If there’s a more devastating film focused on the anticipatory anxiety of losing one’s virginity out there than this, I defy anybody to name it. Fat Girl, a 2001 study of teenage alienation and sexual coming-of-age from French filmmaker Catherine Breillat, is a film that gives the impression that it’s all on the surface, but then yanks the rug from underneath the viewer’s toes in its final five minutes of ultra-shock, revealing a hidden context to nearly every line of dialogue from the first scene onward. A vastly impressive feat, one that has divided film lovers while conquering those clearest of thought.
Fat Girl (the English translation of A Ma Soeur!) incubates in the brain once the last freeze-framed close-up of its titular character hits. Once a watcher’s jaw is lifted off the floor, endless analysis of the film’s themes and seemingly, yet not at all, random conclusion are inevitable.
The title refers to Anais Pingot (Anais Reboux, giving a heart-aching performance), a 12-year-old chubber riddled with insecurity, mostly stemming from having to live with her much thinner and desireable older sister, barely-16-year-old Elena (Roxanne Mesquida, a dead ringer for Juno/The Wackness charmer Olivia Thirlby). While on a beach vacation with their cold, distant parents, the French siblings meet Fernando, a college-aged law student from Rome. Suave and seductive, Fernando kicks winning game to Elena, much to the envy of Anais.
After Fernando meets Elena’s parents over a nice dinner, Fat Girl falls comfortably into a hypnotic groove. Fernando’s unwavering attempt to slide into virgin Elena’s panties is stretched out into an extended, 15-minute sequence that feels like the ultimate voyeurism. No edits, zero skipping ahead. We’re in bed with the jailbait couple, paying witness to Fernando’s increasingly pathetic (and graphic) persuasion over the curious and scared elder Pingot sister. Breillat could be accused of kiddie porn, but then taht’d be missing the entire point of Fat Girl. The movie is all about the sexual desires, albeit destructive, of the not-yet-mature. Just examine Breillat’s decision to zoom in on Anais’ face as Fernando forcefully goes backdoor on Elena. Anais is both mesmerized and disgusted, similar to how Breillat must want the audience to feel.
Overweight and self-loathing, Anais is the film’s frontseat driver. Breillat’s handling of her sexual awakening is crazily fascinating; the film’s opener centers on Anais singing a haunting lullaby to herself, lyrics discussing her wish of some day finding a lover, no matter what the cost. As Elena’s cherry-popping journey unfolds, Anais’ is there every step of the way, merely feet away, eyes flooded with tears, as Fernando takes Elena’s V-card. Clearly, Anais longs for her own physical introduction to sex, so much so that it pains her to see her sister achieve the milestone. Elena always gets the good stuff; Anais, forever on the short end of life’s stick. All that Anais wants is to be loved and desired like Elena constantly is; she’ll even turn pool accessories into imaginary suitors dueling for her heart, as displayed in a tender pool scene.
Breillat paints the stark contrast between the two sisters with delicate nuance, epitomized during a heart-to-heart in front of a bathroom mirror. “Nobody would even know we were sisters,” Elena comments, looking at their reflections, to which Anais counters, “We hate each other because we were raised as rivals.” The irony is, the sisters share a genuine love for one another, shown in a following moment of childhood memory-exchanging while cuddling together in bed. Their affections are mutual, but that does little to form any sort of commonality. The biggest split of opinion, as Breillat presents their duality, is their differing takes on “the first time.” Elena wants her’s to be with a man she loves (meaning Fernando, in her naive eyes); Anais, however, thinks that “the first time should be with a nobody.” Even though she “loves” Fernando, Elena would prefer to hold onto her virginity; Anais is itching to tear her’s apart.
And boy does she. The final minutes of Fat Girl fulfill Anais’ wishes to an intensely morbid degree. The circular completion of the film’s narrative is hard to grasp initially, though. Fat Girl‘s drastic tonal shift sets in as the girls’ bitch-of-a-mother ends their vacation early after she’d informed of Elena’s illegal sexual encounter. The three Pingot women hop into the family ride and head home, their highway road trip paced and shot with such a suffocating air of menace by Breillat that you’ll slip into a dominant paranoia. Name any “scary road trip” movie, such as The Hitcher of Joy Ride, and know that these ten minutes in Fat Girl bitchslap all other drive-y suspense cinema around. The basic act of highway lane-changing pierces like a slasher’s machete.
The three Pingot women talk very little on this ride, saddled with a three-way contempt. The resulting quiet only adds to the increasing dread. You know something abnormally terrible is about to happen, it’s just a matter of when Breillat will take the safety off. Once she does, it becomes obvious that she’s been operating a bazooka rather than a handgun. Fat Girl isn’t groundbreaking in its last-second sucker punch—–many jolting, unforeseen endings in cinematic history have hit their marks square-on, from Carrie to Bonnie & Clyde to Easy Rider.
Well, kiddies, Fat Girl has all their numbers. The sudden left turn into nightmareland is owed entirely to some of the worst parenting ever depicted in a feature film. The girls’ mother grows tired from Breillat’s exhaustive highway scenes, so she parks their car (sideways, I might add) in a seedy-looking parking lot next to even-seedier-looking woods. And then the unfit mother instantly conks out, leaving her two underaged daughters unprotected. Allowing a homicidal maniac to smash their windshield with a mini-ax, swing said mini-ax into passenger-seated Elena’s forehead before dropping the weapon to strangle her mother. Anais, wide awake for the whole bloody show, promptly pisses herself, and then exits the vehicle slowly, backing slowly on foot into the woods, where she willfully submits to the now-horny, apparently-chubby-chasing madman. Loss of virginity through messy, sadistic rape.
At first, this hardly-five-minute scene screams “Where the fuck did that just come from?!” All of Breillat’s highway imagery promised something bad, yes, but nothing that heinous. Sit back for a second, however, and the extremity of Anais’ family’s slaughter fits totally snug. Replay that creepy lullaby from the film’s opening scene in your mental boombox, the one about wanting a lover of any kind at any cost. Even a grizzly rapist who just annihilated your mother and sister in cold blood, right before your stunned eyes.
As the police take Anais away from the crime scene, she tells the officers that she wasn’t raped. “Don’t believe me if you don’t want to,” she says, bluntly. As if the deaths of her family were just a dream of her’s. Only, one that’s come true, seen by the police blockade and Elena’s split-open skull that Breillat gratuitously pans above in slo-mo.
Not a dream at all, really. Fat Girl‘s ending is everything that Anais had been wishing for since the opening credits. Her first sexual experience, by any means, necessary, with a total “nobody.” Just some derelict that killed his way into her crotch.
Take from that what you will. In these eyes, Breillat has delivered one of the most scarring depictions of a teenager’s overwhelming anticipation of sex ever seen. She just went about it in an enormously unconventional, genre-blurring, quiet-to-explosive manner. Exactly as any daring filmmaker should.