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Bechdel Test Canon: Fat Girl

Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl is the first entry in the series bearing the Criterion Collection's stamp of approval. The distribution company restores film prints and exhaustively collects essays, promotional materials, interviews, and supplemental features to provide consumers definitive DVD editions of certain movies, thus emphasizing their power as an intermediary. It has considerable sway over its intended audience of cinephiles as a "continuing series of important classic and contemporary films." However, the standard by which it determines selections' paradigmatic qualities seems arbitrary.

Fat Girl Criterion coverThough I'm an owner of several Criterion-curated DVDs, their efforts bring to mind film critic Pauline Kael's essay "Fantasies of the Art-house Audience." She indicts educated, upper-middle-class art-house audiences for delusions of self-regard, as they ultimately bear resemblance to their mass audience counterparts who use Hollywood product as a conduit for wish fulfillment. Criterion also implements a classification system that privileges auteurs, renowned male directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paulo Passolini, and Yasujirō Ozu. However, the work of female directors like Breillat, Jane Campion, and Lynne Ramsay are also included.

Though relatively spare compared to Criterion's characteristically ornate packaging, the DVD for Fat Girl discloses insights from Breillat about her feminist incredulity of heterosexual desire and girls' sexuality. She also talks about her role as director and the screenwriting, casting, and editing process. Comments from lead actress Anaïs Reboux and a production staff with a considerable female contingency are provided as well.

Breillat's inclusion in the Criterion Collection assuredly results from the controversy she received in her native France for thematic interest in graphic sexuality and the intersections between sex and violence she believes are churning at the margins of heterosexual exchange. Thus while she identifies as a feminist, she is linked to movements like the New French Extremity and receives vocal support from male affiliates like Gasper Noé, who court divisive opinion with movies that depict rape and other forms of violence with polemical glee.

Relative to Breillat's other movies, 2001's Fat Girl is fairly tame until its problematic conclusion. Documenting the misadventures of fifteen-year-old Elena (Roxane Mesquida) and her younger sister Anaïs (Reboux) while on a family vacation, the movie highlights the disparity between the girls' attitudes toward sex despite their shared virginity. The older sister, who is slender and conventionally attractive, is interested in entertaining men's spirited advances and harbors a romantic naïveté when embarking on a dalliance with Italian law student Fernando (Libero De Rienzo) that she mistakes as more than a fling. Though only twelve, Anaïs, whose beauty is often ignored because of her size, is far more cynical. She wants her first time to be with someone she does not love and watches in horror as her sister gets played, her warnings ignored.

The movie maximizes its feminist potential by denuding two sex scenes of eroticism with long takes, repetitive dialogue, emotional manipulation, and voyeurism to reveal their emotional emptiness. Fernando sneaks into the girls' bedroom late at night with dubious intentions. He makes grand pronouncements to Elena about teaching her the ways of the flesh. They are belied by coercive statements that the surrender of her virginity would be a proof of love. Predictably, her lover is only skilled at depositing his seed, his orgasmic howls drowning out her tortured groaning. Though no adult relative seems concerned about the sounds bouncing off the walls, Anaïs witnesses it all.

When not divided by male conquest, the sisters reveal themselves to be a combative but loving pair who are more intimately connected than anyone they encounter. One such exchange emphasizes their differences while establishing their commitment to one another. However, many conversations focus on Anaïs' fatness. I would be especially curious to read what Bitch blogger Tasha Fierce, who recently concluded the exceptional Size Matters series, would say about their preoccupation. The difference in the girls' bodies is emphasized during a trip to a clothing boutique. It is also a perennial familial concern. Elena and her mother (Arsinée Khanjian) are clearly repelled and possibly fearful of Anaïs' weight. Recalling The Sopranos' Catherine Sacramoni and her disgust with her mother and sister's heaviness, Anaïs' mother and sister smoke incessantly and shove food away to stave off any extra pounds they could absorb. Despite their insensitivity, Anaïs seems at peace with her size. However, some dialogue suggests that she swallows her emotions when she shovels banana splits and rips through tubes of taffy. This reads as pathologizing fat girls' eating habits, which troubles me a great deal.

Anais and Elena

While hardly enamored with Fat Girl, I was fine with it until its conclusion. In my piece on Crooklyn, an astute commenter challenged my criticism that the mother's death in that movie was lazy screenwriting by bringing director Spike Lee's autobiography into question. As Fat Girl is ostensibly a work of fiction from Breillat, I find the fate of the female members of this family clumsily delivered. Shamed by a visit from Fernando's mother inquiring about the opal ring her son stole as a hollow romantic gesture to Elena, their mother hustles them out of the resort. Clued in to Anaïs' mother and sister's pending mortality, I feared they would die as a result of their mother's reckless driving, which would support regressive gender stereotyping.

However, I was even more annoyed that a random criminal smashes through their windshield while they are asleep at a rest stop. He bludgeons Elena and kills their mother. He also chases Anaïs in a neighboring wooded area, stuffing her panties in her mouth and forcing himself onto her. The movie ends with her rebuking claims to male authorities that this was a rape. The scene recalls her initial proclamation that she wanted to lose her virginity to someone she did not love. It also references the freeze frame that concludes François Truffaut's The 400 Blows.

Anais freeze frame

This shot captures the loss of innocence of someone who never considered herself pristine. It also registers to me as a forced ending meant to generate contention amongst viewers that proves empty in its attempts to unsettle. While I think the value of a movie centered around Reboux's accusatory gaze and Breillat's exposition of it warrants inclusion, it also merits rigorous feminist inquiry.

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Comments

23 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Lost in translation?

I've never seen this film (though this post has officially piqued my interest!) but I noticed while watching the trailer that its French title is À ma soeur! which means "To my sister!"—I wonder why the English title was changed to "Fat Girl"?

(I have no idea, but I was hoping others might!)

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

Good question!

Good question, Kelsey. According to the interview Breillat did with Positif that was included in the DVD booklet, she always intended to call the movie Fat Girl (can't find a link). She thought the French term grosse fille sounded too musical. She liked the blunt sound of the English translation. But I guess there was some issue with the movie not having a French title when it was released and À ma soeur! (which has no direct English idiomatic translation) what was selected. However, Breillat intended for the movie to be called Fat Girl.

Alyx Vesey

I saw this movie for a film

I saw this movie for a film class last year, and even though I remember being pretty unsettled by the ending, I found the scene where Elena loses her virginity just as if not more upsetting.

I found your comments interesting, but wanted to note that while the mother was strangled to death her killer didn't rape her.

I was also going to point

I was also going to point that out.

Are you sure?

Wait, so he just strangles her with her clothes? Still . . . yeesh.

Alyx Vesey

ah ha moment!

This movie has haunted me for years, ever since I saw it in 2004. The sudden violent ending shocked me since it was unexpected, unlike most horror films. Today I was reading this wonderful book "Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film" and I realized that the archetype of Last Girl, the final female victim that lasts to the end in horror films who slays the murderer, is very much like Elena at the end of this movie. By refusing to call it rape, she refuses victim status, which I believe is what she saw her sister to be, as well as her mother. Hmmmm, lots of thoughts on this. Anyways, I really recommend reading the book, which is a great discussion about gender in film, even if you may not enjoy horror film. I just really appreciate Breillat for ending a drama film with horror film conventions. I would be interested if anyone discussed this with her, or if this is brought up in the commentary.

Ah, yes. I read the final

Ah, yes. I read the final girl and weapons chapters of Men, Women, and Chainsaws during graduate school. I read the book in full after I completed my master's degree. I'm not sure what Breillat's relationship to the book is, but I think conceptualizing Anaïs as a final girl is an interesting idea. Thanks for your comments!

Alyx Vesey

To be honest

I was interested in seeing this movie up until the second-to-last paragraph. It was sounding like a nice, thoughtful look (if at times a flawed or even predictable one), at femininity, body image, and sexuality. But then I read the last two paragraphs and my interest waned immediately. I can't claim to be capable of an in-depth criticism, having not seen the film, but, yes, it does seem like a hasty, ill-conceived way to inject some sort of "edginess" into the film. Blech. Interest? Lost.

Fair enough, Owl. I want this

Fair enough, Owl. I want this series to not only encapsulate movies we enjoy but also selections that cause considerable discomfort or provide contention. I think the subject matter, the writer-director's role in shaping it, and the actresses' performance legitimize its inclusion, along with the controversial reactions it continues to elicit.

Alyx Vesey

Oh, I wasn't suggesting it

Oh, I wasn't suggesting it shouldn't be included in the Bechdel Canon. If anything, including movies that stir up issues in the viewers makes this blog series more interesting. I was really only voicing my personal opinion about the film--I read those last two paragraphs and went, "Wait, WHAT?"

omfg

I had no idea this was a film people actually, well, saw. I had the total misfortune of seeing this as an undergrad. Didn't know what it was about and went to the art cinema alone on a whim. I rank this as perhaps the most disturbing, traumatizing (thus, worst) film I have ever seen. It may have redemptive feminist qualities but I was honestly so triggered by it that I'll never be able to objectively analyze it. Just thinking about it gives me the shivers. At least I now know I'm not the only person who has seen what I thought was some sort of hallucinatory nightmare.

omfg2

I felt the same way. I despise this movie. What I found most disturbing about it is that the actress playing the "Fat Girl" was only 12. In the rape scene, the 12 year old actess's breasts are bared and mauled by the rapist-killer. How can anyone possibly consider this to be okay? This film is a sick example of people trying to feel with their heads, while their hearts lie dormant. Really gross.

"How can anyone possibly

"How can anyone possibly consider this to be okay?"

they don't

last I checked, the film was pretty controversial

also, bare breasts (even teenage ones) are not inherently wrong; context is everything and in this case, they're not meant to arouse

Actually, we see Anaïs

Actually, we see Anaïs Reboux's breasts two times in the movie: once when she's examining herself (with disgust) in front of a mirror and again during the scene with the killer. I think both of these scenes are meant to arouse discomfort, but they don't condone anyone's behavior despite directorial efforts to be nonjudgmental. I do have trouble with the ending, as I'm not sure how much of Anaïs' reaction to the event is believable and how much of it is Breillat's forwarding of an agenda around her views of adolescent female sexuality.

But I also think we need to take into account Reboux's role as an actress and not presume that she is being coerced or corrupted by Breillat's inclusion of this nudity. Just because she was thirteen when the movie was shot doesn't mean that she was incapable of deciding what level of undress was comfortable for her.

Alyx Vesey

Agreed.

Child nudity is acceptable throughout Europe because nudity is more generally accepted. It all depends on the context.

Hm.

Not everyone is embarrassed and shamed by nudity the way Americans tend to be--even if it is in young people.

This is definitely a movie

This is definitely a movie people talk about in graduate school. I was actually introduced to it via my friend Caitlin, a feminist horror film scholar who runs an excellent film blog called Dark Room. Apparently one of my friends had a similar cinematic experience to yours and saw it on a date, which yielded some unfortunate results. I can totally understand this movie triggering horrible feelings and traumatic experiences in its viewers.

Alyx Vesey

interpretations

I think there are many good interpretations posted in these comments section. Most notably the idea of the female survivor claiming power over the situation. One thing that was not brought up was the fact that the murderer chose to rape the "fat girl" rather than her conventionally attractive mother and sister who spend the entire film obsessing about their looks. He even allows the character to live. Since the entire film is focused around sexual desire, male domination, and appearance, what does this say that the young, fat girl is subjected to the same treatment even though she is considered unattractive by conventional society? As disturbing as it was, I found this to be a very compelling film that questions this kind of thinking about conventional beauty.

Questioning female beauty

Questioning female beauty ideals is always welcome, and more films should do it (and not just in a "Shallow Hal" kind of way...) What I object to though, is the idea that maybe if a man decides a woman is "rape-worthy", her lack of stereotypical beauty is somehow redeemed (I'd rather be ugly and un-raped, myself...)

Plus, that's nothing new. Men rape women who are old, young, thin, or fat. Let's not pretend it's about sexual allure, or sex at all.

sexual allure

I wasn't thinking that. However, I think the director wanted us to take a look at why he would murder the other two and rape, but let live, the girl. This seems poignant to me, given that most of the movie is spent analyzing conventional beauty and is named "Fat Girl." I think it may also have been paralleling the rape victim's experience and subsequent hardness toward it to her sister's experience. This is not my personal belief or opinion. I am in no way comparing the brutality to this girl's rape to the sexual manipulation by her sister's lover. But I can't help think that Catherine Breillat may have wanted us to think about these topics.

"However, I think the

"However, I think the director wanted us to take a look at why he would murder the other two and rape, but let live, the girl."

I think the director is being MUCH more bleak than that. He killed the mother and sister so that he could rape a 12 year old, that's all. He's a pedophile. He doesn't merely pick the heavy one, he picks the child. She wants her first time to be with someone she doesn't care about and who doesn't care about her, and that's what she gets. Nothing more, nothing less.

Boogie Man

I'm so glad I found this post. I saw "Fat Girl"for the first time a few months ago and can't stop thinking about it. And I really like the choices the director made in the ending. I appreciate her effort to steer the film away from the straight forward character drama it initially presents itself to be. That AWESOME driving scene is a brilliant transition in the film's narrative because I don't think the characters are on a literal journey anymore. At that point I think Breillat is literally driving us into Anais's psyche and the film is no longer about her exterior experience, it is about her interior one.

The rape and murder scene is set up like all the scary stories my friends and I told ourselves when we were younger. I mean women sleeping at a roadside rest stop? Such an obvious cliche right? Of course there is that man with the hook hand waiting behind the bushes. Therefore, I don't think the criminal that attacks them is random at all. I think he is very intentionally supposed to be the boogie man from all the scary stories we tell ourselves. Personally I think that it is a great choice given this story is told from a young girl's point of view. It also serves as a departure from "realism" which made me question if the rape and murder was real or a dream, maybe a nightmare? They are sleeping when the attack happens and something about the camera lingering on Anais's face suggested to me that this might just be her dream, but she never wakes up from it. So I think it is a real event in the character's world but I think the filmmaker is focusing on Anais's interior experiences and perception of the event.

And Anais is truly the hero in this interior world, she refuses to be a victim of the situation, whether or not the rape is literal or metaphorical. Anais is so aware and present during the event that she even tries to re-negotiate the terms of the rape by trying to enjoy it. Like Movie Dork dork said below, "by refusing to call it rape, she refuses victim status" she refuses to be the boogie MAN's victim and it saves her life in the end.

Very good comment! I really

Very good comment! I really like how you brought up the narrative transition and the question of realism. Now I definitely have to see this even though it's going to be a difficult viewing, no doubt.