“Repulsively banal,” director Catherine Breillat explains, while characterizing the familial coming-of-age interactions that inhabit the surface of her 2001 film, Fat Girl. In interviews, she often cattle brands the movie as carnal comedy: A menagerie of awkward, fumbling hands and verbose advances. The fierce shadow-play of two sisters bucking heads against the backdrop of emotionally removed parents, chlorine flecked diving boards, and gravel kicked tires seem primed for transitional doldrums. The themes of combative sibling rivalries have been explored and lampooned, throughout television and film history, ad nauseam. Here, Breillat’s gallows humor and spindly, almost reptilian-like narrative coils around cold rocks while circumventing the conventional family dynamic. There are woodboring beetles clicking away in the grain of the French director’s opus. Everything is as it seems, and nothing is what it pretends to be.
Fat Girl revolves around Elena and Anaïs, two teenage sisters whose tenuous relationship is tested by mistrust and competition. Elena (Roxane Mesquida) is self-involved, naive, and repeatedly courted. Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), meanwhile, is contrarian, hyper-aware of her surroundings, and only nominally practical in her approach to social situations. As their age would suggest, the siblings are characteristically antithetical to most people and things. Neither party is altruistic, inherently understanding, or transparently concerned about one another. More often than not, Elena is sparring with the people in her life over their physical appearance. This, while Anaïs listlessly swivels her fork in a heap of melting ice cream.
Breillat’s film is emotionally visceral, deliberately uncomfortable, and cognizant of its frank take on consent and self-identity. When the film explores sex, it is done in real-time. Midway through the movie, tawdry and explicitly manipulative lines are delivered by a desperately lecherous student, named Fernando (Libero De Rienzo). In an attempt to capitalize on Elena’s interest in him, the college student presses her defenses hard. Across the room, Anaïs watches through a web of her own splayed fingers. It’s a scene meant to stir anxiety. There are no romanticized camera angles, sweat-lacquered closeups, or jaunty horn solos to accessorize the act. It’s bare, repetitive, difficult.
As with most of the French director’s pictures, Fat Girl ends with unexpected fury. Similar shocks of imagery invade 2009’s Bluebeard, her most ambitious film. Breillat, above all else, is an artist who seamlessly weaves chaos through platitudes of would-be conventionality. There is a fearlessness in the auteur’s prose, a grim humor that quietly courses through the most abject or gelid of situations.
Fat Girl lives in the crosshatched rays of sun against the gentle ebb of pool water. It buzzes with an undercurrent of dread, and stirs with the sound of bulbous insects whittling inside the belly of loose soil. The exploration of adult emotions, through the undeveloped compass of youth, is a place where errant confusion and pain lies. Breillat understands that these collisions are both vapid and important. And that the real agony lies in the horizon of fate, luck, and compartmentalization.