À ma soeur!
Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 27 October 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
I first saw Fat Girl upon its original US theatrical release in 2001. I had read little about it beforehand, but had a habit of going to see just about every new French movie that came along. I left the theater exhilarated, feeling I had just seen a very fresh work that had peeled some of the mold off of the way French movies had, for some time, been romanticizing the sexuality of youth. Three years on, after having watched it again upon its DVD release, I feel I had been fooled. In the intervening time, I had seen two other Catherine Breillat films: Romance, made before Fat Girl, and Sex is Comedy, made after and a commentary on the making of Fat Girl. I had also become acquainted with the work of filmmakers with whom Breillat is often compared: Gaspar Noé, Claire Denis, and Michael Haneke, as well as the work of other French women filmmakers who explore (or have explored) similar themes: Denis again, Agnès Varda, and Marina de Van, director of the peerless yet practically unseen In My Skin. I have also had the dubious fortune to see or read several interviews with Breillat. All of this has led me to this conclusion: Breillat is a fraud and a petty provocateur. I am convinced that she has no idea what her own films are about and she seems not to have an idea in her head before she even begins making them. In videotaped interviews included on the Criterion Collection DVD of Fat Girl, she admits to not preparing a script, to not explaining to her cast or crew the very basic meaning of the film, to not alerting her (child) actors when they would be appearing nude on screen, and to manipulating the actors emotionally in order to get the performance she wants. She is like a French version of Lars von Trier except the biggest star she can get to work for her is Rocco Siffredi.
But why did I enjoy the film the first time I watched it, untainted by knowledge of Breillat’s manipulative nature and unable to make comparisons with other, perhaps better explorations of similar themes, and why was I bored by it the second time around? Apart from the obvious answer that any shock value the film holds for the first-time viewer is spoiled on subsequent viewings, I would have to say that it is the fearlessness and utter strangeness of the performance of Anaïs Reboux, the titular fat girl, that makes this film worth watching more than once. To know that she was essentially a puppet controlled by her director during production makes her no less fascinating to watch and no less impressive in her interpretation of a very unlikable, unsympathetic, and plainly fucked-up little girl. Watching her mashing a banana split into her mouth with solipsistic glee, pretending to make jealous a pair of lovers represented by two swimming pool ladders, or simply lying in the surf like a sunning sea lion is to watch a performer totally at ease with her body and confident of her talent. To know that she gives such a performance in service to such a facile, puerile fable of lost virginity takes some of the polish off of her fine work, but it still makes Fat Girl the only Catherine Breillat film I know of that’s worth seeing.