When I first heard that the English title of Catherine Breillat's 'A ma soeur' (literally 'for my sister') was 'Fat Girl', I was shocked that such sexism and sizism could exist in such strangulatingly p.c. times, especially in the light of the director's uncompromising, though idiosyncratic feminism. But from the very first sequence, Anais' weight is foregrounded, as she devours a banana split at a cafe while her sister is being chatted up by an Italian student. The body is the focus of this film, its display, and the attempts to control it, whether by deciding how much you're going to eat, by seducing minors or by deciding to whom you'll offer your virginity. Like another recent French film, Patrice Chereau's 'Intimacy', Breillat focuses on sexuality in a way hostile to mainstream cinema. Unlike 'Intimacy', whose gauche attempts at realism destroyed its credibility, Breillat insists on formality and artifice, from the summer holiday setting, with its two heroines 'locked up' in a chalet that, with its guards, gates, bars, curfews seems like a high security prison; to the ritualistic manner in which characters negotiate sex; to Breillat's awesomely complicated filming apparatus. The film's coup-de-theatre is a lengthy scene in which Elena sneaks in her boyfriend to the bedroom she shares with a sister she assumes is asleep. Not only is the viewer faced with the problematics of staring at the naked, fetishised body of a minor, and the increasingly grotesque and hypocritical attempts of her lover to seduce her; not only is the framing unflinchingly static, with the odd, sinisterly creeping movement, and the tight compositions forcing the two lovers into an airless claustrophobia; but our voyeurism is shared by our knowledge of the mostly unseen gaze of the younger girl looking on. Though this is the longest and most rigorous example, the film is full of scenes like this, triangular groupings of characters inflicting or evading each others' surveillance, while the parents who have theoretically imposed a rigid discipline on the girls see nothing. Spatial relations draw attention to themselves, as do the symbolic resonances of the settings (chopped woods, dunes etc.). The filming is deliberately unshowy, often flat. Narrative proceeds by a looping pattern, the same characters shifting positions in similarly-set scenes.
So rarefied and artificial is this milieu, that when reminders of the outside world intrude, such as financial worries, it is shocking. And this is where the film becomes especially brilliant. What seemed to have been a fascinating dramatisation of ideas culled from feminism and film theory, focusing on ideas of free will, choice, exploitation, truth, knowledge, appetite etc., the extraordinary last third reminds us that we don't always have a final say in everything we do. The mix of suspense and surprise, and the play on doubles, mirrors, sleeping and fairy tale motifs, is masterly.