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Interview with Catherine Breillat

by Peter Sobczynski

Ever since she made her directing debut in 1975 with the haunting “Une Vraie Jeune Fille”, a portrayal of female adolescent psycho-sexual quirks so graphic and shocking that it went virtually unseen for 25 years, Catherine Breillat has been provoking moviegoers around the world with her unflinching approach to subject matter that most directors would shy away from. The subject of female sexuality has crept up in most of her films, including “36 Fillette” (1989) and “Romance”, her controversial 1999 breakthrough film which featured graphic sex, full-frontal nudity, porn star Rocco Siffredi in a key role and even a live childbirth as part of its delirious climax.

Even those used to Breillat’s take-no-prisoners approach to filmmaking found themselves knocked for a loop by 2001’s award-winning “Fat Girl”. The basic story outline-a sulky, chubby 13 year old girl, Anais (Anais Reboux), stuck on a grim holiday, observing her older, prettier sister Elena (Roxane Mesquida) offering up her virginity to the first lucky caller-sounds like the set-up for a romp not unlike “American Pie”. While the loss of virginity in that film was cause for laughs, Breillat shoots the “seduction” almost like a horror film. It isn’t romantic or sexy, it is sad, creepy, fumbling and painful to watch (as Anais is more or less forced to do-being in the same room); in other words, more like real life than most people would care to admit.

For American fans of Breillat, this fall is shaping up to be an embarrassment of riches. Her two most recent films, “Sex Is Comedy ” (in which a famed French director, played by Anne Parillaud, struggles to commit a awkward sex scene to film-a plot inspired by the making of “Fat Girl” and which features Mesquida as the actress in question) and “Anatomy of Hell”, another graphic depiction of the battle between the sexes, are hitting the art-house circuit. More importantly, “Fat Girl” is debuting on DVD from Criterion in a package that also offers an interview with the director and an intriguing final scene that expands upon the highly controversial conclusion that inspired any number of debates when it first came out.

In honor of this flurry of activity, I would like to offer this interview that I conducted with Breillat in 2001, on the eve of the American release of “Fat Girl”. Though her English was unsteady (though better than my French), her passion for her work transcended any language barrier and the result was a conversation as frank and funny as her films.

You have been making films for over 25 years, many of them with a recurring interest in the onset of adolescent female sexuality. What was it that got you interested in film in general and in that subject matter specifically?

When I was very young, about 12, I discovered the cinema through the visions of my first two movies. One was Bergman, which had sexuality and Puritanism and the other was Bunuel. The depiction of sexuality and the shame of Puritanism-Protestant in Bergman and Catholic in Bunuel-and the fight between the two. I was very surprised by these two very sexual movies. When I saw these, I had this revelation that true life was more in the movies than in my own life. I wanted to become a moviemaker because I wanted to invent my own world and not live in the world I knew, which was very conventional.

The world of society is very conventional and you have to conform yourself to it without thinking about it. Me, I am a girl and I wanted to think about why its so different to be a girl than a man. It is sexual, nothing else. You are a man because you have the sex of a man. I am a woman because I have the sex of a woman. There is no other difference.

Do you consider your films to be autobiographical in any way?

No. I think that when you are telling something autobiographical, you already know the story-not what you are but what your story is. You want to tell this story to the rest of the world in an autobiographical way. In an artistic way, you are not very crucial because when you make an artistic thing, you are in the exaltation of yourself so you are not conscious of yourself. When you do that, what you do is a sort of revelation of yourself and can be more explicit than in an autobiography. In the autobiographic way, you have all the censorship and lies to yourself that aren’t there in the artistic way.

In France, the new film was called “A Ma Soeur” while in America, it has been renamed “Fat Girl”-not only not an exact translation but one loaded with meaning as well. Why the change?

“Fat Girl” was the first title for this film in the beginning. I wrote it under that title and shot it under that title. Then, I had a screening and people hated the idea of having a English title for a French film. Also, I realized that for me, this story wasn’t only about this fat girl but about these two strange sisters who seemed to have two bodies but one soul and personality. I changed it very late, just before it came out. I don’t know if I was right to change it. “A Ma Soeur” sounds like a toast. For English countries, it was sold under the title “Fat Girl”.

What was the inspiration for “Fat Girl”?

There were two first impressions. One was of a horrible murder that I read about in the paper 20 years ago. During the summer, there was a family that was killed and a little girl left in the woods. The paper said that this little girl had to have sex with the murderer in order to keep her life. It was a very hypocritical way for the paper to tell this story, I thought. Then, I saw a little girl in a swimming pool and she did the exact same thing that I shot. I could not invent something like that. She was a fat girl but very sensual and voluptuous. There was an innocence in her sexuality. She went back and forth in the pool between her two “lovers” and when she got out of the pool, then I realized that she was a child. She was 11-12 and she had such revolt and intelligence in her eyes. I thought that I would put this girl in a movie.

The story is like a sitcom, in fact. A sitcom is what we believe to be similar to real life, but we lie to ourselves to forget things. I wanted to make a sitcom, but a very particular kind of sitcom. It is very funny but it is also very sad when you remember how you were when you were in this situation. “Romance” had some funny moments, like the part when she is in the red dress. I always put very funny situations in my movies but at the end, the audience forgets that there were funny moments! I like that.

I wanted to ask you about the staging of the long seduction scene that is the centerpiece of the film. I’m not just curious about the nudity and physical action but the emotional action...

It was very difficult before shooting. She was very young and had no experience of nudity on the set. The Italian guy in the scene also had no experience and was very macho and very Italian. I am a woman and it is more difficult for an actor to play intimate scenes in front of a woman director because they are more shy. Before the scene, the atmosphere is very heavy. Everybody is afraid about sex-even me. I am very Puritan. What you do is very simple-you just do not allow your consciousness of yourself to appear. It is a sort of conspiracy of silence. If such a scene is not beautiful, it will be a disaster. In fact, it was more pornographic on the set than it was on the screen.

What is exciting about such a scene is not to see the pornography of the flesh and body, but the face of the actor. It is very simple to shoot, you just have to inevitably fight against shame and Puritanism in order to get through it.

In the last few years, many French film have straddled the art/porn line- “POLA X”, “I Stand Alone”, “Baise-Moi” and your films. For you, do you see a distinct line between the two?

I think that pornography does not exist. It is a fantasy of society. For some, pornography is everywhere and if you see any part of a woman, it is pornographic! Pornography doesn’t exist-it is simply a way for man to look at human sexuality. I think that Cronenberg says that. I think “eXistenZ” is based on that. I think it is a very sexual film because it plays with all this organic creation. The idea that the organic is ugly and terrible for you is the notion of a moron. A moron cannot understand an aesthetic because an aesthetic is flesh. You have to change your mind about aesthetic to understand the organic. It isn’t ugly. It isn’t beautiful. It is. It is not something to hide and if you try that, you begin to enter a totalitarianism against women.

With “Romance”, there was the question of “Is this porno or is this art?” If you ask the question, you have the answer that “Romance” is art, of course. If it was porno, you would have no question that it was porno.

Along those lines, what did you think of the film “Baise-Moi”?

As a movie, it isn’t my kind of film. It is a first movie and as a first movie, it has all the charm and problems of a first movie. It isn’t a masterpiece but it is a movie that the woman who made it can be proud of it. I do not understand why so many people want to put it with pornographic films. Pornographic films are very cold and particular. They aren’t about sex-they are about masturbation. “Baise-Moi” is a movie, not an object for masturbation.

Another sequence that I admired greatly in “Fat Girl” is the long sequence in which the two sisters and their mother drive home from vacation. There is a definite tonal change and it gets very dark and creepy and scary all of a sudden-you know something horrible is going to happen but you have no idea what it could be.

When a girl loses her virginity, her entire life changes and so I wanted to change the whole idea of the movie. For me, it was fun to make something like Hitchcock. It was a challenge for myself to do that. If I always do only things that I know I can do, there is no progress.

The final scene of “Fat Girl” has inspired much controversy among viewers; some have charged that the sequence is far too arbitrary to be believed. For you, what are the implications of the final scene and her final line of dialogue?

I knew that it would be controversial for her to say that she was not raped. All through the story, she says that she wants to lose her virginity to “nobody”, someone she doesn’t like because she is prudish and doesn’t want to impose sentimental visions onto a man. In fact, what happens to her is perhaps fantasy, perhaps reality-you don’t know. I think the film is like a cruel fairy tale. At the same time, I think that the conditioning of society about rape is not so good. She does not want to be a victim. She can be raped in her flesh but not in her mind. When her sister lost her virginity, it was as if it was a rape that she herself participated in. With Anais, she lost nothing because she is above that. Nobody can change her. She is very strong and the last shot of her face is not of a victim.

Do you find that men and women have different reactions to your films?

No, I don’t find that. I think that some men and women like my movies and some hate them. Some hate them so much that it is not normal; its like the movie was an attack on the person. Just because I show something to a person that they don’t want to understand about themselves... Men who don’t like my movies say that I don’t like men but women who don’t like my films say that they go against the dignity of women. To me, the point-of-view of the woman who hates like that is worse. It is just a movie. If a person has this kind of reaction, then they must have some problem in themselves and they cannot see outside of this problem.

As someone who has provoked passionate responses, both positive and negative, from film critics, what value do you put in the art of film criticism? For example, do you read reviews of your films?

Yes, I do. I don’t agree with the reviews but I agree with the freedom of the reviews. A critic is not just passing judgment on a movie-they are a reflection of their audiences. It is interesting to read the bad critics just to comprehend this type of audience. it is also important to have critics for publicity. The worst thing for a film is not a bad review, but silence.

To purchase the Criterion Collection DVD of Fat Girl, click here - it's well worth a look.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1244
originally posted: 12/02/04 14:37:05
last updated: 01/04/05 05:51:44
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