The New French Extremism and Fat Girl: Violence, Sensation, and Dread
Written by Erin Shanks
The New French Extremism tendency permeates the screen with images and sounds that leave the viewer with an uneasy sensation. Films of this tendency have been described as “aggressive”, “obscene”, and “in-your-face” (Horeck and Kendall, 1). In many ways, Catherine Breillat’s film A ma soeur! (France, 2001)—or known in English as Fat Girl—fits this description. In many other ways, Breillat’s Fat Girl deviates from much of the description and discussion of New French Extremism. Throughout this paper, I will tackle how Fat Girl is simultaneously a part of New French Extremism and how it differs. I will begin by breaking down James Quandt’s essay “Flesh and Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema” and his argument about New French Extremism. I will then counter Quandt’s ideas with by analyzing excerpts from the introduction of Tanya C Horeck and Tina Kendall’s book The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe. Then I will bring my argument together by discussing the film, Fat Girl and how the film fits within the two previously presented idea of New French Extremism. I will then conclude by exploring Fat Girl’s sensory qualities and I will argue that it is those qualities that set the film a part from other French Extremism films.
James Quandt begins his essay with the words “convulsive violence” (18). He uses this phrase to describe Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003), but within Quandt’s argument this phrase is indicative of how he thinks about New French Extremism. Quandt introduces us to, as he calls it “the New French Extremity”, by calling it a “growing vogue for shock tactics in French Cinema over the past decade” (18). Quandt then lists directors such as Gaspar Noé, Phillipe Grandieux, Catherine Breillat —the director of Fat Girl—, and Bruno Dumont, and makes a comparison to famed French directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and Georges Franju (18). The comparison of directors from the tendency of the New French Extremism against directors that came before that were known for their distinctive and sometimes controversial style leads to a greater concern from Quandt about the state of contemporary French culture. Quandt’s main concern is that of a “cultural crisis” (19). In the essay, he raises this question: “do they [the directors of the New French Extremism] bespeak a cultural crisis, forcing French filmmakers to respond to the death of the ineluctable (French identity, language, ideology, aesthetic forms) with desperate measures?” (19). The “desperate measures which Quandt refers to can be best summarized with one of the most infamous quotes from his essay:
This quote is entirely indicative of Quandt’s view of the New French Extremism tendency. He believes that the filmmakers of this tendency fill the screen shocking images and have no agenda behind them. They want to shock the audience for the sole reason of the shock value. He is let down by these films because they do not contain the same political and social messages and goals as the films of Godard or Clouzot, they are devoid of a greater meaning that would justify their “shock tactics” (18). Quandt concludes the essay by claiming that the films of the New French Extremism are “a narcissistic response to the collapse of ideology in a society traditionally defined by political polarity and theoretical certitude” (25). Quandt is suggesting that this “narcissistic response” is simply the filmmakers putting very intense and visceral images on the screen just because they are able to. I believe that Quandt’s reading of the New French Extremism tendency is overly simplified and one-dimensional. Quandt fails to see passed the “convulsive violence” and take into consideration the role of the spectator within his overall argument (18). His comparison of different generations of filmmakers seems unfair and taken out of context. Overall, James Quandt is correct with many of narrative observation of the films of the New French Extremism tendency, but his argument lacks a deeper consideration of the motivations of the filmmakers.
Next, I would like to discuss the Horeck and Kendall essay. Horeck and Kendall begin their essay by bringing together the New French Extremism tendency by specifically qualifying them as having “graphic and confrontational images of sex and violence” (1). Immediately, the way that Horeck and Kendall discuss this tendency is different than Quandt. By using the word “confrontational” they are including the viewer as a participant in these films, instead of excluding them as only having a passive gaze (1). Horeck and Kendall’s main concern lies in the relationship that the films of the New French Extremism have with their viewers and the ways in which the viewers interact with the films. They write, “the films of the new extremism bring the notion of response to the fore, interrogating, challenging and often destroying the notion of a passive or disinterested spectator in ways that are productive for film theorising today” (2). Within this quote lies Horeck and Kendall’s central argument about New French Extremism. The idea that the films of this particular tendency challenge the way the viewer watches a film and that spectatorship is not a “passive” act (2). The authors are engaged with the interplay of the viewer with the film, which is an idea that I would like to focus on throughout this essay.
Horeck and Kendall create their own definition of what it means to be a part of the New Extremism tendency. First they clarify why the New French Extremism is not seen as a movement, “the work of film directors associated with the new extremism does not amount to a collective ‘style’, and the films considered in this volume evoke and often deconstruct a range of generic tropes rather than constituting one collectively” (5). The authors put into consideration the broad spectrum of different filmic styles that the filmmakers employ within their films. This understanding and consideration of the differences of style is an important distinction from James Quandt’s understanding of New French Extremism. They then move on to talk about the extreme quality of the films that are reflected within the very title of the tendency. They admit that the definition of extreme is subjective and “slippery”, but they clarify the term by writing “the extremity evinced by these films is often as much of a matter of asserting particular filiations with artistic, cinematic, literary and philosophical forebears as it is of breaking new taboos” (5). Horeck and Kendall are able to extract more of the filmmaker’s authorial intent rather than just believing that the sole intent of the film is to shock with the breaking of taboos. When the authors speak about the films’ aesthetic quality they emphasize the “visceral intensity” and “their essential ambiguity around politics and history” (6). Rather than dismissing the films as passive and “narcissistic”, they validate the ambiguous standpoint of the filmmakers (Quandt, 25). To summarize what I want to extract from Horeck and Kendall’s essay on New French Extremism I will use this quote: “Although they have often been described as immoral, nasty and irredeemable, much of what is so interesting and disturbing about this group of films is precisely the challenges they pose to commonly held belief systems” (8). These challenges that the authors write about are exactly what I would like to discuss about in regards to Fat Girl, because it is my belief that these challenges cause specific sensory reactions within the viewer.
Catherine Breillat’s film Fat Girl tells the story of two young girls on vacation with their parents. The two sisters—Anaïs who is about 13 and Elena who is 15—are radically different in a number of ways. The first notable dichotomy is their difference in appearance. Elena is thin and conventionally pretty, whereas Anaïs is the titular “fat girl”. Another dissimilarity between the girls is their views on sex and relationships. While Elena believes that sex should be between people that love each other, Anaïs wants her first sexual experience with someone she does not care about so they will not brag about being with her. As Anaïs claims in the film “guys are all sick”. The film begins by the two girls meeting an Italian law student named Fernando at a café. Immediately, Elena and Fernando begin to flirt and eventually end up kissing at the café, directly in front of Anaïs. Elena and Fernando’s relationship then escalates when he sneaks into the shared bedroom of Elena and Anaïs during the middle of the night. Anaïs watches on as Fernando coerces Elena into performing sexual acts that she is obviously uncomfortable with. Fernando claims that by doing these acts, Elena is proving her love for him. The next night, he comes back and Elena has sex for the first time with him while Anaïs watches on and cries. Soon, the girls’ mother discovers the truth about Fernando and Elena’s relationship and decides to end the vacation and drive the girls back home. The mother decides to take a break from driving and sleep at a rest stop parking lot. While the mother is sleeping, Elena finally admits that she knows that Fernando does not love her and that she wishes both her and the mother were dead. Anaïs consoles her and Elena falls asleep. While Elena and the mother are asleep, a man smashes their windshield with an axe and murders both the mother and Elena while Anaïs watches on. Anaïs then gets out of the car and goes to the forest where the man rapes her. When the police arrive at the scene, Anaïs denies the rape and looks into the lens of the camera. There is a freeze frame on Anaïs stare while light guitar music begins to play and the film ends.
On the surface, Fat Girl has many components of a typical New French Extremism film. The bulk of the film is made up of graphic sex scenes that are shot in the exact opposite way that a traditional Hollywood sex scene would be shot. There are also a brutally violent murders at the end of the film and the ending is riddled with ambiguity that makes up many other New French Extremism films. In Eugenia Brinkema’s essay “Celluloid is Sticky: Sex, Death, Materiality, Metaphysics (in Some Films by Catherine Breillat)”, the author makes this claim: “Though notorious for her cinematic treatment of female sexuality, do not be mistaken: provocauteur Catherine Breillat makes films about death” (147). Although death does not come until the end of the film, there is a sensation of dread and an atmosphere of impending death throughout the entire film. From the first frame of the film, the viewer is confronted and challenged by the Kubrickian stare of Anaïs. This stare which is accompanied by the childish singing of Anaïs immediate creates an uneasy sensation within the viewer, one that linger and is not easily shaken off. Brinkema claims that the deaths in Breillat’s film are “symbolic (virginity, always) (everywhere)” (156). In Martine Beugnet’s book Cinema and Sensation: French Film and the Art of Transgression, the author uses the phrase “an ominous sense of threat” to describe the Grandieux film Sombre (1998), but this phrase perfectly describes the sensation that Fat Girl imparts onto its viewers. Throughout the film there are multiple kinds of threats. There is the threat of Fernando of his coercive behavior. There is the threat of the semi-trucks on the highway as the mother drives. There is the threat of the gazes from the truckers. There is the threat of the murderer and rapist. Finally, there is the threat of Anaïs’ stare on the viewer. All of these threats culminate in an overwhelming sense of dread.
Compared to many of the other New French Extremism films, Fat Girl is a quiet film. Its final rape scene is nowhere near as traumatizing and “in-your-face” as the 10-minute-long unbroken rape scene from Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002). I argue that the quietness helps amplify the sense of unease and dread. In Martin Barker’s essay “Watching Rape, Enjoying Watching Rape…: How Does a Study of Audience Cha(lle)nge Mainstream Film Studies Approaches?”, he discusses the reactions of viewers who “embraced” the film and how there was a general sense of “knowing something’s coming” (111). This sensation of dread is palpable throughout the film and amplifies the experience of viewing each and every even throughout the film. The experience of watching the film is one of visceral dread and tension, even though the brutality of the film does not come until the end. I think this idea sets Fat Girl apart from other films of the tendency. What makes Fat Girl shocking is that watching the girls interact with the world around them is almost as viscerally uncomfortable as watching the brutality of the end. The sense of dread makes it so that each time Anaïs takes a bit of a piece of food and each time Elena reaches out to touch something or someone it feels as tactile and invading as watching the girls be violated and brutalized. In Brinkema’s essay she says this about Catherine Breillat’s filmmaking style, “she is interested in a more tactile, haptic, warring encounter between text and reader. She wants our blood to run too” (158). I believe that this quote from the Brinkema essay helps solidify the argument that I would like to make. Fat Girl is not a film interested in shocking its viewer because it can. In fact, most of the key plot point in Fat Girl are not very shocking at all. Fat Girl is interested in creating an environment full of dread, unease and tension to draw attention to each and every major and minor transgression that goes on during its 95-minute runtime. Catherine Breillat does not want the viewers to faint or vomit, she wants them to sweat (Horeck and Kendall, 1).
In conclusion, the New French Extremism is a tendency which has been interpreted and dissected in a variety of ways. From James Quandt’s view of a “cultural crisis” of “convulsive violence” to Horeck and Kendall’s understanding of creating an active spectatorship, the New French extremism tendency has always been divisive (Quandt, 18 – 19). Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl shares many of the qualities of the New French Extremism, but its quiet and palpable dread that permeates the film is what sets it apart from the other films within the tendency. Fat Girl’s sensory qualities help firmly establish it as powerful film that sinks into the viewer and refuses to leave easily.
Barker, Martin. “Watching Rape, Enjoying Watching Rape…: How Does a Study of Audience Cha(lle)nge Mainstream Film Studies Approaches?”. The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe, edited by Tanya C Horeck and Tina Kendall, Edinburgh University Press, 2011.
Beugnet, Martine. Cinema and Sensation: French and the Art of Transgression, Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
Brinkema, Eugenie. “Celluloid is Sticky: Sex, Death, Materiality, Metaphysics (in Some Films by Catherine Breillat). Women a Cultural Review, 2006.
Horeck, Tanya and Tina Kendall. “Introduction”. The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe, edited by Tanya C Horeck and Tina Kendall, Edinburgh University Press, 2011.
Quandt, James. “Flesh and Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema”. The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe, edited by Tanya C Horeck and Tina Kendall, Edinburgh University Press, 2011.
Fat Girl. Directed by Catherine Breillat, performance by Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, and Libero De Rienzo, Canal+, 2001.
Twentynine Palms. Directed by Bruno Dumont, performances by David Wissak and Yekaterina Golubeva, 3B Production, The 7th Floor, and Thoke Moebuis Film Company, 2003.
Sombre. Directed by Philippe Grandrieux, performances by Marc Barbé and Elina Lowensohn, Canal +, 1998.
Irreversible. Directed by Gaspar Noé, performances by Monica Belluic and Vincent Cassel, Canal +, 2002.