Sunday, June 26, 2016


About time we got to a female director in this marathon.  And it's French.  And very character-driven.  And... well, read on, but some SPOILERS ahead at your own peril.

Though it doesn't stick to this perspective for every single moment of the film, I find it so satisfying artistically as an audience member when a filmmaker presents us with a point of view that we SHOULD see more of but don't really get, and takes an unconventional approach in style.  I still remember Ebert's point about Manhattan that in a more conventional film the perspective on lead/supporting characters would be reversed (that Woody Allen's character in that film would be a supporting character while Michael Murphy the lead), and here it's a similar take: most other directors, lame/hacky ones, would take on the "My First Summer of Yada Yada Awakening" from squarely the point of view of the older sister of the two we're shown in Fat Girl, Elena, who is beautiful and thin and gets the attraction of guys like the Italian college student Fernando (even his name sounds like he's on the prowl for young), while Anais, the 13 year old younger sister of the title, would be the supporting player.  But here it's reversed, mostly, and it gives the story of teenage disillusionment a different meaning.

And then there's the ending.  But we'll get to that in a little while, once I get my adulation for this first.

Catherine Breillat may or may not be a strict "feminist", I don't even know what that term might mean in this context, but I do know that this film presents its audience with a perspective that involves two sisters and how they each view sexual awakening, or even something as simple as looking a certain way in a dress (sisters can't seem to wear the exact same dresses, you know), or how to kiss someone. 

And Breillat, again unlike a conventional, "soft-core" kind of director, doesn't exploit moments or emotions or even body parts (though you do see genitals, and yet this is still less graphic, if you can believe it, than her 1999 film Romance with actual penetration shown), is sensitive to how sisters are.  By this I mean it would be easy to have in a film such as this blanket, one-dimensional spite and jealousy on the part of Anaiis to Elena, and Elena's disdain for her "baby" sister who looks "disgusting" while eating.

But they do love each other, and are shown caring and listening to one another - they even break out into laughter when connecting, this coming before a big story reveal about an object given to Elena - and it feels... well, real, it doesn't shy away from the complexity that happens with siblings (and take it from someone who has an older brother, nothing is ever quite simple in a sibling relationship when two boys don't look and act too much alike, so I imagine it's similar for women).  Each sister is well defined and we discover things about them emotionally as the story goes on, and even quiet moments register as being pregnant with meaning and subtext and other things to read into it.

"Ah, Romance, I am French!" "Hah, I beat that, I'm Italian!" "Ooh lala" "translation please?"
Take the big centerpiece of the film, at least to me, when Elena and Fernando are in bed together with Anais acting like she's asleep on the other side of the room.  This scene lasts for what seems like a while, at least in cinematic time, and there's build-up and slow-down and build-up again to what Elena and Fernando are doing together, with some heavy kissing, some talk, then kissing again, then him trying to get her to 'do' it, her resisting, him pouting and being passive-aggressive, and then going into begging for anal sex (yes, really). 

Aside from it being reflected in real life - you may have heard about this being a thing with girls who pledge their virginity but do 'other' things - the key thing is point of view: though Breillat has her camera in medium close-ups on Elena and Fernando, showing them in their yes-no-yes-no-yes talk and so on until he finally does do what he asks, we don't forget the younger sister is watching.  But she's careful with when she cuts to her, almost to the point some may forget she is watching, but she is, and when we see Anais watching (as humping goes on) she looks almost half distracted, or maybe trying *not* to see it, though she can't avert her eyes.  Or can she?

This is wonderful filmmaking that takes three characters and makes all of their perspectives matter and feel vital, especially for Anais, and it's something that disturbs her and perplexes her and, ultimately, upsets her (this also goes for later when Elena does let Fernando take her virginity, which is somehow more upsetting for the younger sister looking away this time but crying softly).  She is showing what power dynamics in young sex is about, when young people do (and don't) know any better, and what this does, subconsciously or not, to someone watching it from afar.  Again, in any other softcore kind of film, from France especially these have been done going back to the 60's and 70's, it would all be on the older sister, or they wouldn't be sisters at all.  But with poor, husky Anaiis there, everything is different, and our eyes being through this main character it continues to be challenged as to what we know and see.

So this can be deep stuff.  Not all of the film in the first 75 minutes are as great as this, but most of it is really engaging and stripped down to see raw emotions (and always with adolescents in this time of their lives everything is fucked up, it's a fascinating time of life to make a movie about when done right).  But how does this semi-coming-of-age story resolve itself?  In such a way that... feels like, to me, and I don't know about anyone else, like Breillat couldn't come up with a proper ending.  What happens?  Well, and this is where a Holy Shit spoiler comes in, the girls' mother drives them back home early after it's discovered (thanks Fernando's mom, oddly enough a big person herself), that Elena slept with this college boy, and drives for hours and hours with lots of car shots showing some tricky highway driving (it sounds odd to point this out but you'll notice it as much as I did).  And then the mother stops off at a rest area for the night, the girls (except Anais) go to sleep, and... a guy with an axe slams through the windshield killing the older sister and choking the mother and then raping Anais.  Wait what?

I took it at first, not knowing this was coming and often expecting such wild things to happen in European/French/art films to be a bad dream or a nightmare that Anais was having - all of her fears and neuroses about these 'worst case scenarios' that go through young people's minds coming to the front and center from sub to regular consciousness (and believe me, I used to have them too so I could relate, at first) - and that she'd snap out of it in the car and then something else might happen.  That could work or at least be interesting.  But is it... real?  Is this some random guy that happens to find this car and kill/rape everyone and... what is this? 

After watching the film I went online to see reactions to this and it was mixed; some find it challenging and thought-provoking and something totally out of the box, and some find it as crazy as I did.  I do think this is where it's significant that it's a woman directing this - a man behind the camera and it would be a cry of sexism, as if a man could think nothing else but to go the violent-exploitationy route to end things.  But here we got Breillat.  Is it about how Anais reacts to this (the last line is her denying she was raped by this guy in the woods)?  Is it that free will is a motherfucker, and men will do whatever they want whenever they want to women, whether it's some sultry Italian dude with dreamy eyes in bed begging for some relief for his dick, or some crazy douche with a weapon and a complex against women?

Well, perhaps, yes that's it, too, and I can engage intellectually, try to poise theories, about it all after the fact, while emotionally, during it, it felt like an umbilical cord to the film was snapped with a chainsaw.  Watching it, it left me puzzled and not in a necessarily good way, like as if Breillat as a writer gave up where to take this story once the girls and mother get back home to the father (who, I should also note as the other male character of the story, is either oblivious or doesn't care about her daughters' emotions, that may be part of it too), so shock would do. 

Despite feeling, to put it mildly, uneasy and unnerved by this very sudden thing that happens - akin to when you watch Haneke's Cache or something and that one violent action happens after a movie that's been relatively one line, though in that it had more of an impact - I still do suggest people should see it.  That is, if you think you're already the audience for it in the sense of liking deliberately questionable and with strong young female performers, then it will hit the spot, for a while, or more, anyway.  It functions on its own wavelength, either directly challenging or ignoring the norms of what audiences usually get and expect with stories involving young love and sexual awakening and sibling rivalries and so on.

PS: As a side note, I noticed the actresses of the sisters - Roxanne Mesquida as Elena and Anais Reboux as, well, Anais - had different careers, and it reminds me of what happened with the two lovely young women from Blue is the Warmest Color, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux - the former is not having that much of a career, while the latter is (it's not that Adele is not unattractive, she's quite pretty, but Seydoux has more of the "movie star" attractiveness and has since gone on to a 007 and The Lobster).  I see that Mesquida and Reboux had a similar fate, as Mesquida has been in many films since this one, while this is Reboux's only credit.  Did Reboux not want to act anymore/was plucked from obscurity for this one part and that was over/done with, or did looks have a role to play (or the kind of roles offered).  Who knows...

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