Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reading Film: Catherine Breillat's "Fat Girl"

Hot on the heels of completely creeping myself out by watching Lars Von Trier's latest offering The Antichrist, I've recently started on the films of French provocateur Catherine Breillat. Why? Because my girlfriend is out of town, I'm bored, and apparently I'm a masochist.

So far, I'm undecided on Breillat. Since the late 80's she's been widely known for her filmic explorations of sexuality, but I often can't tell to what extent these are intelligent. Watching interviews, one gets the impression that she's read a smattering of everything philosophical and literary, and tries to bring it all to her craft. The result is often kind of intellectually sloppy and weak, or at least leaves me wanting more - Cf. her 2004 film Anatomy of Hell, which is basically a creation myth via an unholy wedding of the ideas of Georges Bataille and Doris Lessing. Perhaps these jaded eyes have just seen too much by way of explicit genital closeups and menses play over pretentious, deconstructive-mythical dialogue. But that's another story; perhaps that's even another blog altogether. But I digress.

Poking fun aside, I do recommend Breillat's 2001 film Fat Girl. Not for the weak of heart, but quite an honest and well-executed depiction of adolescent sexuality and coming of age. Sisters Elena (Roxane Mesquida) and Anais (Anais Reboux) vacation with their parents in a summer villa. Elena is fifteen and gets the boys' attention, whereas Anais is thirteen and must look on jealously / judgingly. Anais is the family's "symptom bearer" - clearly there is dysfunction in the family at some level, and Anais takes it upon herself by overeating. Elena is seduced by another vacationer, a slick law student, and Anais is there to witness it all (in some particularly intense scenes, we see her pretending to sleep as her sister, in bed with the law student on the other side of the room, negotiates losing her virginity). One seduction scene in particular, masterfully acted, single-shot and several minutes long, will have virtually any male viewer scanning himself uncomfortably. Breillat is playing here, tongue in cheek, with the guilt of any man who has ever pulled such atrocious and transparently lame lines and tactics as Elena's suitor. Her brilliance is to do it in such a way that virtually any man might feel implicated.

The sisters make an unusual pair. Whereas Elena has idealistic illusions about where her first affair is going, Anais is quite depressive and coldly logical - one might say, French-existentialist - about the prospects of losing her virginity. As Breillat herself suggests, Anais eats to ward off such attentions as Elena receives, trying to preserve a protective bubble of authenticity. This builds up to the film's ending, which is uncompromisingly brutal and still, somehow, unexpected. I had to watch it twice just to make sure it had really happened.

The film leaves several questions hanging. But if you check out the director interviews on the Criterion Collection DVD, be forewarned. Breillat's explanations are only partly illuminating; the rest of the time they're actually obfuscating. Here we have something like the French, female answer to Von Trier - an enfant terrible whose pose as an artiste vacillates between irony and cringe-worthy earnestness.

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