Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl is one of the keenest explorations of female sexuality in film that I’ve ever seen, and I think part of that memorable experience results from the subject matter which Breillat chooses to confront and how she goes about doing so.
Fat Girl is about two sisters, Anais (Anais Reboux) who is 13, and her older sister Elena (Roxane Mesquida), who is 15. Anais and Elena can’t stand one another due to behaviors of the other that they are disgusted by. Anais is disgusted by Elena’s sexual activity and conversely, Elena is disgusted by Anais’ weight which consequently makes her perceive Anais’ hatred of her as sexual jealousy.
Breillat doesn’t leave their relationship at that, however; it’s much more complex. In an endearing scene, we see that Anais and Elena also extremely love one another, although it may not seem that way. The two enter a dialogue where they discuss why they hate the other and why it has to be that way. I find this scene so striking because of how honest and sincere it is.
There’s also the acting on the part of the two actresses; despite being quite young, Anais and Roxane deliver deeply mature performances which helps in showcasing a serious adolescent-centered story. Script wise, Breillat doesn’t shy away from the intricacies of the sisterly relationship, and I think we also see this in a formal dimension by way of Breillat’ camerawork.
Early on in the film, Elena begins to date a boy a bit older than her, and in secret, she invites him up to his room, but there’s a logistical problem. Elena shares a room with her sister Anais, and so she quells the issue by telling Anais to simply look away and pretend as if nothing is going on. The boy arrives and to make a long story short, coaxes Anais into allowing him to have anal sex with her when she refuses to have vaginal sex out of want for keeping her virginity.
We never see the two have sex. Instead, Breillat cuts to a close-up of Anais on her bed, clearly staring at the two engaging with one another. With the image of Anais onscreen, we then hear Elena and her boyfriend have sex and as the two cry out in pain and pleasure, Anais’ gaze begins to change. At first, Anais watches the two through the slits of her fingers, in secret. As the scene goes on, however, Anais becomes just a bit bolder by taking wider peeks.
I argue that what Breillat is doing here is that she’s giving us a type of reverse female gaze. If we think of Laura Mulvey’s theory on the male gaze as being the act of a woman onscreen made visually pleasuring by way of character proxy, then Breillat offers her own version of that theory. Elena and her lover are the subjects of visual pleasure, but what Breillat offers instead isn’t the image of their lovemaking, but the character proxy in the form of Anais. This turns the moment of visual pleasure into a moment of self-reflexivity, because Anais is the focus of the frame. Yet, due to their relationship, I think that when Anais is watching her sister have sex, it’s meant to be more than just visually pleasing; Breillat is consequently showing how Anais also wants to be her sister. For Anais who is spurned in favor for her sister, I see the act of her watching her sister as also being a form of fantasy; that fantasy being Anais imagining herself as her sister—a girl who is sexually wanted.
Through the use of the close-up, which turns a moment of visual pleasure into one of contemplative self-reflexivity, Breillat is showing the complexity of Anais’ relationship to her sister. Despite Anais’ protests towards her sister’s sexual promiscuity, it seems to me that Anais’ jealousy does arise from a sexual need. By watching her sister, Anais is able to partly fulfill her sexual desire through the act of vouyerism.