Spoiler Warning and Trigger Warning for Sexual Violence Ahead
Fat Girl (À Ma Soeur, or To My Sister in its original French title)is a 2001 film directed by Catherine Breillat, a woman known for often-controversial films that usually revolve around themes of sex and identity. The movie follows Anaïs, an overweight 12 year old, and Elena, her thin, conventionally beautiful 15 year old sister as they undergo a journey of sexual awakening and coming of age on a family vacation. Though an uncomfortable topic, specifically when dealing with characters so young, Breillat directs Fat Girl with a deft, precise hand, never allowing the film to drift into the territory of exploitative or glamorized. As beautiful to watch as it is difficult, Fat Girl is a compelling story of sisterhood, sexuality, and violence that often results from society’s expectations for women.
Fat Girl is a film that’s difficult to take in all at once. After the first viewing, many people may write off the story as self-indulgent and pointless—Breillat is known for her other films such as Romance and Anatomy of Hell, which both explore sexuality and the thin line between sex and violence. It’s easy to go into Fat Girlexpecting it to be the same as her other works. But Breillat does something different with Fat Girl—she takes these elements of sexual identity that are seen in her other films, and frames it through the perspective of young girls, who are being taught that the desires of men are more important and valued than their own desires will ever be.
Anaïs and Elena have deeply skewed ideas of what healthy sexuality looks like. This can be seen as soon as the film begins, as the sisters discuss losing their virginities and what they hope it will be like. Both of them are living in an idealized fantasy, and neither realize the more troubling aspects of coming into your sexuality at such a young age. Throughout the film, they are both taken advantage of—sometimes violently—but both of them have been taught that this is okay and natural.
Elena, who begins seeing an Italian college student named Fernando, is completely love-struck—so much so that she doesn’t realize that Fernando doesn’t care about her comfort level or what she wants, but is rather using her as a means to pleasure himself and rid of her when it’s all said and done. Both of the girls are young, too young to understand sex and the way society views it as being about the pleasure of men.
In one scene of the film, Anaïs floats around in the swimming pool, going back and forth between the deck post and the ladder bars, pretending each are different lovers she has and is stuck between. This scene, though it can be read as comical and as the wishful fantasies of a young girl who doesn’t know anything about sex, displays Anaïs’s little knowledge of relationships and what a healthy one should look like. She is under the belief that being desired sexually is everything that she should want, and that it determines her worth within society and to herself. This belief is never clearer than it is at the end of the film, which is sudden, shocking, and absolutely brutal to watch. Anaïs has fallen into the trap of society, which tells women that their worth should be determined by how pleasing they are to men—even when this turns into mistreatment and violence.
Though one of the most compelling relationships in Fat Girl is that of Anaïs and Elena, who bicker like siblings do but love each other all the same (with Anaïs even saying “When I hate you, I look at you and I can’t”) the main focus of the film is the relationship between women and sexuality. These sisters are similar in the way that they are a victim to society’s expectations of women, and in the end, they are powerless to find their way out of this trap. They lean on each other for the support that no one else offers them, but fail to realize that the men who surround them—and the society that encourages them—are predatory, violent, and dangerous.
The ending comes as a complete shock, but, even though it feels sudden and abrupt, it works with the overall message of the film. By the end, two of the three female leads (with the third being the mother) are dead, and Anaïs, the only one left alive, is reeling in the aftermath of being raped by the man who killed her sister and mother. However, what is most disturbing is Anaïs’s ultimately casual attitude towards this occurrence—in her mind, she is meant to do what a man wants her to do, and the act of being raped was nothing more than a man exerting the power that she has been taught he is allowed to have. It’s heartbreaking, difficult material that isn’t easy to get through by any means, but that is important nonetheless.
Overall, Fat Girl is a brutal and painful examination of society’s expectations of women, and how women are conditioned to brush off the violent tendencies of men, specifically in regards to sex. It’s hard to watch, and only gets harder as it progresses into a devastating ending. Despite this, it is undeniably a vital watch for those who are comfortable and feel that they can stomach it. Breillat shows herself as not merely a director fascinated with sex, but one with a deep understanding of how women are treated and seen in society, and how this damages girls from youth into adulthood.