Fat Girl remains a radical reflection on female sexuality and power

The Pingots are richly realised, realistically contradictory young women. Eventually, a worn-down Elena allows him to have anal sex with her. Breillat perfectly captures the prickly push-pull of sisterhood, and that unique teenage blend of naivety and filthy-mindedness. The conclusion’s extreme gendered violence lives on the same continuum as Fernando’s “seduction.” Both acts are the inevitable consequence of a misogynistic society. The final shot, a freeze-frame of Anaïs’ defiant face, offers determination not despair. Released in 2001, Fat Girl is Breillat at her brutal best. Her 1999 breakthrough Romance caused a stir with an erect penis, and she often works with pornographic performers and shows unsimulated sex. In his largely sympathetic review, Roger Ebert saw no issue in repeatedly describing a 15-year-old female character as a “sex pot”. As Anaïs pretends to sleep, Fernando coaxes the reluctant Elena into sex. Plodding along in unflattering brown coats, the girls are authentically unappealing, miles from a male-oriented Lolita fantasy. A cursory scan of reviews published around the film’s release reveals just how incisive Breillat’s observations were. There’s the mockery of Anaïs’ weight, the slut-shaming of Elena, a father threatening his daughter with a virginity test. At a time when mainstream discourse was rejecting broader definitions of sexual assault, Breillat clearly signals that this is not consensual. “In Fat Girl, Breillat planted a bomb – a subversive message of resistance that might only now be ready to explode.”

In hindsight, Fat Girl is littered with clues exposing the extent of the misogyny surrounding the Pingots. Elena and Anaïs live with this constant hum; if we don’t notice it immediately it’s only because we are already inured to that background noise in our own lives. Critics described a “clumsy romance” or “gradual seduction”, characterising Fernando as “a lover in a Latin farce”. The remainder of the film uncoils like a trap. Her work does not just contain sex, it is about sex, and how it shapes our lives. Fat Girl begins like many arthouse coming-of-age films: bored teens, sun-dappled setting, gentle Latin soundtrack. Fat Girl’s depiction of female sexuality anticipates similarly thorny recent explorations of the subject such as I May Destroy You, Promising Young Woman and Slalom. On rewatching, however, we can see how Breillat sets up this denouement. Most crucially, Breillat radically centres female subjectivity. Its final scenes are genuinely shocking on first viewing. Fat Girl remains a radical reflection on female sexuality and power

In her provocative 2001 film, Catherine Breillat holds a mirror to society before smashing it to pieces. Her 1976 directorial debut A Real Young Girl was itself widely censored due to graphic nudity (it was not released theatrically until 2000). For this reason, despite the inherent darkness of its narrative, Fat Girl does not feel bleak. We are no longer in a summer love fable; this is a horror movie. Breillat may be an outspoken critic of #MeToo, but she has always said that she sees Elena’s experience as an attack (“a mental rape”). But this is not your standard first love story; this holiday is unlikely to end in a harmless fumble and mild sunburn. Guys are sick!”). Slim 15-year-old Elena (Roxane Mesquida) is a romantic determined to lose her virginity to someone special. By the current legal definition, what happens to Elena is sexual assault, and contemporary viewers are likely to interpret it as such. Share this

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Rachel Pronger
@RachelPronger

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Controversy has always surrounded Catherine Breillat. Even before she began making films, her career was shaped by scandal: at 17 she published an erotic novel that was banned from under-eighteens by the French government, and during a brief acting stint she appeared in Bernardo Bertolucci’s infamous, allegedly exploitative   Last Tango in Paris. Back in 2001, however, few writing about Fat Girl recognised this. We soon move into darker territory. Elena whimpers in pain as Anaïs watches, inscrutable. Significantly, she shoots the scene with the hallmarks of horror: eerie sound design; creepy half-light; a cold, voyeuristic gaze. Late at night, Elena sneaks Fernando into the sisters’ bedroom. The label “porno-auteur” implies titillation, but watching a Breillat film is never a straightforwardly erotic experience. After what feels like eternity, the camera cuts away to Anaïs, awake and afraid. The sisters soon arrive at a café where Elena flirts outrageously with older Italian student Fernando (Libero De Rienzo). She demonstrates how daily injustices accumulate, how sexist language, beauty standards and stereotypes pave the way for violence. Breillat’s brilliance lies in her ability to hold a mirror to society before smashing it to pieces. This negotiation unfolds in unflinching long takes, the couple lying naked – fully exposed – before us. In a wonderfully excruciating scene, Fernando and Elena kiss extravagantly over their coffees, while Anaïs, faintly disgusted, tucks into a banana split. Published 13 Jun 2021

Share this Fernando uses every rhetorical trick to erode Elena’s resistance – declarations of love, accusations of looseness, threats that he’ll “find someone older”. This toxicity is there in the sisters’ instinctive rush to label each other whores, and it’s there abstractly in the looming lorries that threaten to push their car off the motorway. We first meet the Pingots as they walk, bickering, through a sleepy seaside resort. Chubby 12-year-old Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) insists that her first time will be with a nobody (“I don’t want a guy bragging he had me first. Like Michaela Coel, Emerald Fennell and Charlène Favier, Breillat doesn’t deal in binaries, nor does she create unimpeachable heroines who function purely as victims of male power. While Breillat has flitted between meta-comedy, existential erotica and sumptuous fantasy, her reputation has always rested on her preoccupation with female sexuality. This simple but shocking tale of two sisters, a summer holiday and a sexual awakening demonstrates how a frank discussion of sexuality can implicate a whole society. The Evening Standard was prurient and puritanical, invoking think-of-the-children moral outrage while limiting actual critique to creepy descriptions of Anaïs’ “fat little body”. In Fat Girl, Breillat planted a bomb – a subversive message of resistance that might only now be ready to explode.

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