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Movies: Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat, 2001)

M. Night Shyamalan wishes he could come up with a twist ending as brutally effective as the final ten minutes of Fat Girl (À Ma Soeur!). Except if he delivered punches to the gut like Catherine Breillat does in this film, people wouldn't leave the theater talking about his brilliant plotting -- they'd be staggering up the aisles trying to come to terms with what they've seen. I'm still coming to terms with the film days later. With a little distance, it doesn't look like nearly the gratuitous copout it did on first blush, but now it's the film as a whole that's disturbing (and darkly brilliant).

Fat Girl is roughly 90 minutes long, and for the first 80 it's an unsentimental but sympathetic portrayal of two teenage sisters attempting to negotiate the minefields of sexuality, romance, and above all, their relationship as dissimilar but ultimately loving siblings. Fairly standard indie fare, in other words, but noteworthy for its frankness on all subjects and even-handed portrayals of both girls. (The English title is really kind of a misnomer.)

Then, in the final ten minutes or so, as the girls and their mother sleep in their car at a rest stop, a man smashes open the windshield with an axe, kills both the older sister and the mother, and rapes the younger sister in the woods. (She's the lone survivor.)* As horrendously awful and violent an ending as it is, it does work as part of the film's deconstruction of sex and romance, and the colossal out of the blue shock of it forces the viewer to put the Pingots' initial "tragedy -- their precocious 15-year old giving up her virginity to a sweet-talking college student -- and all the family drama into perspective. It's a very cruel ending, and arguably a necessary one.

In hindsight.

If you've stayed spoiler-free, all this comes so far out of left field that it seems like the director didn't know how to bring things to a satisfactory close, and opted instead for a "rocks fall, everybody dies" ending. That was definitely my initial reaction -- I actually felt betrayed, cheated, like Breillat couldn't do the difficult work of finding a way to wrap things up that felt as true to life as everything that came before. With a little distance, I'm starting to see it in the opposite way: that maybe there's no other way to end the Pingots' story without making the film all about them, the focus on the personal distracting from the political -- in this case, the film's bristling critique of how sex and sexuality are constructed in a culture. I don't know how true that is, but I think that's what Breillat ultimately wants us to be concerned with. If so, it's to her credit that Fat Girl never feels like a stealth parody of indie family drama -- or if it is, it's on the level of a Douglas Sirk melodrama. Which is to say, epic. But I'm still sorting that out, so I don't know if I'd go that far yet.

* (Fat Girl came out before the vogue for DVD alternate endings, but you can almost imagine a theatrical version where the film ends with the family going to sleep safe and sound after their tense drive, and this is the "extended director's cut," a la the Dawn of the Dead remake. God that film was terrible, and I say that after just re-watching Land of the Dead.)


Would Recommend?: Yes -- just be willing to give it a few days to settle with you.

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