Welcome to the second installment of Criterion Cuts. The first installment went over fairly well, but I’m going to try to mix it up this week with something a little more modern. Hopefully we can keep it different each and every time, though some day I’m going to lose it and just do like six weeks of Chaplin films.
Also of note, I don’t really have a direction for these and I’m not picky about what I watch, so if you have a suggestion for what I should do one of these on let me know. Most of this stuff is up on Hulu, and what isn’t I’d be happy to Netflix. So just so we’re clear, I take requests! Anyway, on with the show.
Fat Girl (2001)
Anaïs is twelve year old girl vacationing with her parents and older sister Elena on the seaside. Elena is a young beauty, while Anaïs is the titular fat girl. The sisters are as unalike in temperament as they are in appearance, as we join them in the middle of a discussion of relationships and sex. Elena has dated many boys, but is still a virgin, wanting it to be with someone she loves. Anais rejects the romanticism out of hand, saying that the first time will likely be painful and awkward and she’d rather just get it over with with a ‘nobody.’
From the start Catherine Breillat’s film goes straight to the heart of her main cinematic interest–female sexuality. With all the French verve for sexuality on film, one can imagine Breillat’s movie being just another in a line of titillating French dramas, but her concerns are far less glamorous and much more considered than that. Breillat is, at heart, a provocateur trading in the exploration of where society treads all over the passions of women. It is savage and frustrated, and any sympathy or joy is short lived, always to be ripped away.
While on vacation Elena meets a young Italian law student Fernando, who immediately falls for her and begins to make advances. Elena, both flattered by him and afraid of his eagerness, sneaks him into Elena and Anaïs’ shared bedroom, leading to two lengthy nights where he tries to woo her with sweet talk and passive aggressive coercion, a mixture of boyhood machismo and outright masculine domination, slowly wearing her down while Anaïs pretends to be asleep.
The movie is overtly sympathetic towards Anaïs, keeping her sister’s secrets despite her sister lashing out at Anais as a way to cope with this sudden early blossoming of her sexuality. Anaïs keeps her opinions mostly to herself, but her long stares at the camera and her too-mature look at the world are both endearing and make her the only way in for the audience. Anaïs spends most of her time in the pool, in one scene floating back and forth while playacting scenes from saccharine, typical Hollywood style romances. But after Elena’s first time, Anaïs seems to go into a sympathetic funk, quiet and subdued, wearing the trauma Elena tries to hide.
The scenes of Elena and Fernando are sex scenes, to be sure, but there’s nothing erotic about them. Fernando has all the language of smooth-talking leading men in romances, with a Latin lover’s charm and boyish good looks. But the film is through Anaïs’ eyes, and here we see him as a panting buffoon. He gets what he wants, but only after debasing himself, revealing all his posturing for nothing more than an overeager libido. Even the sex scene itself has the good taste to look away, focusing on Anaïs’ face, staring into the camera as we see legs and unfocused, thrusting shapes in the background. It all becomes grotesque with a clinical enough lens.
Fernando leaves, as all summer loves do, but not without giving Elena a ring that he says is meant to signal their secret engagement. After he is gone, Fernando’s mother appears, demanding the ring back from Elena’s mother. Fernando’s mother is in a rage, saying that the ring was not his to give, but one he stole from her. In talking to Elena’s mother, she mentions that the ring was from a former conquest, and that all the rings have significance of men who have drifted through her life, the only token of her affection. Even other women would deny Elena her romantic dreams to keep their own.
Elena’s mother flies into a rage and insists on driving them home immediately to meet their already-departed father. The ride home is one of fear, Anaïs and Elena both still not coping well with all that has happened, Elena’s dreams destroyed, neither of them sure what kind of punishment will be meted out once they arrive home.
Their mother appears equally spooked, unable to relate to this conception of her child as a woman. Elena asks her mother through tears whether she ever had a first time, if she bothered to ask her father’s permission first. This gets a curt ‘This isn’t about me’ as their mother drives faster. There is no understanding, even when people could easily relate. The sins of a young girl are apparently too unforgivable.
The ride home is rainy and filled with scenes of the girls huddled in their seats light frightened animals as semi trucks loom about them and fence them in. The metaphors are not particularly subtle, but the whole thing has a sense of mounting dread, of a break from the lazy subjective world of the first two thirds of the movie into something much darker and more brutal.
Which leads to the sudden, abrupt conclusion of the movie. It’s so abrupt, and so horrible, that I feel hesitant to even summarize it. But it is a violation, an intrusion, of thoughtless male domination on the unsuspecting that is in keeping with Breillat’s themes. There is nothing that these women can do to save themselves in a world where they have no power. And all the safeguards and illusions they build up are simply dreams of civility, quickly torn down by someone who decides not to play by them.
Breillat is certainly a sensationalist, and I’m not going to claim that her movies are subtle or for the easily offended. She pulls no punches and in a film culture as generally male-dominated (oftentimes characterized as being openly misogynistic) as France, one can expect that maybe she has to holler simply to be heard. But her films are sharp and cut deep, and even if what is on the screen isn’t nice it is interesting and different than most cinema that deals with such topics. It is worthy simply by the unique perspective it offers, the fact that the films are so beautifully shot and carefully constructed are the treats of the form over the top of something important. And sometimes, importance takes precedence.
There are movies made to entertain and then there are movies meant to instruct. I say instruct not in the sense of education, but rather in the sense that one uncovers something outside of ones realm of experience. The power of cinematic narrative is the power to relate to the person the camera brings us to, to share time and thought with them, to enter a world that is unlike our own. Even when that world is painful and oppressive and unpleasant, or perhaps especially when it is, we are richer to have experienced it.