I'm going to go out on a limb and say there isn't a film in the Criterion Collection that I dislike more than Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl. Even now, three years after I first saw it, my lip still curls at the thought of the movie. This could be me falling into the filmmaker's trap, because Breillat is nothing if not a provocateur, but I'd wager that the film angers me not in the way she intended, nor in the way you likely suspect.
Brass tacks, I actually was mildly into the movie for the most part while the narrative spun out. Fat Girl is, for all intents and purposes, a coming-of-age story about two sisters on a seaside vacation in France. One sister, Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) is overweight, while the other, Elena (Roxane Mesquida), is a nymphet on the prowl. Naturally, in this scenario, Elena leads the way, and Anaïs is the tagalong. Breillat's camera follows them as Elena turns her boredom into lust, seducing (or being seduced by) the older boy Fernando (Libero de Renzo), an Italian law student whose smoky eyes mask murky motivations. Anaïs watches--sometimes silently, sometimes vocally petulant--as Elena tiptoes down the primrose path, getting an outsider's perspective on sex before also tasting a little of it firsthand.
Breillat's script is purposefully frank, and her main characters are purposefully off-putting. It's not a dishonest image of adolescent life. A teenage existence is a stinky brew of self-doubt and self-importance that often oozes from the subject like snot dripping from a puffy nose. If there is any sympathy to be felt for Anaïs, it's really Breillat playing on our preconceptions about how these stories are supposed to go. Our hearts naturally gravitate to the chubby sad girl, even if our eyes want to watch the sexy mean one. Where I think the director is intentionally trying to tweak us is that Anaïs is just as mean, possibly moreso. The film practically issues a challenge: I dare you to like her.
Fat Girl is also meant to challenge the conventional notions of female sexuality. Its uncensored depictions of the emerging passions of the sisters fit neither the kitten-clawed Hollywood notions of teenage Lolitas, nor does Breillat support a puritanical whitewash. She's also actively avoiding the pitfall of depicting first-time lovemaking in a nostalgic haze where everything is nice and pretty and seen through a rosy prism. Rather, it's kind of gross and kind of brutal and also darkly comic. (Breillat, years later, made a send-up of herself and this movie called Sex is Comedy, a little piece of meta that also calls Roxane Mesquida back to the beach where she lost her fictional girlhood, but was less appealing to me than even Fat Girl.)
None of these elements are where Breillat loses me. In fact, as I said, she mildly held my interest all the way up to the very end, when rather than coming up with a realistic way to get herself out of her own narrative, she goes for the cop-out. A violent attack on the family on the road back home changes everything, and it's a deus ex machina of the worst kind. The only way it could have been worse would have been for the camera to pan back, come out of a soft focus on Anaïs blissful face, and revealed that the entire film was some late-night fantasy in the character's head. It's that bad of a choice, eschewing any denouement for a rapid downshift out of the story, freeze frame, we're done.
Back in November of 2004, I wrote about the film on my Confessions of a Pop Fan blog, and I still stand by those words. My entry went as follows:
I've been contemplating the idea of endings lately. In a sense, when an audience enters into a story, they are putting their trust in the storyteller to take them somewhere. Whatever we are subjected to at the start is going to have some kind of payoff in the end, so even if we don't know where we are going, we have faith that it's all going to make sense.
Which is not a cry for pat endings, where everything is tied up. I am all for ambiguity, and I have said of myself, many times, that I prefer to end my stories at the moment before the "final" ending. I usually express it thus: I like to end on the inhale, and not wait for the exhale. It's a technique I took from Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird, where the book ends as its main character answers the phone. He has been mute up until this point, but the phone acts as a wake-up call, and he speaks for the first time, the cap to a long ordeal. I think this is fine, because Kosinki's goal--the goal I share--is to make sure that all that precedes that wake-up call creates the map that leads to it. I may want you to choose what's next, but I have hopefully given you the proper information to make that choice; my movement towards the inhalation was purposeful. And the final moment isn't accidental or random, it's what the rest of the story supports.
It's when we think that the storyteller lost that sense of purpose, or is trying to sidestep having to answer all the questions he's posed, that we feel cheated. A lot of these thoughts are based on debates I've had with Christopher McQuain over some of Brian DePalma's films. DePalma often falls back on the hoary cliché of "It was all a dream," which to me feels like a tremendous cheat. Rather than do the work to get out of the situation he has created, he opts for an easy exit; on the other hand, Christopher sees the final destination in such a case as far less important than the thrill of the ride. That is a valid argument in something as deliberately lurid as, say, Femme Fatale, but I don't find it at all acceptable in something like the recent film Birth. In Birth, Nicole Kidman plays a woman who has been mourning her dead husband for several years, and when she finally is ready to move on with her life, he returns in the form of a grade schooler. The director and writers (it took three of them to end up with negative results) approach the subject very seriously, raising questions about boundaries in romantic relationships and the nature of madness. Rather than actually give us any real answers, they throw a twist into the last act that gets all of the characters out of the big mess they are in. They then play the game of, "But have they really gotten out?" Except it strikes me as cursory rather than intentional. I felt like by heaping on all sorts of stylistic brushstrokes, they thought I would be dazzled and never see that the film went nowhere. They had demanded a lot of me throughout a very moody, slowly paced film, so it's unfair that they didn't demand as much of themselves as the creators.
These issues were all brought up again upon viewing Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl, a film about two sisters who are forced to live parallel but disparate lives, stuck in the quagmire of sexual adolescence. At the end of the film, a sudden and random act of violence changes everything, and then the film is over. Obviously, in real life, people who are victims of crime are victims of a random act. They never saw it coming, and their whole lives do end up hinging on the occurrence; however, is such a thing permissible in the world of story, where nothing is random, where every act contributes to a finite whole? Charlie winning the trip to the chocolate factory in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory isn't random, but expected: we know that's why he's the character that has been chosen for examination. But what if instead of it happening at the beginning of the story, it happens at the end? After 90 minutes of watching Charlie and his family struggle with poverty and illness, Charlie wins the lottery and their lives are saved. Would we not call such an ending pat?
So, why should it be any different with something like Fat Girl, where the filmmaker has chosen to fulfill some of her main character's desires and push her in a different direction, the direction the rest of her life will take, but rather than let the events take that course naturally, throws a roadside killer into the mix? Was his bursting through the windshield that far a cry from someone waking up in bed, screaming, drenched in cold sweat? It wouldn't be fair to say Breillat doesn't at least telegraph it a little. As soon as the family pulled onto the highway, I was waiting for something bad to happen, so she clearly did something to create a sense of dread (though what she did escapes me, almost like she relied on a filmic unconscious trained to believe something will go wrong in the final third). So, why do I feel like the older sister in Fat Girl, a victim of some foreign lothario, who swore he'd love me forever, only to leave me alone in the despair of broken promises? Or should I give Breillat more credit, that maybe that's what she meant all along?
Even then I was trying to be fair, to cut Catherine Breillat some slack for her intentions vs. my reactions, but I've never quite been able to do it.
In fact, I was so affected by this film and how it turned out, that it ended up influencing the book I was working on at the time, I Was Someone Dead. I was struggling with the author's note, a preface written by the book's fictional author, Percival Mendelssohn, the protagonist of my most recent novel, Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?. I was trying to explore levels of story in I Was Someone Dead, to uncover some of the layers of fiction and the different planes on which it can be removed from the reader--and in the case of having an invented author for the piece, from the storyteller, as well. (Not a new concept. See also: Vonnegut, Nabokov, Roth, etc.) Somewhat ironically, this preface became one of the most difficult aspects of the book to write, and it went through multiple drafts, most of them much longer and more constipated than what finally appeared.
I found six versions of the I Was Someone Dead author's note in my archives. Here is a pertinent excerpt from the original version:
Another phrase is "Truth is stranger than fiction." Everyone believes this cliché, but like everything else, they only believe it in a certain way. It's variable. Sometimes, someone might read a story in a newspaper and say, "That's too bizarre, they had to make that up;" that same person might read a novella and marvel at an outrageous event in the narrative, and mutter, "That's so bizarre, it must have really happened, no one could make that up." We, as people, shift with a spring-loaded suspension of disbelief.
The truth that is commonly believed to be stranger than fiction is usually an exceptional truth. Your every-day life, you will be told, or you maybe believe, is not interesting enough. Your existence would never make a good short story, much less a good novel. How ridiculous! In some ways, the banalities of the modern workday are the strangest things of all, just for the fact that we put up with them!
Truth is stranger than fiction, though, because in the events of real life, there is always an element of chance. Chance is an amazing thing. Chance is the idea that you could walk out your door and be hit by a bus; or more random and impossible, you are kidnapped by mistake, believed to be your next-door neighbor who is actually a scientist on the lam, scared that his amazing discoveries will fall into the wrong hands; or perhaps worst of all, that nothing at all will happen to you today that you did not expect. That last truth is actually the closest you will come to fiction, because there is nothing in a story that happens by accident. It's all planned to lead to a particular effect. An author can't get to his ending without it. Similarly, even if you are reporting on something that actually happened, once you shape it into a story to tell, it loses its randomness, as well. Everything still has to happen, or it won't be the same story.
So, while you may walk out of your house right now, and a van will pull up to the curb and men in ski masks will jump out and you'll have not expected it and you will have no idea why they are throwing you in the vehicle and taking you away, and when they report it on the six o'clock news they will call it random violence, in the context of the news broadcast, there will be nothing random about it. The very act of choosing to report it makes it concrete, and no one can ever be shocked again because it happened to you, because we are only talking about you because it happened; what would be random would be that though the report is about you, in reality it just happened to a completely different person.
This is where your truth becomes story. Human existence is Rashomon in practice. Consider that there are four Gospels, and each one offers a different account of the same event, each filters what happened through what they witnessed, through what they understood.
Perhaps it's karma that some readers complained about the printed version of the introduction, accusing me of trying to school them on how to read. Others also complained about the ending, feeling that I had not given enough of an explanation or put a fine enough point on the meaning of what they had just read. To which I shrug and say, "Fair enough."
I would assume that Catherine Breillat would give me a similar shrug. At the same time, I still wouldn't back off my distaste for the ending of Fat Girl. It's that sense of enforced randomness that still bugs me. Even if you read I Was Someone Dead (still in print, follow the link!) and feel I didn't give enough, I still took you where the story was always intended to go, I didn't back off or look for an easy way out. And, yes, while there is something to be said for defying the expectations of the audience, it has to be more than just a simple snap of the fingers. Watching Fat Girl is akin to being a little kid and being told you are going to Disneyland, only to have your father pull up in the parking lot at a doctor's office and inform you that you're there to get your shots. Not only did you lie, but you tricked us, too, and then you smugly told us it was for our own good. Shame on me, then, if I ever trust you again.