It’s impossible not to admire the level of craftsmanship that Catherine Breillat exhibits in her new film. “Fat Girl,” as it’s unfortunately called in English (the original French title, “A ma soeur,” simply means “To my sister”), deftly depicts, with just a few strokes and in a spare, unadorned style, the curious mixture of affection and animosity that exists between two siblings– svelte, lovely fifteen-year old Elena (Roxane Mesquida) and chubby, dour twelve-year old Anais (Anais Reboux). It characterizes the girls beautifully–the older flirtatious yet nervous about sex, and the younger obsessed with thoughts of her own worthlessness and the prospect of death; and the director draws almost painfully real performances from both of her stars. The long, delicate, almost excruciatingly detailed sequences of Elena’s seduction by an older boy, an Italian law student named Fernando (Libero de Rienzo), are unquestionably powerful, if voyeuristic, and– given the girl’s age–deeply unsettling. And in its final reel, the picture builds a mood of dark foreboding through the simplest of means before plunging us into a denouement cannily calculated to shock our socks off–and succeeding. (It would be unfair to the filmmaker to be too specific about the turn the plot takes; suffice it to say that it’s more horrible than anything you might expect.)
Yet in spite of the fact that it’s almost impossible to take your eyes from “Fat Girl,” the film ultimately proves disturbingly obvious. The wealth of careful observation, incisive writing, expertly-gauged cinematography and sharp editing is put at the service of a extraordinarily simplistic message that effectively equates sex with violence, suggesting in effect that the one is the equivalent of the other–or that the first inevitably involves the second. (The picture is thus a logical complement to Breillat’s incredibly explicit, ironically titled “Romance” of 1999, which detailed a young woman’s desultory experimentation in the most extreme forms of sexual mortification.) As such, though it’s dressed in impressive cinematic garb, at heart the film isn’t appreciably deeper than slasher flicks like “Friday the 13th,” which implied that a loss of virginity would inevitably have dire results.
That’s a comparison, of course, that cheapens what the writer-director is attempting, or at least is too dismissive of the sincerity of her brutally feminist point of view. Yet it’s not entirely unfair. Since “Fat Girl” is notable for its uncompromising fidelity to its maker’s vision, one has to take into account what that vision entails. The picture is beautifully acted by its three young leads (unfortunately, the performances by the older members of the cast–Arsinee Khanjian and Ronain Goupil as the girls’ parents and Laura Betti as Fernando’s mother–are indifferent at best), and utterly compelling as a purely cinematic effort. But it’s also, in the final analysis, a rather crude didactic exercise; and while its abrupt ending unflinchingly fulfills its maker’s intent (and can’t help but shake the viewer up), in retrospect it seems crassly manipulative. If you choose to see “Fat Girl,” be prepared to be impressed, shocked, entranced and, in the end, stunned. But also expect to leave unsatisfied.