the insolence and independence that explodes from Fish Tank present in Fat Girl as well.
The Criterion Collection Blu-ray release features are few, which are frustrating when the material is so fascinating, but this seems to be part of Breillat’s intent, to offer up as few answers as possible to the hundreds of questions she has raised. What we are left with is some behind the scenes footage that shows several scenes being filmed and a few brief conversations with the actresses, Breillat steadily watching the unfolding action with the intensity of a hawk. The actresses are incredible, so young and so talented it seems almost impossible and indeed they create some of the best characters I’ve seen on screen in quite a while, especially Anais Reboux, playing the difficult role of the titular fat girl. Two further interviews with Breillat illuminate little, but assist in wrapping the mind around the complexities of the script. Breillat seems confident in her work, and well she should be, fearless and sure of her decisions even as they portray some shocking moments that hold water even a decade after the film was made.
The physical design of the Blu-ray case is well-done, sort of grainy and difficult to make out, extreme close-ups of pivotal moments and images that make little sense out of context. Creating the design for this film seems a daunting project, as to say too much visually would be disastrous, and so minimalism is the order of the day.
The written portion contains an essay that attempts to make sense of the film by Ginette Vincendeau, exploring the multiple and uncomfortable themes of observation, sexuality, growing up, family and violence. Fat Girl isn’t about any one subject, which makes it difficult to neatly pin down and examine. There are moments of levity, strange secret moments that occur only in glances between characters, smarmy boyfriends and parents who simply don’t understand, and Vincendeau spends her short essay comparing the film to other films as well as exploring Breillat’s own historical perspective. Reading the essay before seeing the film will spoil some of the greater moments in Fat Girl, however. Alongside this essay is an interesting interview with, and writings from Breillat, and I must admit it’s wonderful to see a director so heavily involved with the release.
Breillat says it all when she speaks in the special features of the sisters as being one soul in two bodies, two sides of the same coin. Anyone girl who has ever had a sister will recognize the complexities of the relationship, especially during a scene where the girls are whispering and giggling to one another that no one can make them as angry as the other. And isn’t this a real truth, no one can make us as angry as our families, our own blood. We see ourselves, once removed in their actions, and we want them to act in the ways that we do so we can understand, but when they don’t it hurts worse than the meandering actions of a stranger for whom we never could feel the same affinity.
Far be it from me to prescribe or limit the sort of people who might enjoy, (well, enjoy is the wrong word) might engage with this movie, young women with many sisters who have never been considered beautiful will find it particularly difficult, but that may be why they should see it. Fat Girl forces the viewer to place his or herself within the context of the film, whether they want to or not, and raises huge questions that cannot be readily dismissed. To see yourself reflected in a film, no matter how distorted the image, gives a moment for reflection on darker matters, and that may be the stunning gift of Breillat’s incredibly difficult film.
Fat Girl is now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.