Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Harsh Harshness of Fat Girl

by Cait Cannon
A very tough, honest pill to swallow. For those that need it, this review comes with a trigger warning.

I watched Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl a week ago. And for a week I’ve yet to shake the hold it has on me. The aftertaste of this film will be one that won’t be easily cleansed. Like raw onions. Or curry. Or a shot of whiskey...quickly chased by a shot of vodka. Or two. And, despite the heaviness this movie’s left me with, I’m not really sure if I want the flavor to go away just yet. For better or worse, we all have movies that burn themselves into our memory. Before Fat Girl, the opening sequence to Upstream Color was something I could watch once a week, if not more often. The moment the thief talks about his face being the same material of the sun...when Kris turns away, silhouetted in his sunny rays, squinting her eyes in discomfort...I still get goosebumps. And, as this is a movie blog for movie lovers, I’m sure you all echo these same feelings about many movies.

Breillat’s movie is honest from the beginning. And by honest, I mean brutal. If Thirteen is revered as a teenage coming of age story without the sugar coating...Fat Girl coats its story in battery acid and razor wire. Breillat cuts through the BS of a normal coming of age and exaggerates—to a surreal degree—the KO punch: sexuality. She precisely taps into the nuances of self hatred of adolescence, simultaneously criticizing male dominance and the insidious way it presents itself as not just acceptable, but normal. We’re so sensitively placed into the shoes of pre-teen Anais that it’s near impossible to walk away from the film without them...we end up sort of trapped in her story, forced to question what we expect from a film and what we consider transgressive material.
In a dreary seaside town we follow the two sisters, Anais (12) and Elena (15), as they explore, relax by the pool, and—like most sisters—argue. Elena is hyper critical of her younger sister—embarrassed by her snacking and general 12-year old shenanigans. Elena perfectly exemplifies the 15 year old experience—she’s trying her hand at adulthood, using the backdrop of this vacation to test the limits of her independence. She meets Fernando at a cafe and the two are immediately physically intimate—all the while, Anais bears witness. Borrowing heavily from Chantal Akerman, Breillat lets us hang on every action and awkward moment as though each one were a pivotal to the plot. This is most obvious in her treatment of the two predominant sex scenes of the movie. The first lasts a whopping 25 minutes, none of which are even remotely nice to look at. We watch Fernando as he tries to convince Elena of his love, and how he must show that love through physical intimacy. During these awkward moments, Anais almost never slips out of frame. Her body is used a as a compositional element as well as a message to the viewer that, hey, a 12-year old girl is watching this all play out. Through this, we’re privy not just to the male gaze, but Anais’s absorption of it. She’s learning and living through her sister’s experiences. She’s able to critique more harshly, sure, but nonetheless, we understand that this sexual act is happening—in part—to the both of them.

We as movie watchers never really get to see men’s romantic conquests as anything other than heroic. Convincing a girl to sleep with you is sort of normal in movies, and therefore life as well. Breillat mercilessly reframes this conversation through the eyes of a preteen girl. Anais isn’t really shown as a victim, necessarily, but more so a keen observer of heterosexual dynamics. We later watch her playing in the pool, explaining to an imaginary lover that she would prefer losing her virginity to someone she doesn’t know or love. It’s icey...we have these extremely cold and jaded opinions about relationships being expressed to us by a child. This, cut with long shots of Anais looking directly into the camera, begin to reshape this tale into the horror movie it really is.
When Anais’ and Elena’s parents discover what happened between Elena and Fernando, the vacation is understandably cut short. Instead of focusing on the drama or the moments of anger, Breillat expertly tunes into the cold, unforgiving silence and tension between the girls and their mother. For a good quarter of the film we watch their drive home, cuing into each character’s emotions: The mother, upset, chain-smoking, shakey. Elena, melodramatic, tearful, angry. And Anais, indifferent, cold, and hungry.

*** This next part contains spoilers, so if you want to watch, do so, maybe grab a cup of chamomile tea, and keep reading ***

After a long agonizing day on the road, the three pull off at a gas station. We watch them take turns sighing, shifting in their seats, and finally falling asleep. This break was much needed for the viewer as well—Breillat knows exactly what she is doing by building and building this tension before giving us a break. She wants us to let our guard down, to feel as though maybe the worst has passed. But as Hamlet famously said, “Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.” And boy...does it get worse. Suddenly, we watch helplessly as a man breaks the windshield of the car, ax Elena in the head, strangle the mother and rape Anais. This last scene lasts maybe five minutes in total, and it feels like it’s from an entirely different film. As Anais is escorted away by policemen, we see the evidence of the attack in cool daylight. She’s wrestling away from the cops, repeating to them (and us) that she wasn’t raped. Up until this point, Breillat has conditioned us to almost disengage to the story; we’ve been sort of numb and cold to everything that has happened and this last scene just knocks you off your feet.
Understandably, dear reader, this movie took a lot out of me. It’s uncommon for me to be so shocked or this unmoored while watching a film...but this ending really did it. I think it took a good few minutes...and a lot of Rick and Morty afterwards to help me pick my jaw off the floor. But it also had me asking so much. Did Anais’ denial of what happened to her only exist because of Elena and Fernando’s romantic dynamic? Was this movie exaggerating the truth...or simply reporting it? Could the loss of innocence be less of an action and more of a process? I don’t really have any of the answers. And I’m sure Breillat doesn’t either.

I struggled writing this review for a couple reasons, one being I have a hard time being this much of a bummer and asking you all to read it, and two, it’s such a masterful combination of pacing, attention to detail, and emotional intelligence that I was really intimidated to comment on it at all. This movie is so much. Sad? Sure. Beautiful? Also. Fucked up? Beyond belief. But as all of these facets (and the many more this movie has) are so purposefully crafted and expertly cutting, it’s importance is undeniable.

20 comments:

  1. Another excellent piece, Cait and another great choice to write about. I saw this a long time ago but I still remember the scene in the bedroom being so uncomfortable and relentless that I was squirming in my chair.

    Oh and this - "the opening sequence to Upstream Color was something I could watch once a week, if not more often." Yes! Upstream is one of my top 20 movies of all time. Really looking forward to Carruth's new film.

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    1. I'm thinking of reviewing his stuff now because it's just so damn great. He didn't direct this, but I like this short he was in not too long ago :
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPwYtQU5LoI

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    2. Should be easy enough cause unfortunately there's not much to review! Thanks for this link. I dug it.

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  2. "For those that need it, this review comes with a trigger warning" - Tripe

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    1. I generally ignore 'anonymous' posts, but seeing as this is Cait's second consecutive piece with some cowardly bullshit like this I feel like there's a disturbing trend happening. I guess some garbage people just don't want girls writing about movies on the internet.

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    2. Those garbage people can just fuck right off.
      Cait's pieces have all been well-written, thoughtful works that I (and other, less cowardly comments show I am far from alone) find not just useful but insightful & illuminating.

      I'm not going to let that sort of shit keep me from enjoying these. I hope such rancid gorilla feces posing as people go elsewhere and take their negative fuckery with them.

      Keep up the fine work, Cait.

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    3. Ha - this guy doesn't realize he's stumbled into an enclave of proud feminist SJW's who eat dickheads like him for breakfast. I can't even get mad at him really - if he's so powerless in the real world to be threatened by the notion of trigger warnings, what power could he possibly have here?

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    4. Yep...dodo heads roam freely across the wild plains of the interwebs trying to disturb the natural order of the genuinely awesome people who are just trying to enjoy each other's awesomeness. It dumbfounds me that there are SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO many of these dodo heads out there that feel the need to do this. Even when someone posts something relatively non-consequential (anything that just kind of stirs things up that's not on the larger serious level like harassment or death threats) and does so just to troll, I have never been able to even come close to understanding what could possibly be enjoyable about it, which is a good thing of course but makes me sad that there are people who somehow think it is "fun" to get people riled up. Anyway...it feels like a story as old as time at this point. Strange, strange, strange dodo heads.

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    5. Same here. That kind of trolling is set to turbo on YouTube.

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    6. Cait you seem to enjoy movies with deep and profound themes. I do not, movies serve a different purpose in my life. However, your columns expose me to your intellect/passion and gives me a glimpse into a deeper and interesting cinema perspective. I appreciate and thank you for that . I don't think I'll ever watch this movie because I might just kill myself after watching it but I loved the review...fuck couldn't stop thinking about a movie I've never watched. I do think the response to the troll is unnecessary, Cait can take care of herself...but i suppose it's nice to know that people care.

      P.S. Sol well said.

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  3. I just watched this for the first time about a month ago myself. Powerful is a word that definitely works well for this film. It's strange because I could see this film easily being described as "slow" or "boring" by a lot of...I don't know how to say it nicely "average, everyday mouthbreathers"...but for me it immediately grabbed me and wouldn't let go until it shook the life from me. You mention it in the article but that whole drawn out driving sequence is perfect!! The way the tension builds and releases more than once throughout this section (i.e. building tension while swerving in and out of traffic and dodging semi's, then relieving some tension while they eat at a gas station, then building more tension with more erratic driving) is nothing short of amazing and should be seen by any horror/thriller/suspense filmmaker looking to see how it is done! Then you get to the rest stop and finally feel even more at ease because you think that their mother is finally going to rest and compose herself for the rest of the trip. NOPE...one of the all-time greatest out of left field scenes happens and then you're left with one of the best freeze-frame ending shots of Anais.

    As for Upstream Color I think I need to re-watch it a few times. I was a HUGE Primer fan when it came out and I watched it over and over and pushed it onto anyone that would listen to me. It just immediately worked for me! My first viewing of Upstream Color wasn't perfect though. I hadn't read much about it and wasn't sure what I was getting into and obviously it can be a little dense. It didn't have that immediate pull on me even though I knew that it was amazing on a purely technical level and so I thought I would give it a few more viewings later on in order to see if it could grow on me. One film leads to another and with so many things on my watchlist that is constantly growing everyday I just haven't gotten around to re-watching it. That might need to change today though.

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  4. I sincerely appreciate the emotional roller coaster that brought us this piece.

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  5. This sounds really good (in a challenging, squirmy kind of way) I'll definitely check it out soon - great review!

    And thanks for the Upstream Color (or Upstream Colour as we call it in Canada) reminder - really need to see that again - maybe I'll make it a Feel-Weird Double Feature!

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  7. I am adding to the chorus of voices, but it just proves why we need a voice like yours Cait. I have really enjoyed your reviews, always funny and insightful. This was a movie I had not come across (the rock I live under doesn't get all the channels), but after reading it I do want to seek it out. Thank you

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  8. Watched the movie last night - appreciate your review even more now (and was finally able to read past the spoiler warning) - it's really a difficult movie to explain my feelings about. I mean, holy god, it made me feel so many (sometimes conflicting) things. Sad for how mean Anais' whole family is to her but then I admire how well she takes it and how she has this weird sort of confidence. And things are almost funny and in a different movie might be played for laughs but it's so real and stark that I don't even think I really smiled the whole time I was watching it. And the scene where Romeo "seduces" Elena that just goes on and on (not in a boring way) with lots of really long takes - movies don't ever give these kinds of scenes so much time to breath - I've never been actively rooting for a girl not to have sex with a guy for SOOO long and had that be what the tension of a scene revolves around. And then the ending - I think it helped that I knew I should be bracing for impact (literally for much of it - they focus on the harrowing traffic so much) but I wasn't really prepared for what happened. It's like the whole time you feel like you're watching a horror movie of sorts and then it suddenly truly becomes one. Like you, jaw on the floor, just wow.

    Given my usual taste in movies and the sorta general vibe of this one I was surprised by how never bored I was. If I wasn't actively captivated by what was happening on screen I was thinking about adolescent sexuality and what that means and meant for me and how society deals with it in general and family and body image and all sorts of stuff. It feels wrong to say I "loved" it but in a weird way I kinda did. I watched a brief making-of featurette when I was finished and the director said something like, "When the movie is over I want the viewer to feel uneasy and happy" and I'd have to say mission accomplished. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention, Cait! As I was watching it I thought that might be a sarcastic kind of thank you but I really mean it!

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    1. So glad to read what you think!
      I don't think I caught on to the Anais' family's meanness because growing up in a heavier body, I experienced much of these same things. Like it's so normal for girls to not really have ownership over their own bodies, I think more so than boys (maybe?). And YES I thought they'd get into a crash or something as well for the entire last third of the movie!

      Send the making of featurette if you've still got the link, I'd LOVE to see it! I'm glad you had more or less the same reaction as I did: I love the movie but damn....what a hard viewing experience.

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    2. Yeah, the father seems openly disgusted/contemptuous towards her and they all make little snarky remarks like she can't be too upset she's still got her appetite and stuff like that. I've had my own ups and downs with weight and was at times a chubby kid but I was never made to feel that bad about it - "such a big boy!" comes off more like a compliment - having my own self-consciousness about it though, I've always been aware of that kind of thing seeming a lot harder on girls so yeah, generally, no maybes about it.

      No link for the featurette unfortunately - it was on the blu-ray. Just tried to find a YouTube link or something but no luck.

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