Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Anais is fat. Her sister, Elena, is a teenage beauty. While on vacation with their parents, Anais tags along with Elena as she explores the dreary seaside town. Elena meets Fernando, an Italian law student, who seduces her with promises of love, and the ever-watchful Anais bears witness to the corruption of her sister’s innocence. Precise and uncompromising, Catherine Breilat’s Fat Girl is a bold dissection of sibling rivalry and female adolescent sexuality from one of contemporary cinema’s most controversial directors.
À ma soeur 8.0
eyelights: Anaïs Reboux. the intimate moments between characters. the script.
eyesores: the ending.
I knew very little about Catherine Breillat when I first saw ‘À ma soeur’. I had seen ’36 fillette’, but hadn’t thought much of it. In fact, I didn’t even know that the two were related; I recall thinking that ‘À ma soeur’ was Breillat’s first film, that this was a debut effort.
Catherine Breillat had written and directed her first motion picture way back in 1976, some 25 years ago, with ‘Une vraie jeune fille‘. What made this one stand out was that it had been released by Criterion, a high standard in DVD releasing. I was on a hunt for all the Criterion DVDs that my local library had and eventually got my hands on ‘À ma soeur’.
I was bowled over by it: ‘À ma soeur’ was a realistic look at teen sexuality, but it was also kind of troubling – not for the sexuality itself, but because of the discomfort that is present between the characters and with the choices that they make. It felt transgressive to be privy to such intimate moments. And yet, there is no way to stop watching this superbly-made picture.
With Anaïs Reboux as the centrifugal force, ‘À ma soeur’ is utterly compelling. While there are officially three leads, Anaïs is unforgettable, irreplaceable, immovable. She is the emotional centre of the picture: even when the camera settles on other characters, we are always considering her, now off-camera.
‘À ma soeur’ begins and ends with her, further cementing our connection to this 13 year-old girl. In her first moments, she is shown singing a heart-wrenching song of longing; even at this young an age, Anaïs wants to be loved – and so desperately, that she would choose anyone or anything who would love her back.
Later, she sings another interpretation of this song while play-acting romantic exchanges in the pool… by herself. One can’t help but feel for her, resorting to a self-created fantasy to feel some sort of affection because her familial relations are so tense and because she is considered too young and unattractive to be a draw.
This is reflected in another song that she sings, which expresses the deep angst that she feels. In this song, called “J’ai mis mon coeur à pourrir”, she talks about leaving her heart out on the window sill for it to rot, for the crows to come eat – as depressing a thought as one can get. And this from the mind of a young girl.
Anaïs clearly has self-esteem issues, and one wishes that we could help her; she is only just beginning her journey as an adult and she is stumbling in the dark. She comforts herself via emotional eating, with her mother dismissing her obesity as being hormonal, and her elder sister, Elena, reinforcing it by feeding her when she’s feeling low.
It’s obvious that their (in)actions will do no good: what Anaïs needs is affection and security, emotional anchors.
Catherine Breillat has always expressed matters of the heart and loins from a female perspective, and has certainly not shied away from showing us a teenaged perspective. In ‘À ma soeur’ she shows us possibly the darkest and most moving of them all, via this young teen who feels powerless to change her situation, but wishes she could.
Her relationship with Elena is key to the tortured dynamics within her. Because Elena is “the pretty one”, Anaïs has to sit in the shadows while she effortlessly picks up men and explores her newly-found sexuality. Anaïs is both jealous and contemptuous of her sister’s casual ways, castigating her for being a “slut’.
Meanwhile, Elena consistently pokes fun at Anaïs, telling she’s a pig and that no one could possibly be attracted to her or desire her. She also expresses complete disgust almost every time Anaïs eats – which is often, and in abundance. At one point, Elena even refuses to eat her own meal out of revulsion.
There is love between the sisters nonetheless. At one point, we are privy to a very private moment between the two as they discuss their bond and how hard they can be on each other. There is a moment of acknowledgement between the two, as they also reminisce together. It’s incredibly real and very private; we shouldn’t be watching.
And yet they betray each other frequently. Right at the onset, after Elena meets Fernando, she ditches her sister to drive around in his car, making her wait at their community’s gate for her return. Meanwhile, Anaïs turns her back on Elena when she gets in trouble with their mom, decrying the unfairness of getting in trouble when she didn’t do anything.
It’s all typical kids behaviour, though, and Breillat shows it to us truthfully, with no judgement or dramatic embellishment. In an interview, she said that there was a similar dynamic between her and her own sister and that the film (which, properly translated, means “For my sister!”) caused a rift between them that took years to heal.
I’m speculating here, but it’s possible that this was caused by her portrayal of Elena’s somewhat graphic sexual encounters, which were controversial enough that ‘À ma soeur’ was initially banned in Ontario – which is not surprising, given that they show uncomfortably realistic encounters between a 15 year-old teenaged girl and her college-aged lover.
It’s quite clear from the start that Fernando is playing with Elena’s emotions and insecurities to get her to have sex with him. This is something hardly alien to many young women, but it was uncomfortable to watch. When he tells her that he loves her, even though they only barely met, we know something’s up. We know, but she doesn’t.
Then it gets more complicated.
Eventually, Fernando plays the usual cards such as accusing her of being a tease, telling her that it’s her fault that he’s in a state, telling her that intercourse would be a proof of her love for him, that only he would accept her inexperience, her virginity, that he would have to go elsewhere if she didn’t take care of him, …etc.
She continues to refuse, but he persists, telling her that it wouldn’t count if they had anal sex instead, that she could continue to say that she is virgin, that all the girls do this, and, again, that this would be a proof of love. By this point, she is relieved to have a way out, to be able to “protect” her virginity, and relents.
This is incredibly uncomfortable to watch, not just because of the outcome (which means that this poor young thing has been manipulated into giving in well before she was ready), not just because because we’re intruding on a dialogue between lovers, but because Anaïs is there the whole time, in her bed, pretending to sleep.
That’s right: Anaïs is there the whole damned time, listening in and seeing her sister falling for Fernando’s games, but feeling unable to intervene. This paralysis would later torture her when she realizes that her sister’s virginity will be lost simply because neither of them were able to deflect Fernando’s advances.
These sequences are what I remembered most from the film the first time around, some ten years ago. In fact, I thought that most of the film consisted of this bed-ridden coercion – likely, because watching this is so intense, given that it’s as though we were in the room with them. It’s not exactly from Anaïs’ perspective, but almost.
Breillat manages to make the scenes palatable by showing them as realistic but tender. She didn’t show them as horrifying moments in these girls’ lives, and actually embraced the lovers with her lens as they discussed all matters of love and sex together in bed, her camera sweeping over them gently, like a breeze, a caress.
If anything, one gets the impression that Breillat sympathizes with the two girls. This is what I felt as well, even though I can’t possibly know what it is like for a teenage girl to be in such a position. But I have heard enough stories and read enough about sexuality to know that this is not entirely uncommon, so I can’t help but empathize.
One of the biggest challenges that ‘À ma soeur’ poses is likely cultural, in that this is a French film, based on French morals, based on the experiences of French teenagers. It may be jarring for anyone who have a more Anglo-Saxon perspective, rooted in traditional British or North American values, which tend to be slightly conservative.
Case-in-point, the way that the parents accept Fernando in their midst, even though he is clearly much older. I can see this being much more acceptable in Europe than in North America, where the young man would be considered a predator and would be tarred and feathered before he even had a chance to explain himself. In this film, the parents have him over for dinner and approve of him.
I was pleasantly surprised to find Arsinée Khanjian in the role of the mother. Khanjian, who is a staple of Canadian cinema, in particular in partner Atom Egoyan’s films, was excellent as the self-absorbed mom who treats her youngest with a certain amount of contempt. In particular, I was impressed with her near-perfect French accent, a nice touch.
The rest of the cast was also very good, but Anaïs Reboux was the standout. A non-actress, Reboux was found by Breillat in a McDonald’s. She insisted on giving her a screen test and, after a failed first one, got the performance she needed from Reboux and picked her as one of the leads in ‘À ma soeur’, even naming the character after her.
Anaïs is brilliant. It’s probably not just one of the finest debuts in recent memories, it’s one of the best performances by a young actor that I’ve ever seen; it’s wholly natural and subtle at once. She had an affinity for the material that likely very few would have had and at no point does she falter.
Reboux never intended to be an actress and had no aspirations of continuing on after ‘À ma soeur’. She made only one other film and has apparently decided to move on to other things. I tried to see if there were any references to her online, perhaps in interviews, but she mostly seems to have vanished from sight.
Her turn in this motion picture gave the impression of such an unhappy girl that I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of adolescence the real Anaïs had, what kind of life she’s been leading, if she is happy today; I just couldn’t disassociate the fictional Anaïs from the real one. I honestly hope she’s doing well, wherever she is.
My only issue with the film is the ending, which is so abrupt and out of place that it kind of spoiled things for me. Was Breillat sending a message to her own sister with these random acts of violence? What was she trying to convey? Personally, I would have preferred it if the ending had been less jarring, more sad than angry.
Having said this, ‘À ma soeur’ is an accomplishment. It can be an uneasy watch, but it’s impossible to turn away from it. It presents a truthful expression of teen sexuality that is rarely seen on screen, and it also honestly portrays subtleties in romantic and familial relationships. This may not be a love letter from Breillat’s to her own sister, but it’s open-hearted one.
Post scriptum: It needs to be noted that, being originally shot in French, there are some things that are lost in translation. I found that some choices were made in the interpretation that were discrepant with the original intentions of the text, such as “bitch” instead of “slut” for the French word “salope”. The perfect example of interpretation being everything is the US trailer versus the French trailer – the latter being much more appropriate for the material. The former makes the film seem like a thriller, whereas the other one understands the tone of the piece far better.
Date of viewing: July 24, 2013