Set Her Free
Beatrice Loayza on Fat Girl
For a blooming film nerd making her way unguided through the thickets of world cinema, a compelling title can be enough. I discovered Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl in my teenage bedroom, slouched over my desk, scouring the internet for something brow-raising and risqué. The cynical bluntness of the title pinched a nerve. It sounded like a taunt, sharp and monosyllabic. It announced there would be no polite tiptoeing around the question of its protagonist’s body. I realized mere minutes into the film something remarkable: fatness defines our heroine in opposition to what the world wants of young women. And rather than curdle under its disapproving gaze, she barks back. She would have us believe that she wants it this way: the fatness and the contemptuous, bewildered looks that such fatness invites. I liked that.
Back then, a primitive, giddy fascination with sex guided my curatorial instincts. When I was gifted a clunky laptop some months before entering the fever dream that was high school, I exploited my newfound privacy by digging around for the most taboo cinematic offerings—findable from a crude Google search. Thanks to my severely Catholic mother, who paradoxically loved guts and gore but vehemently rejected all “unnecessary” displays of sexuality, I pursued films that reveled in fleshly excess. Marooned in the drab suburbs of Northern Virginia, I gorged on the forbidden fruits of provocateurs—Pier Paolo Pasolini, Lars von Trier, Takashi Miike—thanks to internet downloads that would prematurely fry my computer years later. A former child translator for my immigrant mother, I had an impudent streak and often treated her with skepticism; an infrequently addressed side effect of the American dream is what it does to generational hierarchies, i.e. what happens when your own children, intuiting your alienation, strive to become your opposite out of self-preservation, fear, and a pinch of arrogance. The trajectory of my fledgling cinephilia was thus a gesture of juvenile defiance.
Crucial was the realization that movies could be part of my identity, which I was then desperate to shape into something truly my own, both separate from a Peruvian heritage I found increasingly alienating, and the ideals of white, middle-class America that brutalized me in their unattainability. Something attracted me to French cinema: perhaps the stereotypical assumption of French sexual audacity, perhaps the whispered seductiveness of the language itself. As a national cinema, I held it high on a pedestal, in dignified opposition to that sentimental impulse of Hollywood fare in which physical intimacy is either mind-blowing romance or noble death in slow motion. That tendency of mainstream American drama—Titanic, Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan, films that played repeatedly in my living room in the late ’90s and early 2000s—seemed to reflect my family’s impassioned conservatism, and their belief that abiding by the strictures of religion conferred not merely the abstract promise of salvation, but unto life and death itself greater significance.
The 1960s films by New Wave directors that served as my introduction to French cinema seemed to me liberated from the theatrics of Christian moralizing, admirably blasé about all the things I’d been told were verboten. Such films confirmed my suspicions and offered versions of reality that I was quick to deem true and better. The killing of Anna Karina’s Nana in the final minutes of Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) showed me that even the most luminous souls could be struck down without fuss or ceremony. Meanwhile the capricious desire of Rohmer’s La Collectionneuse (1967), its fugue state of boredom and cruelty, put the passions and posturing of high school in perspective. Of course romance was a sham. Of course losing your virginity meant nothing. Yet I was incapable of seeing how this “enlightened” indifference was also an affectation, a shield, a form of self-denial.
When I finally broached the bleak, fleshy cinema of Catherine Breillat with a laptop screening of Fat Girl, I was struck by its anemic blues and greys, and its haunting sterility. Here was a story of summer vacation without the heat; teenage frolicking without the glittery, girlish fantasy. I could relate. For one, I’d always hated the beach, the way its collision of elements disturbed my body, made it slow, sticky, heavy, and—most importantly—impossible to ignore. And in the film’s protagonist, Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), I saw a kindred contrarian spirit; a shrewd observer; a punk in a lime green one-piece.
“The first time should be with nobody,” Anaïs announces in the film’s opening scene. We see her and her nymphlike older sister, Elena (Roxane Mesquida), strolling through the woods, discussing their theories on sex and romance. Equipped with long, wavy tresses and a sensual, pink pout, naive Elena physically embodies the ideal feminine object of desire. But for Breillat, Elena’s is a tragic privilege that inscribes her within an illusion of heterosexual romance. As such, she is all too willing to embrace the fantasy’s phony pleasures. She dreams of losing her virginity to a man she loves, while Anaïs scoffs at her sister’s arbitrary privileging of penetrative sex: “You have a weird notion of what ‘not sleeping around’ means.”
Crucially, Anaïs doesn’t compete with her sister by claiming moral superiority. Instead, she fancies herself a kind of wizened outsider. Her fatness is ostracizing, but ostracization here nourishes the critical faculties. With disdain and warped envy, she disavows the bourgeois delusions that spell happiness for other girls.
Food is her locus of desire. At a beachside restaurant where Elena first meets her lover, Italian engineering student Fernando (Libero de Rienzo), Anaïs orders a banana split, a creamy, decadent treat topped with a cocktail umbrella. The dessert looks preposterous across the table from the couple’s chic sustenance of choice: Marlboro Reds, a glass of beer, and a demitasse of espresso. Yet equally ridiculous is the abruptness with which Elena and Fernando begin to make out, blithely disregarding their third wheel. For an American viewer, Anaïs might seem a total aberration given the cliché of the effortlessly skinny French woman, sustained on a diet of bread morsels and red wine. During lunch with the rest of the family, Anaïs plops down with a large plate of food, its excessiveness an expression of identity as much as hunger. Elena jeers, ashamed by her sister’s unbecoming display of gluttony. Anaïs merely shrugs—she has reasons to feel ashamed of her sister as well.
In the final act of Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty, a young princess abandons her vibrant, sweltering world of fantasy and adventure for a supposedly blissful relationship. But in the French director’s hands, there is no happily-ever-after. For a woman, there could never be within the trappings of heterosexual romance, which promises everything and offers only a limp, pallid imitation. The disappointment so devastatingly envisioned in Sleeping Beauty (and Romance), figures at a remove in Fat Girl. Breillat infamously depicts Elena’s deflowering in real-time, first in an excruciatingly long single take that concludes with a concession of anal sex; then vaginal sex after Fernando presents Elena with a token of commitment stolen from his mother’s jewelry box. Anaïs, pretending to be asleep on the opposite side of the bedroom, observes the seduction with a look of forced indifference that shifts into rage and disgust. It’s all so phony and pathetic, and her sister is a willing victim, swindled by sweet nothings and delusions. Breillat’s camera settles on Anaïs’s face at the moment of penetration, weaving the girl’s judgment and trauma into an act that would otherwise remain insufficiently considered by the lovesick Elena, who is blind to the ways in which she is coerced into submission.
Breillat had always wanted the film to be called Fat Girl, but French preview audiences bristled at the anglicization. As a result, the film was released in Europe as À ma soeur! (For My Sister!). Though not Breillat’s preference, it’s a title I’ve since found more fruitful. No one else in the film has the presence and gravitas of Reboux, whose glazed eyes and unwieldy physique give her the quality of a mad queen. At the same time, Anaïs is constructed in relation to Elena, who is herself only perceived and understood through the eyes of Anaïs. They are two sides of the same coin. In a callback to the famous mirror scene from Persona, we see both sisters with their heads pressed together, observing themselves in the bathroom. Anaïs makes a confession: “When I hate you, I look at you, and then I can’t. It’s like hating a part of myself. That’s why I loathe you so violently, because you ought to be like me. But at times I have the feeling you’re the exact opposite.”
I’ve always been startled by the honesty of this moment, and the clarity with which Anaïs sees her own disaffection. Indeed, Elena has precisely what Anaïs lacks—an ideal body, head-turning looks, and the gift of oblivion. Yet the two are inseparable; their genetic entwinement suggests the inescapability of that which Anaïs so vehemently rejects. Anaïs clings to her anti-romantic principles, but who would she be without her hatred of and secret longing for the impossible?
About midway through the film, there’s a scene that perfectly captures the dreary melancholy and sheepish absurdity of being a weird, moody girl at the beach, alone with her thoughts and her body. Elena and Fernando go sightseeing in his white convertible, and Anaïs is forced to tag along as their frumpy chaperone. The young lovers break away to fool around in a stilted recreation of From Here to Eternity’s kiss on the beach. Meanwhile, Breillat invokes for Anaïs the image of a beached whale. Staring out at the water—a churning seafoam green—she sings a lullaby that we first hear in the film’s opening credits:
“I’ve sent my heart to rot away on the windowsill. I trust that one day, when the crows come with their beaks so fleet, they will peck away at this lump of raw meat, o’er which you thought you held sway.”
The morbidity of this song anticipates the film’s devastating conclusion and encapsulates the doomed agency of the Breillat heroine. In Fat Girl’s final minutes, the sisters abruptly head home after Fernando’s mother appears demanding the return of her thieved trinket, revealing the scandalous extent to which the underage Elena was involved with this woman’s son. The girls and their surly mother make their way along a markedly aggressive highway, their vehicle small and impotent amid roaring delivery trucks that surround and tower over the women like predators. At night, exhaustion hits. They pull over into an empty rest stop so that mother can take a quick nap, when a random psychopath crashes through the front window, slaughters the two older women, and chases Anaïs into the woods. When she emerges, there’s a savage gleam in her eyes. She is adamant that the rape was, in fact, consensual. With her frayed hair and scoffing demeanor, she resembles a captured fugitive as a pair of bemused cops lead her out of the brush. We glimpse the corpses of Elena and their mother, but Anaïs, pushing her alterity to its limits, wants nothing to do with their fates. In the midst of her rape, she embraces the perpetrator, achieving the alternative to romantic courtship she had always wanted.
Breillat’s cinema enacts the extremes to which women are willing to go in their efforts to wrest control of themselves and their bodies from the patriarchal systems that define them. The result is often a perverse, reactionary lashing out. Breillat’s first film, A Real Young Girl (1976), envisions a 14-year-old’s sexual awakening with a deviance befitting de Sade; her wet dreams, truly unfettered by rules of propriety and good taste, involve barbed wire and earthworms in the vagina. In Anatomy of Hell (2004), an unnamed female protagonist pays a misogynist gay man to experiment with her body by increasingly degrading and violent means. “I should’ve ripped her guts out,” the man bemoans at the end of their tryst. “I made her a pigsty and she still wanted more.” Breillat’s most recent, semi-autobiographical film, Abuse of Weakness (2014), perhaps has the most in common with Fat Girl’s resistance to pity and infantilization. Isabelle Huppert plays a semi-paralyzed filmmaker based on Breillat, who in 2004 suffered a stroke caused by cerebral hemorrhage that left her badly incapacitated. Also like Breillat, Huppert’s Maud is willfully defrauded and abused by a brutish conman. “It was me, but it was not me,” she explains to a roundtable of concerned friends, acknowledging her complicity in the man’s manipulation.
As a teenager, the issues of feminist agency and desire explored in Fat Girl surely flew over my head, however profound the mark left behind by the visceral presentation. Yet in the grips of the film’s final freeze-frame—Anaïs’s face, a canvass of flailing defiance and vulnerability—I understood how for her there was no other choice than to take ownership of her violation. I understand it today, though its ultimate resignation strikes me as a failure of imagination. I can only speak for myself when I say that I’ve in the past grasped at shreds of dignity that could hardly be called dignified. Anaïs refuses victimhood to the point of folly. It’s not a heroic gesture of feminist resolve, but rather a flat-out tragedy, a symptom of the cruel conditions that push women into maddening ultimatums. They will peck away at this lump of raw meat, o’er which you thought you held sway. She would rather feed her heart to the birds than expose it to the whims of others. It’s a starkly compelling scenario, one that might’ve satisfied the radical urges of a younger me, but that now feels like an artistic choice made in commitment to audacity itself.
What made Breillat’s provocations so affirming to a punkish teenage me is what in adulthood I find so regrettably stubborn and bitchy and fearful about my younger self. I’ve since encountered other more nuanced films about youth that capture the feelings of thinly veiled desperation and icy nonchalance that defined my adolescence, but that also gesture at the liberating possibilities of losing your cool and baring your vulnerabilities. Celine Sciamma’s feature debut, Water Lilies, pays tribute to Fat Girl in a number of ways: its voyeuristic protagonist; her corpulent best friend whose swimsuit barely contains her body. These girls also nonchalantly consider sex in the film’s opening scene. (“I’m behind schedule,” says the bestie, noting how teens in other countries get married as early as 14.) Yet in Sciamma’s film, which is neither cheery nor melodramatic, there’s a sense of possibility even in its grimmest moments, a place for love and authenticity despite its characters’ pretenses and disillusions. Ironically, there’s a rigidity to Breillat’s work, which consistently centers the estranged, straight, white woman, her sexual proclivities, and bodily non-conformity. And what I continue to find so evocative about Fat Girl also defines its limits: an affirmation of self-worth premised on masochism that will never set you free.