From Art-House to Slaughterhouse (Week Three: Fat Girl)

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Countdown to Halloween: Fat Girl

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The French title of Catherine Breillat’s 2001 film is: “A Ma Soeur!” which translates to “For My Sister!”. But for some reason, it became: “Fat Girl” in America.

At the New York Film Festival in 2001, Mme. Breillat said she preferred the title “Fat Girl”. I don’t know why? but knowing a bit about Mme. Breillat, it’s probably because that title’s more provocative and to the point? That’d be my guess. Because, if Catherine Breillat can be labelled anything, it’s provocative.

The original title sounds more ‘autobiographical’ to me. Like the film really is “For My Sister!”. Why does it have an exclamation point? It makes the title feel aggressive, personal and directed at her sister? I’d love to know what’s behind that…but, I don’t think I’ll ever truly know?

This bizarre film, an odd combo of sex-education and horror film, begins with two sisters in the middle of a family holiday; somewhere in southern France. The two girls make a sort of ‘loose’ bet with each other to see who will ‘catch a decent boyfriend’ over the summmer. Like the usual ‘teen stereotypical comedy’. Naturally, the slim sister with the gorgeous face “catches” the boy. A young Italian, also on vacation with his family, and who’s French isn’t quite as sophisticated as the sisters. His lackluster French helps the young sister to be a few steps ahead of him. The older sister, however, seems just as easily swayed as if he were a native speaker. The film revolves entirely around these two young sisters, their lose of virginity and this boy. The older sister is 15, the other a year or two younger and overweight (the “fat girl” of the title) and it’s here we detect something in the film which seems to say something about female body issues. The older/’prettier sister’ is particularly focused on the body and looks (she even tries to put her new-slim-boyfriend on a ‘diet’, because, as she says: he’s “not as slim as [he] could be for [his] age”) she calls her younger sister: “lumpy”, a “fat dump” and “disgusting to watch eat”. It’s obvious the older sister is all surface, no substance. Very pretty, but intellectually and emotionally not as sophisticated as the younger one. The ‘fat girl’, on the other hand, is all substance. Her ‘beauty’ is more well rounded (no pun inteded) than her sister’s. Her’s is a case of being beautiful on the inside, rather than the obvious outside beauty of her sister.

The film’s undertone deals with weight and body issues and indicates the ‘fat sister’ character is reduced to a ‘non-entity’ because of her obesity. It’s like she isn’t ‘seen’, barely heard and because of this, is oft-times placed into role of ‘observer’/’voyeur’. First and most noticeably is when her older sister invites her ‘holiday boyfriend’ into the sister’s mutual bedroom (apparently their parent’s are strict and they cannot ‘sneak out’) here the ‘fat girl’ is almost a ‘second thought’ in the situation, she’s barely thought of. The only time she’s referenced is as an excuse for the sister to not ‘take’ the boy ‘into her mouth’, after she refuses to lose her virginity to him (though she’s already let him enter her ‘from behind’, something the younger sister-correctly in my opinion-sees as being a lose of virginity in and of itself).
The boy immediately goes into a “seduction routine” when he enters their bedroom and the younger sister pretends to sleep. Mostly, the young sister cringes and covers her face when hearing the boy’s “routine”, so full of cliche and stunningly obvious bits of heavy handed verbal pressure, it’s like embarrassing obvious soap opera. Yet, I think, most guys would have yo admit, perhaps shamefully, they’ve attempted similar talk, nearly verbatim. Fortunately, there isn’t someone ‘recording’ what’s said, thankfully, as it really is cringe inducing and this scene makes that painfully apparent. But it also makes this scene of seduction, ironically, more truthful and honest, if utterly pathetic. It must also be stated that this whole scene is shot from the point if view of the “fat girl”, so I think it’s clear how we’re meant to watch the film.

Additionally, the film has one hell of a mean sense of humor that pervades throughout. Not in a “Seth Rogen/Jonah Hill/” sort of way, not even like Todd Solondz. Instead, I was reminded more of the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. It has something of the grotesque about it. Since Breillat and the film hail from France and not the American Southeast, I tend to think this link coincidental. Perhaps, however, there’s a link with Catholicism? France being predominantly a Catholic country after all? But I tend to think that’s a stretch. More than likely, it’s coincidental? But the cruelty is there, the meanness is present.

I also found it odd how much importance these girls place on their virginity: who loses it first, to whom and to what type of boy. But perhaps this too is true and honest? I enjoy how the ‘fat sister’ declares she wishes to lose her virginity to someone whom she doesn’t love, a ‘nobody’, as she puts it. This way, she says, when her ‘first time’ is over, she won’t have any delusions that she’s been tricked, that she loves the guy, or he her. A decidedly mature resolution for such a young lady. The other sister, though a year older, is more naive. She easily falls victim to the youthful holiday romance gone afoul. Her younger sister, because of her obesity, is put into the position of ‘invisibility’ and thus can more easily observe what her sister doesn’t seem to recognize at all. She’s far less naive and far more practical too. The older sister falls, almost willingly, to the boyfriend’s ‘pillow talk’. The younger sister sees the young man’s duplicity far before her sister ever does. She tries to warn her, but ultimately allows her to go through the process of losing her virginity, even though she intuits it will end in disaster. Oddly the younger sister sobs throughout the scene of her sister’s lose of virginity (in “one deep thrust” which the boy suggests is “the best way” to do it). As if it’s she too, who is losing her innocence. In fact, I’d say it’s almost as if the two sisters exist as one. Like they are two separate parts of one girl, perhaps that’s the point?

Naturally, the older sister winds up betrayed by her ‘summer love’ and is left in tears. In fact, both the younger and older sister leave their vacation in tears as the mother drives ferociously, back to their home near Paris early, before they’re supposed to. It having already been revealed that the older sister was betrayed by her holiday lover; in front of the boy’s mother, her own mother and her sister. Again, it seems both sisters suffer as one. The two sisters seem to share in the agony.

This is where the film comes to it’s ‘horrific’ final and controversial conclusion. I don’t want to reveal everything, but I will say it involves a character which could almost be Michael Meyers or Jason Vorhees sans the all white ‘Shatner mask’ or hockey mask and involves said character taking on the role of the younger sister’s ‘dream lover’. Who takes her virginity, but with no love involved. In fact it’s with a ‘nobody’, just as the sister wanted. But at a traumatic cost. This is obviously the most controversial scene of the film. Some have stated it’s simply Breillat running out of ideas or a sloppy, silly ending. Naturally, I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, I’m not entirely convinced the ending is ‘real’. I think it may, perhaps, be a ‘fantasy-dream’ of the sister’s (the Fat Girl). I believe this, as this section seems to break so severely from the rest of the film. This scene is also preempted by the mother falling asleep, the “Fat Girl” encouraging her sister to do the same and the young sister going to sleep too. From there, the action seems exaggerated, unreal. It also seems the type of ‘fantasy’ this girl, in particular, would have. It fits with her ‘ideal’. The ‘type’ of male she wished to lose her virginity to. She also seems to say she thinks the ‘act’ is ultimately (in some sense) not as traumatic, as the one played upon her sister by the boy who took her virginity and betrayed her ‘love’.

A controversial, horrific and disturbing cinematic journey to be sure.
The Horror…the horror…the horror!.

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These Are a Few of My Favorite Films…That Never Existed (Part Two: Cocaine)

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IMG_3108A year before German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder died: an obese, hard living, chain-smoker slumped over his writing desk with blood from his nose clotted to a script he was working on at the time, he was preparing a film based on a book by Pifigrilli during the German Weimar Republic called, Cocaine. Coincidently, it was at least partially cocaine (daily intakes for decades) that ended his just 38 years on earth (leaving a body of work of over 40 films(!) with only a scant few failures), well it was cocaine and in the end heroic doses of barbiturates (not to mention obesity, chain smoking and making more films than the number of years he lived, which probably didn’t help his body all too much either?) Needless to say however, cocaine was his true ‘love’ of choice, so it wasn’t a huge surprise that the final film he was planning had that drug as its title.
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But Fassbinder was not some dilettante here, he wasn’t going to make a film merely about his obsession with cocaine.

Fassbinder was an inveterate sadomasochist; gay leather bars, leather jackets, leather boots, military outfits, the works. In fact he lived something closer to the life seen in the film “Cruising”. Predominantly an aggressive homosexual (quasi bi-sexual as he was married to two women, whom it should be stated he was quite sadistic with; for an example of his outlook on marriage see his film: “Martha”) who took a lot of chances in his short existence (in his teen years, he was the pimp to a young Udo Kier). I’ll also add here that, personally, I believe nearly all his films were about sadomasochism, and yet they weren’t simple S&M falderal, you didn’t see films full of the usual veneer of S&M: leather, chains, whips, boots and straps. You almost never saw any of those things in his work and yet, his films were clearly and entirely about the psychological and sociological hidden events which involve sadomasochism and exist everywhere in society. He showed what sadomasochism looked like, for real, everyday and in everything; not just simple “sex play acting” and “sex games”. There were always those who called him a bastard (and no question, he could be). But he was as much a sadist as masochist, as he had not one but two lovers commit suicide on him, at least partially, due to his sadism and yet he lived for years in perpetual torment over the unrequited love for the half African-American, half German actor Gunter Kaufmann whom he cast in nearly every single film he made from his first work to his very last-keeping Fassbinder himself in a near constant state of despair. Although, even those who called him a sadistic son-of-a-bitch, bowed down to his genius and vowed utter loyalty to the filmmaker. He always had a near cult of actors, artists, musicians and technicians all ready and willing to work with him on his films.
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This film “Cocaine” he was planning to make was going to be, essentially, a psychedelic labor of love about the drug he loved, used, abused and that eventually ended his life and its effects and its use. This was not going to be some simple, easy trope on cocaine and cocaine use, with easy moral questions and answers. Certainly not going to be either a ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ drug film and certainly not an exploitation film. He seemed especially concerned in this film with displaying how a daily cocaine user makes the decision to live a heightened, more exhilarating life, while at the same time knowing it will eventually shorten it. Fassbinder himself was well aware of this fact and stated it in a number of interviews, saying he chose to live a shortened life using cocaine, in exchange for giving up depression, the mundanities of life and the utter banality of existence. He felt his choice was worth it. And as individuals do we not all have the right to make that choice? It was a choice he lived to the hilt. Fassbinder was not just a ‘talker’ of things like this, he lived it.

The film, “Cocaine” he proposed, sounded like it would have been one of his most original, interesting, daring and oddest films to date. True he had been headed more and more into areas of expressiveness rather than reality in his work. But this film sounded extremely bizarre, interesting and exceedingly different than anything he’d attempted prior. For example he talked of his plan to show the ‘freezing of the mind’ which takes place under the influence of cocaine by having the entire film depict the fogged breath of all the actors, as it would be in freezing climes even while it was warm. He was also going to show ice crystals and frost forming on all the windowpanes, as when it’s freezing outside, even when it’s not. He also gave the films that were to be his visual cue on this work; films which included the expressionistic work of Visconti’s “The Damned” and the 14th part of his own magnum opus: “Berlin Alexanderplatz” a 14 hour film, who’s final 14th chapter is a heightened and highly expressive externalization of an internal mental crack being experienced by the film’s main character Franz Beiberkopf (where during the rise of Hitler, Franz is stuck in a horrid mental asylum, tortured daily while the sounds of Kraftwerk, Leonard Cohen and various krautrock songs play in the background). Simply the most chilling and disturbing chamber-piece in the whole series!

As is always the case, with films like this, one can only imagine what the film might have been like. The book by Pifigrilli still exists, so one can read and at least gather an idea of what this film might have contained. Though Fassbinder stated his film would veer quite aways from the main plot of that book. It’s one of many films, where we’ll never know exactly what it would have turned out like. But what a wonderful and beautiful concept he had in mind…and by such a brilliant filmmaker. I can only imagine it would have been exceptional!
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