Review: Catherine Breillat Pulls a Chantal Akerman in Her Masteriece Fat Girl aka À Ma Soeur (2001)

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*Les Spoilèrs*
Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) and Elena (Roxane Mesquida) are two sisters on holiday with their parents in their vacation home in the French rivera. Anaïs is Elena’s younger sister. She is fat, complexed and angry. Boys don’t like her. Elena is beautiful, fun and more open. Boys definitely like her, especially this Italian guy Fernando (Libero De Rienzo) they randomly meet at a bar. Like every guy, Fernando has only one thing on his mind. Elena is not ready to lose her virginity, but Fernando gradually talks her into it. Did I mention that Anaïs and Elena share the same room? Awkward! 

Fat Girl (original title: À ma soeur, literally “To my sister”) is widely considered Catherine Breillat’s best film and with good reason. The movie practically encapsulates every theme, idea and reflection present in any of her films. On top of that Fat Girl is definitely also one of her most personal films. It’s unclear how much of the actual plot points in Fat Girl are directly lifted from Breillat’s personal experience and childhood memories, however the dynamic between the two sisters certainly feels authentic. The film is essentially about sibling rivalry, familial troubles and relationships.

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Breillat seems to identify with the fat girl, Anaïs, which also resembles the director physically. The relationship between the two sisters is not easy to put into words. In a way they both really envy and possibly hate each other. On the other hand however their natural, biological bond, the fact that their sisters, still counts for something. Anaïs defends Elena, even though she repeatedly makes fun of her weight problems and eating habits. Elena wants to share her feelings with Anaïs, even though she doesn’t think she’s mature enough to understand.

Elena feels morally judged by her sister. Though Anaïs is a virgin, it is not by choice. She would like to have a boyfriend just as much as her sister. She despises her sister for losing her virginity with the first guy she meets, but at the same time she is full of envy, because guys find her sexually desirable. Elena has no problem having sex basically in front of her sister, yet she is clearly not old or mature enough to stand up for her actions once she’s faced with the consequences. There is a certain naiveté to Elena’s character, who falls for Fernando’s charming, but empty words and promises.

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Of course Anaïs can see right through Fernando, but since she is less experienced with boys, her sister would never believe her. Anaïs finds herself in a tough situation, because she can’t stop her sister from making a mistake, but at the same time she hates that Elena even has a choice. In a way it’s possible that Anaïs permits that her sister gets hurt just to “get back at her”. However when she sees how much Elena suffers because of what Fernando did to her she feels guilty and remorseful. The only people that seem completely oblivious to what’s going on are the parents.

Anaïs and Elena’s father (Romain Goupil) is too busy thinking about his business to care for his daughters. Even while on holiday he doesn’t make an effort to connect with them. He even randomly lets Fernando into their home. Their mother (Arsinée Khanjian) is just as distracted. She completely underestimates the situation and only decides to play the mother card when it’s too late. Not only that, but she seems unnecessarily judgmental and punishing towards Elena’s actions. More than the father figure, her character is called out for being a hypocrite.

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By the end of the film all the characters get some serious punishment. A maniac kills Elena with an axe. Her mother is sexually abused and then killed. Anaïs gets off “lightly” and only ends up being raped. Why does this happen? I don’t know if I have a good answer for this. It is interesting however, that nothing bad happens to Fernando or the father. It is as if Breillat was saying that at the end of the day no matter what choice you make as a woman (regarding your sexuality) you are going to be wrong and viewed as guilty in one way or another, which will cause you pain and sufferance.

In a phallocentric society men always come out on top, one way or another. Women on the other hand, no matter how hard they try, whether they remain “pure” or if they embrace their sexual nature: They are going to be judged and there’s no way of getting it right either way. Maybe my reading of Fat Girl makes Breillat seem to much like she’s playing the victim, however it’s easy to see that she does have a point. Once again, she seems to view sex and relationships as a battle (maybe even war), where women are losers either way and men are just lying, horny pigs that get to do whatever they want.

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Whether my interpretation of what Breillat was trying to say is accurate or not is not that important at the end of the day. Fat Girl is a fantastic piece of filmmaking and a great achievement for the French auteur, totally deserving of being part of the prestigious Criterion Collection. Shot once again by her go-to cinematographer Giorgos Arvanitis the film looks immaculate and feels timeless. There isn’t much music during the film, but Laura Betti’s Social Climber is a memorable track. There are even some songs/lullabies written by Catherine Breillat herself and performed by Anaïs Reboux.

Speaking of Anaïs Reboux she is absolutely stellar as the ugly sister. Her repressed anger and envy dominate the picture and create the uncomfortable tone and mood of the film. Roxane Mesquida does a good job as well as the pretty sister, mostly because she really is pretty. Everyone else is great as well, but the film mostly rests on those two performances. While the film doesn’t have the same impact on a second viewing, it is still powerful and gut-wrenching, because Catherine Breillat unflinchingly and uncompromisingly depicts the story as she envisioned it.

8.5 out of 10

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