À Ma Sœur! (Fat Girl). Directed by Catherine Breillat. Paris: Canal+, 2001. 86 minutes.

Reviewed by Ora Gelley

The French director Catherine Breillat has in recent years become a kind of figurehead for what has been perceived by many as a new trend in contemporary art cinema toward extreme representations of violence and graphic sexuality. Her work consistently elicits outraged reactions, especially what is arguably her most important film up to date, À Ma Sœur (Fat Girl, 2001). As a consequence of the controversy provoked by Breillat’s portrayal in Fat Girl and her other films (e.g., Romance [1999]) of teenage sexuality, graphic genital close-ups, and apparent scenes of unsimulated sex, writings on her work have for the most part stayed on the surface, focusing more on the director’s public persona and the polemics surrounding these films than on their structure and the radical politics of the gaze they enact.1

Viewers and critics have a hard time—perhaps not surprisingly—getting past the scandal of Fat Girl’s twelve-year-old protagonist, through whom we witness the drawn out seduction and subsequent rape of her older sister, Elena, by an Italian playboy, Fernando, they met while on vacation at the beach with their parents, as depicted in two lengthy scenes in the sisters’ bedroom (scenes that together make up more than half of the film). In fact, the sexualizing gaze that is still in most films the man’s exclusive domain is in Fat Girl really only linked to the prepubescent Anaïs, a fact that has often been noted but not explored in a sustained way. In this sense, writings on the film have failed to make sense of what I contend is Fat Girl’s most radical intervention—the way in which Anaïs’s act of looking is imbricated with the gaze of the Other.2

This connection in Fat Girl between the twelve-year-old Anaïs’s look and the gaze of the Other is highly unusual; the film shows us something we almost never see in mainstream cinema, where male desire, in Kaja Silverman’s words, is so consistently and systematically coextensive with projection and control.3 Breillat’s subversive sexual politics and her challenge to a particular cultural tradition of female representation in Fat Girl is concentrated in the two lengthy scenes in the sisters’ bedroom, scenes that show in long takes the battle of wills and eventual rape of Elena by Fernando, as witnessed by Anaïs. These scenes depict a split identity involving the two female protagonists. Elena’s alienation from her body and her desires comes about through her dissociation and impassivity as she submits to the inevitable physical violation, whereas Anaïs identifies with and is visibly traumatized by the pain and humiliation inflicted upon her sister. While both Fernando and Elena on some level occupy well established positions within a depressingly familiar set of potential relationships between the masculine lover and his female subject, Breillat rejects unreservedly the economy of gazes upon which such a male/female dynamic is usually sustained (i.e., the construction of a sadistic male gaze and a masochistic spectacularization of the woman’s body). These scenes refuse, in Debarati Sanyal’s words, “the aesthetic comforts of distance” and embed–primarily through Breillat’s manipulation of Anaïs’s point of view as well as Anaïs’s strong identification with her sister–the otherwise predictable rape narrative within the concrete realities of woman’s physical vulnerability, frustrated desires, distress, and shame.4 By making Anaïs the primary figure of identification, the one through whom viewers experience the circuit of desire and sexual violence, Breillat disrupts the gaze of the Other as sustaining a symbolic order in which the man always inhabits the role of the aggressor and the voyeur, the seducer, and the initiator of the sexual act. By separating the man’s role as the subject of control and violence from his look, Breillat facilitates a traumatic encounter with the real, that is, a recognition of the failure of “the symbolic world that the Big Other sustains,” in Lacan’s words.5

Fat Girl gives us a much more nuanced, complex portrayal of sexual violence against women than we typically see on screen by depicting the older sister, Elena’s victimization neither from her own position–of abjection and loss of control–nor from that of the male aggressor. One can think of countless recent examples, but one film that comes to mind is David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.6 In Fincher’s film, as well as in the Swedish version of the film by Niels Oplev, the climactic scene in which the female protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, is sodomized and brutalized by her male guardian is predictably shown alternately from the point of view of both the rapist and the victim. Ultimately, this mode of representing sexual violence—which relies on conventionalized representational tropes—eroticizes and spectacularizes violence without exposing viewers to the submerged ramifications of that violence. Films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, furthermore, integrate scenes of brutality and exploitation into conventional narrative formulas and ideological structures that redeem the violence committed by the “good” characters and, in the end, give the perpetrators their due punishment.

The feminine image on screen remains virtually synonymous with her objectification as erotic spectacle, a fact that makes the truthful portrayal in film of women’s sexual experience and of sexual violence immensely challenging, if not nearly impossible.7 If one believes, as do Breillat and other feminist filmmakers such as Virginie Despentes, that underlying structures of male control and violence lie at the heart of intimate relations between men and women, the question then becomes, how does one break through the dominant phallocentric cinematic language with a stylistic freedom that exposes and at the same time disrupts the codified positions of victimizer and victim, masculine and feminine, subject and object?

Breillat seems to understand, in a way other members of the new French (and European) extremism—such as Gaspar Noé—do not, that neither Elena nor Fernando can effectively function as figures of identification for the spectator to acts of forced intimacy and sexual violence perpetrated by the male subject. This is because the economy of sadism in the cinema rests on “a radical exclusion of the [almost always female] victim from attaining any subjective position.”8 One may, as Kriss Ravetto argues, disempower one’s victimizer “by assuming his identity, mimicking his very actions” or, as is much more common, wield the powers of seduction by inhabiting the feminine role as aesthetic and erotic object of desire and disembodied receptacle for male consumption.9 Breillat circumvents these traps in hegemonic cinematic representations of the female body and of heterosexual desire by channeling her transgressive perspective on female sexuality through her radically unconventional heroine. What many referred to as the obscene or scandalous nature of Anaïs’s role in Fat Girl allowed Breillat an anomalous and radical stylistic freedom. The force of her character occupies and creates for viewers a range of alternative perspectives toward the familiar pattern of male aggression and “willed, knowing female submission” that the director understands to form the basis of heterosexual relationships in our society.10

1 Romance X (Romance), directed by Catherine Breillat (Paris: Rezo Films, 1999), 99 min.

2 Todd McGowan says that “film’s ability to facilitate an encounter with the real represents a threat to the power of ideology. However, the history of film, perhaps more than the history of any other art form, is also a record of capitulation to ideological demands. Classical Hollywood cinema and its contemporary descendants consistently provide a fantasmatic support for the ideology of capitalist society,” and, I might add, for the inscription within that ideology of male and female roles (The Real Gaze: Film Theory after Lacan [Albany: SUNY Press, 2007], 17.

3 Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins (New York: Routledge, 1992), 145.

4 Debarati Sanyal is here referring to one of the ways Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh challenge an aesthetic tradition of fixed roles for female characters in their film, Baise-moi (Fuck Me) a work to which Fat Girl is often compared (Baise-moi, directed by Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi [Paris: Canal+, 2000], 77 min.; Sanyal, The Violence of Modernity: Baudelaire, Irony, and the Politics of Form [Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006], 157, 167).

5 McGowan, The Real Gaze, 17.

6 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, directed by David Fincher (Los Angeles: Columbia Pictures, 2011), 158 min.

7 Anne Gillain says that, “From the beginning of film, we have been forced to immerse ourselves in the fantasies of the male imaginary. In the words of the Italian filmmaker Francesca Comencini, ‘It’s a terrible, a terrible violence to force female movie-goers to conform to convention, which belong to men and to which women, in a certain sense, also adhere’” (“Profile of a Filmmaker: Catherine Breillat” In Beyond French Feminisms: Debates on Women, Politics, and Culture in France, 1981-2001, edited by Roger Célestin, Eliane DalMolin, and Isabelle de Courtivron [New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003], 210).

8 Theresa De Lauretis, Technologies of Gender (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 44.

9 Kriss Ravetto, The Unmaking of Fascist Aesthetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 170-171.

10 For Breillat, argue Victoria Best and Martin Crowley, “the particular heterosexual ballet of male violence and willed, knowing female submission… seems to be an indispensible part of the truth [the director] has to communicate” (The New Pornographies: Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film [Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007], 64).

Ora Gelley is an associate professor of film studies in the English Department at North Carolina State University. Her book, Stardom and the Aesthetics of Neorealism: Ingrid Bergman in Rossellini’s Italy was published in 2012 by Routledge. Her current research project is focused on film form and violence in new European cinema. Her essays have appeared in Film Studies, Critical Inquiry, Film Criticism, and Cinema Journal.