Censors tend to do what only psychotics do: they confuse reality with illusion. – David Cronenberg
In A Ma Soeur! (2002) (For My Sister, or Fat Girl for English audiences1) Catherine Breillat focuses on a sort of coming of age story: fifteen-year-old Elena (Roxane Mesquida) and her sister Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) are vacationing with their parents in a town near the beach. Both have decidedly different views on sexuality, and different expectations regarding their loss of virginity.
Somehow both Elena (a slim and gorgeous girl) and Anaïs (who is overweight) deal with their own ennui in seemingly dispassionate ways. For Elena, it’s the illusion of love and the surrender of her sexuality; for Anaïs, her uncomfortable relationship with food and cynical views regarding sex. It’s a sometimes loving, sometimes bitter relationship where insults, fights and moments of true intimacy and sweetness overlap.
When Fernando (Libero De Rienzo), an Italian law student who hooks up with Elena, appears on scene, the apparatus – sexual desire, love, frustration, ravaging, curiosity, hatred – makes itself present within the green walls of the teenagers’ bedroom. Here, Breillat brilliantly chooses long shots to depict sexual intercourse, and corresponding counter-shots depicting the curious sister. In this way, we are witness to the relationship between “macho Latin lover”, hopeful teenager and rejected sister. Also present is a narrative of masculine manipulation not wholly unfamiliar in cinema – where a young woman is pressured into surrendering her virginity as a proof of love. Likewise, there is an awkward, omnipresent sexual tension associated with what here is an un-erotic depiction of the loss of virginity, marking the end of innocence as it were. It’s this closeness to the act throughout its entire duration that allows us to understand the mechanisms at work among the three inhabitants of the room: when Elena finally caves to Fernando’s desires and surrenders to him, we see Anaïs’ bitter lament, the anger and sadness of someone who has lost something special, but paradoxically who has also wished for that loss.
Anaïs reaches far beyond her identity as a “fat girl”. She is confronted by the seemingly disinterested nature of her parents (who play only as a source of guilt), and her sister, who both enables and shames her. Food has become her escape, and she daydreams about a liberated sexuality with different partners, where a grown up version of her is in complete control, a source of desire and an element of dispute among lovers. But it’s her reality among her sister, lover and parents that ultimately hardens her resolve. She hates with passion, and loves accordingly; she becomes enemy and ally, and in the end she is witness, jury and executioner. When Fernando disappears and her mother barges into the girls’ house to uncomfortably ask for her stolen ring, thus symbolically ending the couple’s relationship, Anaïs seems defiant and cold, even when she’s hit in the face by her mother (Arsinée Khanjian).
If the narrative seems to collapse with this outcome, Breillat picks it up for a fantastic finale in crescendo, where she places special emphasis. This ending – which some could call gratuitous or random – is entirely understandable: a necessary climax for a film that has dragged an inherent tension pleading to be released in a violent way, with the collapse of an apparatus that no longer works. This is how Breillat constructs her two magnificent final sequences: the first, on the highway, moving away from the vacation spot and driving through the night, among trucks that seem to be uncomfortably close, between the rearview mirrors of others, near a nervous breakdown. It is remarkably resourceful and a sign of true mastery, overturning the analogy of “highway=freedom” to “highway=prison”, an oppressive stance that becomes so unbearable at one point as to force the mother to stop at a rest stop.
While it may be far reaching to identify the final sequence as part of a dream, it shares the characteristics of such: the presence of the axe murderer disturbingly bashing the front window of the car and the aftermath have the imprints of a feverish dream where the inaction of the victims can’t be controlled by the dreamer, who can only watch in sheer terror while the horror develops. In sort of a psychoanalytic way, the final scene plays as a projection of Anaïs’ unconscious, where a complete destruction of her family’s structure – a dissolution of sorts – is necessary, and the mystification of violent sex as a simple rite of passage happens as she had always wanted. “I haven’t been raped, I don’t care if you believe me,” says Anaïs, and the shot freezes on her defiant face. This is an agonising claim and an unforgiving image that raises many questions. In that fact alone, resides the power of Breillat’s film.
So should we consider Breillat’s subversive gaze as it focuses on female sexuality a political act? Hers is a radical voice which allows a feminine exploration of something struggling to be erotic, but is it ultimately elusive? Is it a stray path that leads merely to a conjunction of bodies, an act of confusion and awkward rapport? Is the explicit sexual imagery in her films – full frontal nudity, explicit sexual acts – just part of the metaphysics of sex, part of the natural world that we refuse to acknowledge through scandal, prohibition, inhibition?
The universe of Catherine Breillat is not one where sex is glorified, nor is female subjectivity. Her feminism resides on the ability of portraying woman at their most loving, vulnerable, cruel, detached, and thirsty. This is arguably something radically different than mainstream ideas about feminism in its provocative representations of desire, sexuality, and eroticism. It is a call to arms against the status quo; it is decidedly unapologetic, sometimes barbaric, often bittersweet, and always remarkable.
A Ma Soeur! (2002 France 86 mins)
Prod. Canal+ Prod: Jean-François Lepetit Dir: Catherine Breillat Scr: Catherine Breillati Phot: Yorgos Arvanitis Mus: Pierluigi Balducci and Aldo De Palma Edit: Pascale Chavance
Cast: Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Libero De Rienzo, Arsinée Khanjian