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Entries in criterion (2)


In Which We Want Our First Time To Be With Someone We Don't Love

Overweight Individual


Fat Girl
dir. Catherine Breillat
86 minutes

A popular paradox suggests that French people subsist entirely on a diet of saturated fats and somehow manage to stay slender; another claims that a country of cynical, intellectual snobs can also be the most misguidedly romantic among us. In Catherine Breillat’s provocative film Fat Girl, recently released on Criterion Blu-Ray, all these truths come up against serious obstacles. The only one that remains impervious to doubt is the high nutritional value of the average croissant.

Two sisters — Elena (Roxane Mesquida) and Anais (Anais Reboux)  — are on the Atlantic coast in France for what will certainly be the last summer vacation of their childhood and innocence. Slipping away from their home one afternoon in search of entertainment, the girls discuss what sort of man they would like to lose their virginity to. Long-legged, doe-eyed Elena claims that love will do her in, whereas overweight and serious Anais admits she would like to share her first time with someone she does not love. “What if I find out he doesn’t love me? What if I stop loving him later?” she asks. Elena flippantly remarks that nobody would want to sleep with her sister because of her weight.

Anais’ rebuttal that a man might sleep with, but will hardly fall in love with a beautiful girl who has no substance comes true about five minutes later, when the sisters end up at a sidewalk café next to a young Italian named Fernando. He has but to stumble over a few French words and put Elena’s fingers in his mouth for her to put her tongue in his. Anais devours a banana split (of course!) and watches the amorous spectacle curiously, enviously. This is what happens during vacations on the French coast.

Americans have trouble enjoying their holidays because they feel like they ought to be working to earn more of them. The French, on the other hand, don’t enjoy holidays because they have too many of them. Be you scholar, soldier, or Nicolas Sarkozy you will begin your career in France with six weeks of paid vacation. A lot of time to spend lying on a beach or skiing in the Alps, you might say, and you would not be wrong. More importantly, though, six weeks is a long time to spend thinking about yourself, and what life is all about, and whether or not you should sleep with the older Italian man you just met.

This is a film about sex, although not as much as Breillat’s carefully explicit scenes would suggest. Elena invites Fernando to her and Anais’ bedroom on the first night, commanding her sister to feign sleep while she fools around with him. For a while we forget that Anais is in the room only because we take her place as the voyeur. Through her eyes we are forced to remember the violence of the sexual act—the fear of the first time giving way under the pressure of a primal desire. Once initiated into it we rarely think back on when we first discovered that strange and pleasant task of our body; Anais reminds us that the discovery was traumatic, embarrassing, and absolutely sublime.

Beneath the humor of Fernando and Elena’s pre-coital exchange resides a sinister darkness that allows us to experience pity for Elena for the first and only time in the film. Fernando asks her to put on music, to stop talking, to “prove her love”. He tells her the stories of his various romantic exploits and complains when she shies away from intercourse. “Do you really want me to go alleviate myself with another woman?” He finally pressures Elena into having anal sex, promising that she will still be a virgin. If you are not yet tired of the stereotypical Italian male, watch Breillat unveil him in his entirety.

Anais writhes in humiliation, envy, and her own budding desire across the room from them. Her only summer fling came into being in the pool, where she engages herself to the wooden leg of a dock and subsequently cheats on it with the metallic ladder. “Are you jealous?” she whispers to the dock, tenderly kissing it, wrapping her legs around it. “Yet you will be the one to benefit from what every other lover will demand of me!” This humorously heartbreaking exchange ends as she reclines on the dock.

She is wiser than we are and yet terribly naïve, chewing on the end of phallus-shaped foods and struggling into a mint green dress her sister also tried on. Because she disapproves of her only role model, Anais learns to regulate herself, adopting an independent moral code at the age of twelve. This is admirable; what is not admirable is that her rich inner life is not encouraged, since no one can look past her exterior. Shockingly (and refreshingly!) this also applies to her beautiful sister. A bad sort of person cannot look past his biases, but the worst sort of person is completely incapable of looking at anyone else. Everyone in Fat Girl is the latter sort of person, except for the sisters.

Traditional roles of parent and child disappear in favor of passive aggressive power struggles. The girls’ father is a French workaholic, in other words a living oxymoron. Early on he abandons the female members of his family to vacation alone while he returns to work. He, Fernando, and a rapist at a rest stop are the only active males in the film, and while they may possess emotional and physical power over the women, they do not evolve past the roles of “absent father”, “smooth-talking woman-hating bastard”, and “sociopath criminal”. For all their despicability, they can only passively turn Elena and Anais into not-girls-not-yet-women. This metamorphosis actually happens in the dark space between Elena and Anais’ single beds, between their entwined hands reflected in the bathroom mirror.

What first appeared as a spiteful, yet comfortable sibling rivalry flowers into a much more complex relationship throughout the film. Mesquida’s brilliantly executed Elena is the moveable feast of this film, whiny, casually cruel, and somehow endearing in her blossoming womanhood; Anais feeds on her example even as she rebels against it. Family vacation does not force them to spend all their time together — they do it naturally, spurred on by curiosity of the other’s complete dissimilitude and the irrevocable intimacy that exists between them. “You are the one person I cannot forgive,” confides Elena as they stand before the mirror, staring at girlish bodies whose capabilities were long ago surpassed by those of prematurely skeptical minds. This is the most important relationship of the film, because it transforms two sisters into the left and right brain of a single being.

They fight for the maternal role that the woman who birthed them never claims. This pinch-faced, dark-haired broad spends the entire film in a glossy bathrobe, smoking cigarette after cigarette while her daughters suffer. She brushes off Anais’ tears as “adolescence” and her eating habits as “hormonal”, slaps her when she finds out about her older daughter’s dalliances, and stands by passively as her girls struggle to find out which one of them is right. Food, cigarettes, and oral sex function as appeasement in scenes fraught with conflict: parents chain-smoke over a tense breakfast, Elena soothes Fernando’s frustration away with a short blowjob in the garden, and of course Anais eats. When she gets sick in the car on the way home, Elena pats her back as she throws up. Love masquerades as cruelty, cruelty masquerades as love, and both of them somehow end up in bed with Anais and Elena.

Unsurprisingly, Fernando’s declarations of love prove false when the engagement ring he gave Elena turns out to be stolen from his mother. Their remaining parent, infuriated, ushers both girls into the car and recklessly begins the drive back to Paris with a cigarette on her lip. Thus ends the vacation, but their return to reality proves even more devastating. While spending the night at the rest stop, Elena and her mother are respectively bludgeoned with an axe and strangled with a scarf by a local criminal; Anais, though she escapes into the woods, is gagged and raped. The look on her face is horrifying; this was only to be expected, it seems to say, with perhaps a little bit of contentment.

Some may express shock at this overtly violent ending, while in fact it festered underneath everything the whole time: the loud yellows and corals of the girls’ clothes, the open resentment in their faces, and the dangerous pull of the ocean on the sand. In the end, Anais denies the rape as per her wish to be taken by someone she did not love. Pale and dazed, she contrasts sharply with Elena, who is covered in blood—and the paradox remains. In a film which unabashedly exposes everything, Breillat hides a most painful loss of innocence.

Kara VanderBijl is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about the history of blogging. You can find her website here.

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In Which A Woman Is A Woman Is Anna Karina

Nana's Twelve Steps


Vivre Sa Vie

dir. Jean-Luc Godard

85 min.

Quick! Follow the guy with the Moscot glasses and beige trench! He’s jumping over puddles securing his fedora with one hand and umbrella with the other. Scott Schuman is close, I can feel it. On this rainy New York Sunday, we’re both going to the same place: a showing of Godard’s 1962 Vivre Sa Vie, at the Museum of Art and Design. (The film was released by the Criterion Collection this week.)

Seeing French New Wave at a museum is not the same as ‘going to the movies.’ After buying my ticket, I hurried to Whole Foods to grab some snacks only to be told by the usher, this eerie wiry man—think Twilight Zone elevator operator—of the strict no food or beverage policy. I also had to check my umbrella, and promise him my first born. Inside the theatre everyone was quietly seated as though following an oath of stoic Sunday cinema seriousness. Of course I thought this was funny, but played along.

There were lots of nods of recognition between acquaintances: most people had come alone and were busying themselves with their iPhones, or whispering to themselves the Sontag quote on the program that was given to us: "One of the most extraordinary, beautiful, and original works of art that I know of." In my head, that collective, feverish feeling of anticipation seemed to swallow the room. Something special was about to happen.

And it did. Vivre Sa Vie starts with a dedication to B movies; a shout out that immediately endears the audience. And then, Nana (Anna Karina, Godard’s then wife) appears—her helmet hair profile changing angles as the opening credits roll. Nana’s silhouette paired with the movie’s haunting music — a Michel Legrand piece that repeats without ever reaching a climax — establish the film’s twelve-part intrigue, endlessly and heartbreakingly evading satisfaction. Nothing completes itself and nobody finds peace.

And yet, Karina’s performance finds a way to couple the urge to take flight with the impulse to preserve, recognize, stop, sit, and share a conversation, or write a letter, slowly, carefully, and eloquently.

In one scene Nana fights off a kiss on the lips from one of her clients, in another, she ditches one man who bought her a movie ticket for another man sitting at a café. She skips out on her rent, and her husband and child to pursue acting, and yet, she’ll still choose to dance the entire length of a song on the jukebox, playfully and wholeheartedly. She orders a glass of wine, but leaves before having one sip. She embraces a man, only to take a puff of her cigarette over his shoulder, staring off longingly, mildly melodramatically, at some far away horizon. You’ll covet her whole face, but when you see it all, that regretful pang of knowing too much will start to pulse. She’ll get you like that.

Because we follow Nana’s path towards prostitution in twelve parts, Vivre Sa Vie is set up like a countdown to the end. Fin! The audience is ushered through a veritable ‘How to’ of prostitution made intimate by varied forms: a voice-over interview of the ‘lay of the land,’ a conversation shot from behind, scenes of silence followed by philosophical conversations.

At times, the film’s endless collection of quotations or allusions to literature, philosophy and film, teeter dangerously near affectation. For non-believers and those critical or hesitant of film’s snobbish stigmas, the tendency in this, Godard’s fourth major film, to reference and draw comparisons can be disorientating and alienating: audience self doubt abound.

But Karina’s presence and her manner, her step, both weightless and grave, her ennui, “the life,” does not impose, and instead seduces the way familiarity in strangers might seduce. Yes, I will follow you down the street as you nervously accept your first client. Of course I don’t mind looking over your shoulder as you write a letter. All of it? Sure why not? Watch you watching The Passion of Joan of Arc? Yes, please. Can I wipe your tears?

In talking about female leads, we often rate their undeniability, their charm and contrary whimsy, their command. But with Karina, it’s not an easy attraction, and not one that accepts your refusal. Nana’s allure haunts and evokes that part of us that is compelled by our own discomfort.

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here.

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