Fat Girl (2001)
Words by Violet Ames
Fat Girl (2001)
Fat Girl (2001) sticks with you after the credits roll because it attaches itself to a known fear. French auteur, Catherine Breillat, artfully deconstructs the psychological and somatic fears inherent to the female lived experience; all of the moral and emotional offences which occur in this horror-of-a-film are so commonplace that we seem to accept and/or remember experiencing them.
There’s a quote by Margaret Atwood circulating on TikTok: “...It's all a male fantasy. Even pretending you aren't catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you're unseen, pretending you have a life of your own…You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”
The constant search for ‘self’, or coming of age, experienced by women is often limited by the gender binary. To remove ourselves from the objectification written into womanhood, we have to actively reject cultural conditioning - no easy feat. It’s hard to become beings of ourselves with the constant drum of the news, social media, and our inner critic finding ways to affect our thinking - even if subconsciously. This desire to turn off the autopilot mode in which many of us live is difficult. This struggle to create a fully cohesive self is what spoke loudest to me in Fat Girl.
The film centres around the dynamic between two young Parisian sisters, Anaïs and Elena. The latter, fifteen, is conventionally attractive, with the airy facade of precocious cool-girl confidence. Anaïs, twelve, is overweight with a wry sensibility, seen perpetually scoffing at her sister's transparent bids for love and attention. They are whisked away to the French seaside for a family vacation. The dysfunctional family serves as the film's backdrop: the sisters’ bitter rivalry, the mother’s favouritism of the more ‘becoming’ daughter, and the workaholic father complaining as his family don’t revel enough in the obligatory fun.
Both sisters appear to have their self-exploration thwarted by the cultural conditioning of seeking male validation. They come alive at the prospect of having their purpose or importance realised by a man. This false notion - perhaps a remnant of the past in which securing a man meant securing one’s worth - that we cannot be fully self-actualized until desired by a man to simply be.
Elena meets Fenando, a college-aged predator, outside of a cafe in town, all while her sister meekly enjoys a banana split. A classic casanova, willing to manipulate to satisfy his own sexual gratification. There’s a painfully long scene in which Fernando attempts to lure Elena into intercourse, with Anaïs just a few feet away, her first exposure to female sexuality being one of pain and resignation. The audience can recognize the slick coercion which occurs. Fernando pouts ever so dramatically, rolls over and stares at the wall. Elena screams in discomfort while Fernando achieves orgasm. The glaring age gap alongside Elena’s reluctance makes for painful viewing, its realism plays out like a horror. Instead of inducing pleasure, their mechanical ‘lovemaking’ appears more animalistic, like survival.
Anaïs’ weight is almost a secondary character, influencing both her relationship with herself and her family. Her sister rudely chastises her portions at breakfast and while dress shopping her mother looks at her in disappointment. At one point Elena says to Anaïs, “It’s true, we don’t take after anyone. It’s like we were born to ourselves.”
All of the moral and emotional offences which occur in Fat Girl are so commonplace that we seem to forgive and accept them. The latter part of the film seems to squash that familiarity by turning the volume up to the max in a shocking crescendo of violence against women. But these tawdry events only amplify plot points earlier in the film. That is, until the film’s final scene when Anaïs is attacked. She doesn’t fit the bill of mainstream beauty standards (after all she is a child) but her family’s assailant rapes her as an act of domination. It is for this reason that during wartime, violence against women is so heightened. Women’s bodies become fertile grounds for violence, as they so often become doubly subjugated.
Fat Girl is one of those haunting films that stick with you after the credits roll because it attaches itself to a known fear. The constant hum of dread as we fear becoming in some ways our mothers, who’ve numbed out of helpless despair; the urgency to find a suitable mate; and lastly the animalistic fears of overt danger - checking to see the back seats are empty and checking you are not being followed even in broad daylight. Fat Girl artfully deconstructs the psychological and somatic fears which abound in the female lived experience.