In America, we are fed fixed standards from filmmakers when it comes to different forms of storytelling. If a film is going to focus on rape or adolescent sexual discovery, there is discretion involved and must be done tastefully as not to shock the audience too much. Fat Girl, a 2001 French film written and directed by Catherine Breillat, quickly throws away any preconceived notions on what to expect on screen. The story for this film was so profound that I was left thinking that this is an experience the writer/director may have experienced herself.
The film centers around two teenage sisters, Anaïs and Elena Pingot, and their harsh and powerful introduction to relationships and sex. We follow the sisters on a seaside holiday as they wander the town talking about their virginity and relationships in general. Elena, being prettier than Anaïs, has a romantic ideal of her first sexual experience; She wants her first time to be special with someone she is in love with. Anaïs, aware she is not as pretty or thin as her sister, is a realist; She wants her first time to be with a nobody, simply to get it over with and without pressure for perfection. Then Elena meets Fernando, a handsome Italian law student.
Breillant approaches the two sex scenes at a slow pace, with both sex scenes lasting just over a half-hour. Between the pace and the cruel, underlying manipulation of the dialogue sequences, they remove any eroticism that permeate other sex scenes in film. Although the scenes can feel voyeuristic, we witness through Anaïs’s eyes either her point of view or the camera focused on her face for reactions. We hear Elena scream and Fernando groan while watching Anaïs cry in her bed. Her reactions make the scene more uneasy because it’s a reminder as an audience, we are intruding on what should be a private moment and Anaïs is too young to be a witness to any sexual act.
Fernando pressures Elena to have sex with him despite telling him she is scared and doesn’t feel like she is ready. He gets angry and tells her that she is “spoiling everything” and even threatens to sleep with other women to alleviate himself. And this is where things get manipulative and disturbing. He uses flowery words to flood her senses with false affection. Fernando demands a “demonstration of love,” and she is a “kind of girl men dream of marrying.” He “wants to love her,” and says, “I’ll be your first lover.”
Eventually, Elena falls for his fake flattery, fake engagement, and falls for his single-minded pursuit of vaginal penetration. However, Anaïs, is a realist and thinks the engagement between Elena and Fernando is suspicious and that she should never have accepted it, refusing to believe in a moral difference between oral, anal, or vaginal sex. Interestingly, given how Anaïs wears a cross, her talk about morality makes sense when you see her as a religious character.
Throughout Fat Girl the girl’s parents are absent, both physically and emotionally. The mother slaps Anaïs when she doesn’t like what she has to say, while the father is a workaholic who leaves the holiday early to go back home. They speak a very matter of fact tone the girls and leave them to themselves to wander the town and meet the people. There are few scenes with either parent in them, emphasizing how the girls are very much on their own and need to rely on one another. They were not the slightest bit concerned when Elena brought Fernando home to meet her family. The mother just casually says, “young people just meet.”
Fernando’s mother turns up, wanting the ring that Fernando gave to Elena. At this moment, the truth behind Elena and Fernando’s relationship comes out, and their mother slaps Anaïs for trying to protect Elena. They leave their holiday early and drive back to Paris. Still, Anaïs remains supportive of her sister, assuring her that there will be other men and to forget about Fernando because he already has. For a girl of 12, she has excellent insight into what is going on. Sadly, things take an even darker turn in the story’s final moments.
Eventually, the mother gets tired of driving and stops at a rest area to get some sleep. During this time, a man comes and knocks out the windshield, kills Elena with an ax, and strangles the mother to death. He then takes Anaïs to the woods and rapes her. In a darkly ironic sense, this rape allows Anaïs to lose her virginity the way she wanted: with nobody special. Losing her virginity this way may be her motivation for telling the police that she was not raped or not telling them is her way of showing she is refusing to be a victim to a man, unlike her sister.
In my opinion, both characters were victims of rape. Anaïs did not give consent to the murderer at the rest stop, which is a glaring example of rape, while Elena told Fernando that she did not want to have sex. In fact, there were multiple times across Fat Girl that she told him no and that she wasn’t ready. When Fernando used tricks, based on Elena’s body language, she gave in to what he wanted because she was afraid to lose him. Experiences like these have propelled the #MeToo movement, with other women detailing similar experiences with men they trusted.
Fernando was a horrible person, getting angry, manipulating, and lying to get what he wanted out of Elena. Elena was so desperate for love and to one-up her sister that she took Fernando’s word at face value that sexual experiences are how older, mature people demonstrate their love for one another. Elena did not get the love she wanted from her parents and therefore was not familiar with what love is. The film takes place over a couple of days, and Elena thinks that she and Fernando can fall in love during that time, believing that they fell in love to the point of engagement. Fernando took advantage of Elena because she was young, impressionable, and naïve, using guilt, ultimatum, and finally, love coerce her into sex.
Then there are real-life men like John Petroski, who wrote in his article ‘Rape Only Hurts If You Fight It’: “In actuality, rape’s advantages can very much be seen today. Take ugly women, for example. If it weren’t for rape, how would they ever know the joy of intercourse with a man who isn’t drunk? In a society as plastic-conscious as our own, are we really to believe that some man would ever sleep with a girl resembling a wildebeest if he didn’t have a few schnapps in him? Of course he wouldn’t—at least no self-respecting man would—but there in lies the beauty of rape.”
Sadly, until we get rid of mindsets like Mr. Petroski’s, we will continue to see this culture of rape, manipulation, and lies just for some sex. As mothers, we need to do better for our daughters, teaching them what love looks like and how not to be easily tricked by beautiful words.