Catherine Breillat's 2003 film A Ma Soeur!, released in the States as Fat Girl, is a rough watch, the kind you can' turn away from. Alternately (sometimes simultaneously) disturbing, horrifying, romantic and hilarious, the film succeeds based on a superb script that doesn't hold back and forces the viewers to participate.
Twelve year old Anaïs is an overweight, somewhat annoying but oddly relatable girl. She's dressed in garish green swimwear through most of the film to underscore her awkward physique and postures. Anaïs's sister, fifteen year old Elena, stands in contrast - a budding beauty, ready to explore her sexuality. The pair of sisters open the film discussing their personal views on sex and love. Anaïs claiming her first sexual encounter should be with someone she doesn't care about, just something to get it out of the way, Elena dreaming of the moment being a perfect manifestation of young love. Interestingly, Elena comes across outwardly as far less romantic in nature, while Anaïs dreams up a love triangle between herself and the ladders in the pool while swimming alone.
The film's simple setting - a remote resort town in coastal France - removes the family from their normal trappings. It creates an atmosphere of isolation - we're stuck here with this dysfunctional family on their vacation as observers. This idea is reflected in the micro via the sisters' shared bedroom. Elena won't let anything stop her quest to lose her virginity to an Italian tourist she's just met, conflating her adolescent longing for the true love that she needs to surrender herself to, as per the rules she's set for herself. Not even her sister in a bed just feet away deter her from twice inviting her lover over to seal her destiny.
The viewers are forced into the extreme discomfort of Anaïs as the scene drags on. Breillat doesn't spare us a single uncomfortable moment or bit of dialogue as Elena navigates and negotiates her first time. After getting cold feet, her partner assures her that going in the back door will assure that she'll retain her virginity. Here, in one of the few moments we're spared of directly experiencing a graphic incident, the camera focuses on Anaïs, pretending to sleep, just barely covering her eyes through a few fingers. We hear Elena and it's obvious that this isn't a pleasant experience for her.
This scene feels like the centerpiece for the film, which is really just a handful of incredibly long scenes. A less artful film maker would have made this absolutely punishing to sit through. Between the scenes of excruciating discomfort are some very realistic, moving scenes of the sisters' love hate relationship. They snap at each other, Elena makes Anaïs cry when forcing her to cover up her exploits, they giggle in the mirror about how different they are, they lay in bed laughing at shared experiences. This completely convincing sisterhood makes the pair's actions believable, and makes you root for both of them at the same time.
Fat Girl's controversial and shocking final scene is something that won't leave one's mind for a long time after viewing. Elena is exposed by her lover's other and the vacation is cut short. The drive home build suspense masterfully using the emotions of the passengers - the mother's anger, Elena's dejection and Anaïs's pain over being unished for her sisters wrongdongs - to create a tension that you can feel through he screen. This is coupled with long shots outside the car showing the poor driving skills of their mother, cutting off trucks with no regard, the sisters talking about their mother's mortality as cars pass frighteningly close while they're pulled over. Such an atmosphere of dread is created that we know something is going to happen, and when it turns out to be an axe murderer at a rest sop the shock is so great that we almost piss ourselves at the same time as Anaïs.
The attack ends with Anaïs as the only survivor, raped in the woods by the attacker. The script set us up for this - the story is all about young sexuality, expectations and disappointment. Moreso, it's about the horror of getting what you want. Both Elena and Anaïs lose their virginity in the ways they wanted, but absolutely not the ways they'd expected to.