Afterword to Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl, October 4th, 2012

Fat Girl, October 4, 2012

Fat Girl, October 4, 2012

We saw that Fat Girl is a few days in the lives of two sisters: Anaïs, 12-years-old and chubby, and the attractive 15-year-old Elena. Anaïs is still trapped in her shell, says the actress who plays her, Anaïs Reboux (Breillat 14). This character in her shell, casually disagreeing with her sister on the topic in the first scene of the film, foreshadows its climax: “Personally, I want my first time to be with a boy I don’t love”; and the middle of the narrative: “Your first time should be with nobody.” A similar statement is made by Meggy in Ginger and Cinnamon [the first film we screened in this series]: “Your first time can’t be with someone you like.” Meggy likewise is confined to her virginal existence, barring her, so she says, from the cool crowd. While Ginger and Cinnamon reminds us of the innocence of youth and the merits of cultivating the virtues of patience and humility regarding your first sexual encounter, Fat Girl shows us just how violating that first time can be. This is however shockingly less so with Anais’ rape than with Elena’s seduction. Despite Elena’s confidence, no doubt in part to her younger sister’s lack thereof and her own good looks, Breillat seems to suggest that her sexual initiation may have been the more appalling.

Fat Girl handbill image

The initial shock of this film, assuming we have overcome the shock of hearing adolescents discuss their sexuality which begins it, after a playful and comic 20 minutes of dialogue, the real-time sex imprints on our memories. An obvious observation to be sure, and yet, not to be overlooked. Real-time sex, or real sex in other art films, causes discomfort in the spectator, especially in the theatre or in the company of others. What this image can accomplish is a breaking of the habitual homogeneity of an individual. Shock-images propel us out of what we are, what we have been ordered to be: in the case of watching a Breillat film, a prudish individual on the one hand and to consume an abundance of neutral and bland movies played at the local Cineplex on the other. Discomfort should, after its initial affect, make us burst into laughter. Why do these images make us squirm, why do we avert our gaze, why stare at the other spectators? Shock-images force us to confront given ethical imperatives, or notions of censorship and obscenity. And on that note Breillat offers us an answer to the aforementioned questions: “In the grace of nature, no person is ever obscene” (15). The real-time sex here is one example of just how the immediately sensational can be affirmed as a kind of ethical thinking, i.e., to think critically post-film viewing about the reasons for censorship and definitions of obscenity.

A second shock-image is fornication with a minor – in this case a rape -, which raises immediate concerns, as well as indicating something ironic in that Fernando wants to be a criminal lawyer. And third is the perspective of these sexual scenes. Much of what we see is from Anaïs’ point of view: her annoyance at having sleep disturbed firstly by the sounds of anal sex and in the second sexual scene her tears as Elena’s virginity is willingly handed over to Fernando and his sophistry (giving herself to him, claims Fernando, “would be a demonstrationof love”). But “Pain,” Breillat tells us, “is more strongly felt from the other’s perspective” (14). So we witness the sexual violations from Anaïs bed. We do not see what we want to see, as in a porno which shows close-ups that then neutralizes our experience of viewing otherwise private acts. Breillat is more concerned with a tone or feel; watching this film we want to be emotionally and physically moved, and this is why we perceive the event from Anaïs’ point of view or worse yet, with her back turned, witness her hearing the event while we watch the couple’s sex/rape take place in the background.

Shooting from Anaïs’ perspective the director sacrifices Elena for the spectator. Her anal rape and being cheated out of her virginity are horrifying to be sure, but in having the strength not to avert one’s eyes, unlike Anaïs, a bond is created among spectators who are, by viewing, the ones who commit the sacrificial deed. In sacrifice there is liberation in our refusal of films which do not propel us out of what we are. Elena’s sacrifice frees us from the fetters of a spectatorship lacking affect; courage, to face what frightens us, is a virtue Breillat fosters in us. She also provides a contestation: a challenge to the ethics of sentimentality, the need for a man to mask his desire by playing to the stereotypical emotions of a young girl (Breillat 10). We see Fernando use every trick and argument to coerce Elena. And if we watch many of Breillat’s films, this challenge of definitions of masculinity and femininity and sexual/emotional neuroses runs through them all. This is made all the more apparent when Fernando mentions to Elena, “You’ll always remember me.”

The affective shock of watching a film like Fat Girl is closer to the unconscious than reason, as the sensorial experience of the image cannot be rationalized in the same fashion as easy-to-digest movies. Fat Girl strikes something much deeper, perhaps the embarrassments, shame, and pain of our own adolescent sexuality; perhaps the transgressive sexuality we had once pursued or desire to someday. Portraying the “reality of feelings”, states Breillat, rather than an objective reality is how she sees herself making films. The imaginary, which is to say also the unconscious, needs to be given a more important place in film. She loathes the demand of filmmakers to neglect the ephemeral quality of images and stories (15). In the final scene of Fat Girl Anaïs emerges from the woods, escorted by cops, some hours after being violated by the murderer. The heads of the cops are not shown; no one cares about an individual cop – what stands out are the officers in white and “the plastic gloves used to protect the evidence” (ibid.). But the whole event that transpired before, the murderous man smashing the windshield of the vehicle, the killings and rape preempted by Elena’s wish that her mother would die, registers not in an objective reality but as part of an imaginary or dream-like world by its defiance of an expected conclusion to a homogeneous narrative. The interruption of our viewing experience by this unforeseeable finale shocks us in a way that a happy or structurally satisfying ending cannot. And this disruption is the final and most powerful affect in the film, as well as evidence for film-narrative’s affective force. We remember at the beginning Anaïs, shy and uncertain and sick of being a virgin, wished to rid of her virginity in an unemotional embrace. Rape, to be blunt, is her liberation, writes film scholar Ginette Vincendeau. And as Elena mentions to her younger sibling, it’s unfair that she always gets to do things two years sooner.

Breillat does not just give us an image or a series of images which are shocking; the narrative itself and crafting of characters through careful cinematographic practices and techniques anguishes and also challenges us to think about ethics and sexuality. Where the discussion leads following the film, if we are able to confront the affective charge of Fat Girl, is now up to us.

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