The “Foreign Lens” is a column meant to represent international films and directors with distinct voices, showcasing their part of the world.
When I first started writing movie reviews, I didn’t think I could dislike a film and still recommend it. Films have always existed to challenge the mind and give us an escape. If we’re lucky, they also make us think. 2001’s Fat Girl was the first instance where I hated the film as a whole and intensely disliked the ending but, for some reason, was challenged enough by it to recommend it to anyone who wants to jump into watching foreign films. Movies of this genre can always be jarring, but they never stop being informative or a fascinating look at the world people live in.
Fat Girl or À ma sœur!, as it was originally titled in France, was written and directed by Catherine Breillat. It tells the complicated story of two sisters who are on vacation in the French countryside and consistently at loggerheads with each other. The younger sister wants to spend time with the older sister. The older sister is interested in boys, more specifically, a romance between herself and a law student.
The emotions on display for the youngest sister amount to bitterness and resentment. She eats through her pain because she’s not confident, which has made her chubby. These emotions exist because the younger sister would like to have the independence and freedom to do whatever she wants, and her older, more beautiful sister gets away with that throughout the entire film. The main character feels alone, unheard, and ignored. It is until the final few minutes where she actually gets the attention she has longed for, just not in the way she intended.
Anaïs Pingot (Anaïs Reboux) is twelve, chubby, and opinionated. Elena (Roxane Mesquida) is older, beautiful, and inquisitive but reserved. The fact that Elena meets a boy named Fernando (Libero De Rienzo) on holiday and throughout the film is eager to hook up with him seems like the classic romantic comedy thirst trap most people would be familiar with today. The problem is there is nothing funny about this movie.
Fat Girl a psychological drama about innocence and how it can be taken for granted, let alone taken away at any given time. The film is deeply focused on how the relationship between the two sisters fractures and breaks apart because the older sister pursues romance. Usually, there would be nothing interesting about this premise, but the movie engages the audience by focusing strictly on how Anaïs feels.
What would it feel like losing your sister to a complete stranger? Does this now make Anaïs have to be the responsible person within the family dynamic? These are both questions the director doesn’t even bother to ask because the focus is on how from day to day, Anaïs becomes more and more isolated from the people she cares about and, as a result, becomes angrier and more withdrawn. None of what’s happening seems fair to her, and she doesn’t feel important to her sister or even her parents.
Personally, I’ve never been so fascinated by watching someone feel so profoundly out of place in a time when they’re supposed to be having the most fun they can. Catherine Breillat does a phenomenal job continually drawing us in, making us ask questions, and making us angry with the older sister, based on her actions.
In terms of cinematography, Breillat’s movement of the camera is subtle. It follows the action rather than being stationary to it. This is the mark of a good director who knows when it’s the best possible time to just stay still and let things play out versus when it’s time to move. There is no dynamic, interesting color scheme to follow, giving the viewer hints at what’s coming later down the pipe. The whole experience is like being a fly on the wall of this family vacation and the conversations within those hotel rooms, or on those back roads. I feel like the director intended us to feel the intimacy of that time within that vacation to telegraph the intimacy that comes later.
The conversation about love, care, intimacy, and what the older sister wants in a partner is contrasted with what the younger sibling feels like would be a good fit for her is probably the most pivotal conversation throughout the entire film, and it’s completely thrown away. If you weren’t looking for it, you wouldn’t know how meaningful that conversation is. Fat Girl does a great job of giving us insight into the female psyche, especially for those of a younger age.
Fat Girl was willing to have these conversations, and that’s something I have to give the director credit for. No one seems to want to listen to those of a younger age because they feel like those children are not old enough to have an informed opinion about how they feel or what they want in life. Breillat takes the opposite approach and says everything these girls think and feel is important and then gives us the most shocking scene in the film to tell us why. It is brave of the director to take that risk to tell that kind of story, and I think that may be the only appeal of a film like this.
The scene that demonstrates the maturity of both the director and the actors is the most controversial thing I’ve ever seen on film. The only thing I can safely say without spoiling the film is that disaster strikes in the final 15 to 20 minutes, and it’s completely unexpected but somehow perfectly matches up with the story being told. The event and trauma that occurs is so unsettling that even I can’t make sense of whether that was a good decision or not. Regardless of the controversy caused by this story decision, it may be the one reason this film has stayed in my mind for as long as it has.
Controversial or not, Fat Girl is one of those films you have to see to believe. Young women always feel out of place, and this is both the perfect and most imperfect film about adolescence because it gives those people representation and allows them to feel like, no matter what they go through, they can be heard, and what they feel is important. Fat Girl is always worth recommending, even if it may be a most challenging watch for any age, regardless of gender. It’s one of those films that follows the mantra, “a story worth telling is better than not having any story to tell at all.” I encourage everyone who likes a more profound film with mature themes to give it a shot.
Fat Girl is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.